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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2002

Dealing with Student Diversity

Janice Johnson

Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

Janice Newton, Jerry Ginsburg, Jan Rehner, Pat Rogers, Susan Sbrizzi & John Spencer, eds. Toronto: Garamond Press, 2001; 373 pp; paper $29.95CA.
Teaching at the university level is exciting and can be extremely rewarding. At the same time, the challenges involved in finding appropriate and effective ways to help today's diverse student population learn successfully are significant. The multiplicity of differences among students may include diversity in language, religion, social class, sexuality, age, disability, family background, learning style, intellectual development, culture and more.

To teach well in any discipline we must find ways to help these learners become actively involved with the material they are to master. One of the best means of doing this is to talk about teaching with others facing similar challenges, something we don't always have the opportunity to do. Voices from the Classroom provide us that opportunity, by sharing with us both the successes and failures encountered by students, faculty and administrators engaged in teaching and learning at York University.

As a facilitator and adult educator working in faculty development, I frequently consult with members of our university teaching community regarding these challenges while struggling with them in my own teaching. My understanding of the differing perspectives from which stakeholders may view these challenges and my "toolbox"' of approaches to use in responding to them have both broadened and deepened through reading this book.

The differing voices of the authors brought together by Newton et al. provide an opportunity to learn from a wide range of perspectives, along a continuum from the theoretical to the practical.

The book is divided into eight sections. Each section includes a number of short articles, written by graduate and undergraduate students, teaching assistants, contract and full-time faculty, staff and administrators.

The first section focuses on the diversity of our students. Who are they? What experiences and knowledge do they bring with them? How does this affect the learning environment and their interactions in a course? How can we help all of them learn? We hear the voices of students, teaching assistants and faculty members speaking to the theme of respecting diversity as the starting point of good teaching.

Section two explores the research on learning and intellectual development and how our knowledge of this research may influence our teaching. Understanding how we and others learn can help us expand our repertoire of teaching strategies to appeal to many different types of learners. If we want our students ultimately to be capable of making informed judgements within the context of a discipline, we must encourage their progress to the higher levels of intellectual development needed to do so.

The third section looks at the cyclical process of course planning, both generally and in relation to specific disciplines. Issues considered include teaching not only content goals, but also critical skills and attitudes, and the excitement of being a practitioner in a discipline.

The fourth section focuses on two aspects of the graduate student learning experience - as students in a discipline and as apprentice teachers. In both situations, the importance to learning of successful relationships between graduate students and their faculty supervisors is highlighted.

Section five examines an important aspect of course planning that is often neglected - academic honesty. Varying ways to understand academic integrity and the importance of teaching to prevent academic dishonesty in specific settings are discussed.

Sections six and seven provide a detailed look at approaches that can be used within a course to enhance teaching. Section six, on teaching and learning strategies, covers lecturing, class participation, seminars, tutorials and small-group learning. Section seven, on assignments and evaluation, focuses on reading, research essays and other writing assignments and grading and evaluation.

The authors of these sections have provided specific and valuable glimpses of the successes and failures they have experienced in their efforts to help their students learn. Both beginning and experienced teachers can gain from their ideas.

The last section reviews a variety of formative methods to develop and assess our teaching. The focus here is on simple, straightforward methods we can use to obtain feedback that will help us continue to get better at what we do - helping our students learn.

As human beings, we all learn from stories, and when those stories are about the experiences of others facing similar challenges in similar contexts, our ability to make connections to our lives and work is enhanced. Discussions such as these - which highlight for us how others apply theory and research in their practices - help us make those links. Sample forms, checklists, and assignment directions, provided throughout, are valuable resources for us in adapting the ideas and suggestions discussed to our teaching contexts.

This book offers a wide-ranging array of voices to choose from. We can use it as a handbook for advice on a specific teaching issue and as a general reference source on university teaching. The editors' hope for the book is that it "serves to remind us of our responsibility to teach the diverse range of students before us, to respect their unique needs and experiences as they embark on the path of higher education, to bring our skills as researchers to our teaching practices, and to engage in ongoing reflection on the task of university-level teaching." (p. 4) Let us hope that it does so.

Janice Johnson is a facilitator with the Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth at the University of British Columbia.