Teaching The Teaching Workshop: Teaching a Mixed-Level Class

The Teaching Workshop: Teaching a Mixed-Level Class

Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com.

Question: Upper-level philosophy classes are populated by a mixture of veteran philosophy majors, relatively new philosophy students, and some who have never taken a philosophy class before. It’s challenging to hit the sweet spot in terms of maximizing everyone’s engagement/interest without leaving the new folks in the dust or boring the pants off the old ones. I often feel like I’m failing one of these groups. Current strategies: I try to center some of the topics/in-class discussion around the more sophisticated stuff that the hardcore majors like, and others around topics that are more approachable for the other students. I tend to grade in a way that favors the philosophical novices. I need better ways to challenge the majors. I try to push them by challenging them to continue to work on their papers after they receive a grade (submit to a conference? journal?), by encouraging them to come by my office to continue discussions outside the context of the class, by engaging (and praising) excellence in class comments via email, etc. This works some, but there have got to be other things to do here. Tell me!


David Concepcion:

Don’t try to hit the sweet spot: differentiate. Novices learn best by following sequential instructions to solve well-defined problems. More advanced learners learn best by concurrently pursuing tasks to solve ill-defined problems. Some things to do: Increase the range of topics and formats students may choose in their writing assignments. Permit the replacement of an assignment with an in-class presentation, which likely will result in a small number of advanced students’ teaching (part of) a class. Offer office meetings to review students’ papers, and allow only those who come to a meeting to rewrite the paper for an improved grade. In short, while making all options open to all students, create differentiation in how students can complete the course. This allows individual students to reveal their needs to you, which allows you to tailor your assignments and interactions to be maximally effective.

However, striving to maximize the learning of each individual student through differentiation often conflicts with fairness. Fairness requires that (i) each assignment be graded with the same standards and (ii) each student has an equal chance to excel. No individual teacher can fully realize (ii), but we are obligated to strive for that ideal. (i) permits a faculty member to offer, say, four types of work students may submit at, say, week five of the semester for 10% of the course grade. Each student who submits the first type of assignment will be graded in the same way as every other student who submits the first type of assignment, etc. Of course, differentiation means that fully anonymous grading is likely impossible. If one does not grade anonymously, another way to mitigate implicit bias must be found. But these caveats do not mean that all differentiation is incompatible with fairness.

Jennifer Morton:

The challenge you are confronting is known in the pedagogical literature as a mixed-ability or mixed-level class. The solution is, as David says, to differentiate in your teaching. You might do this by designing your course so that a student can tailor it to his or her particular skill level, or by engaging in project-based learning that allows students to participate in different capacities depending on their skill level. How might these two approaches be implemented in a philosophy classroom?

Make sure to have a mix of assignments that engage students at different levels of philosophical sophistication. It sounds like you are already doing a lot of this in the classroom. You can also use grading to provide differential feedback. In my feedback on reading responses, which, due to time constraints, is often minimal, I will write a single comment to a student encouraging them to focus on “organizing sentences within a paragraph” or “thinking more deeply about a possible response on behalf of the author.” This points the student to the one thing they should be prioritizing in their next assignment.

Another strategy is to use group work to allow students to learn from each other. For example, in my upper-level courses, I ask students to write their final paper on a recent article in the topic area. All my students find this to be the most challenging assignment of the course. At the beginning of the term, they choose from 4–5 moderately difficult journal articles I pre-select. To help them make an informed choice, I tell them what issues are tackled by each article and, crucially, which articles are most challenging. However, I only allow 4–5 students to work on the same article, so that they, in effect, become a working group. Though everybody has to turn in their own individual paper by the end, they have to work together to present the article as a group to the rest of the class. This means they have to work with each other to understand the article and critique it. The resulting papers are much better than any final papers I received before I implemented this group-based assignment.

Additional Resources:

Can you also help answer this question? Join the conversation in the comments below or email us at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.


  1. I don’t have any suggestions, just merely stopping by to lode my puzzlement that one could take an upper level philosophy course without having had any other philosophy. What kind of course is it that it is both upper level but doesn’t have any prereqs?

    • Sara, at my institution our department is very small, and we do not attract many majors. So for the most part, we simply can’t afford to exclude possible students from our upper-level classes by setting prerequisites on them. To do so would lead to very small enrollments in those classes, which (sadly) could have adverse consequences for our department’s funding and tenure lines. So situations like the one the questioner describes are commonplace.

  2. I think it’s helpful sometimes to have students complete very simple assignments. A complex assignment, like an essay, allows the student to take all of their skills and showcase what they can do. But the complexity means that there are just so many different things for you to comment on, so many different directions you can go in offering advice, it’s hard to give any sort of feedback that will be all too helpful. Especially since complex assignments are also pretty significant portions of the final grade, it is hard to keep a fair rubric in play if you’re also trying to challenge your more advanced students. Simple assignments, however, are different.

    For instance, here’s a simple assignment: take an article’s main conclusion and express it in your own words. Students are limited to just a single sentence of writing. You’re limited to grading and commenting on just one sentence of writing. But, it still can be an extremely challenging assignment! (I like to point out to students that crafting a single sentence is often far more challenging than crafting a full paragraph.) Completing the assignment, at all, helps novices develop the skill(s) associated with that assignment. At the same time, more advanced students, who can recognize just how much skill is involved in crafting that single sentence to the best of their ability, are also challenged. You can help novices work on the skills of locating conclusions, and you can help the more advanced students work with far more nuanced issues related to crafting precise and clear sentences.

  3. One way to deal with this challenge (I think) is an assignment structure which I’m trying for the first time this quarter in a lower-level class — but which I may extend to my upper-level classes too, as it seems to be going well so far (though we’re only halfway through the quarter!). Full credit: I got the idea from Dustin Locke at Claremont McKenna, when he posted about it some time ago on NewAPPS (here: http://www.newappsblog.com/2013/10/grading-in-academia-and-martial-arts.html#comment-6a00d8341ef41d53ef019b00550c37970b). Locke models his system on video game mechanics. Assignments ascend a series of levels of difficulty. A student must complete one level before moving up to the next. This allows each student to move at their own pace, and to tackle tasks that are appropriate for their current level of skill and understanding.

  4. Just to echo some of what has been said above: one strategy that I’ve adopted is to treat mixed-level classes like cross-listed seminars that combine upper-level undergraduates with entry-level graduate students. I do so by having different assignments for majors and non-majors, while allowing non-majors the option of choosing to complete the more advanced work, if they desire that sort of challenge. I think this fits nicely with the suggestion made above, that one ought not to aim for a middle ground but to differentiate.


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