Engaging Advanced Students

This Q&A was adapted with permission from the book Chalk Talk: E-advice from Jonas Chalk, Legendary College Teacher, edited by Donna M. Qualters and Miriam Rosalyn Diamond –


Dear Jonas,

I am teaching one of the first sophomore engineering courses, one that provides fundamental knowledge for success in the rest of the major. As you may know, among 35 students one may find a wide variety of talents, abilities, and motivations. Sometimes difficulties arise when the majority of the class asks me to solve a problem that is very simple and trivial for a few (10-12) students. These students get so tired of the class that on several occasions they have asked me not to spend time on those types of problems, and instead solve more challenging ones. I do that every now and then, but I have noticed a challenging problem can be more discouraging to those that feel they are lost. I am puzzled how to strike the best balance. Can you help me with that?

Signed: Edge of Reason


Dear Edge of Reason,

There’s no question that students do vary widely in their abilities and motivations to succeed in a given class. In a fundamental introductory course such as yours, there may also be large disparities in student experience and degree of preparation.

It is important that you tell students about the progressive nature of the course material. They’ll need to understand the basic building blocks before they can tackle more complex concepts. If you clearly lay out this step-wise approach to reach more advanced topics, better prepared students may have more patience with topics they consider to be review or remedial in nature. For those who are less well prepared, this will provide the foundation they need to be successful in the rest of the course and related follow-on courses.

This is not to advocate working through all of the examples that students request; some balance can be achieved by being more selective about the problems you do in class. Make clear to your students, both through your syllabus and by role modeling your strategies in class, what your expectations are for how they should approach problems independently. As the course progresses, you can increase these expectations as appropriate. It is important to avoid allowing students to passively watch you do the solution of new problems on the board instead of actively working through them. Even less-prepared students are responsible for putting serious effort into working through problems that are new to them. You will need to decide which types problems are worth taking class time, and which should require independent effort from the students. You can get some idea of where to draw the line by monitoring the homework of the less advanced students.

A good way to engage students who might otherwise be bored by the basic problems is to enlist them as active participants in the problem solving. Instead of working a problem yourself, ask a student who already knows how to do the problem to demonstrate it. Although they may not be entirely comfortable at first, they will benefit from the experience as well. When you ask students to explain how they got an answer you provide them with an opportunity to acquire “deeper learning.” By the time the course progresses to topics where the students are on a more equal footing, the other students will be know they can be cold-called to work the problems as well. A similar method is to assign a problem for the class to work through in groups, pairing the more advanced students with the less advanced ones. Both of these approaches work best if the differences in student preparation have been openly addressed and accepted by the class.

For problems you choose not to do in class, consider using Canvas to post worked-through solutions to some of the problems you skip in class, or allow students to discuss solutions with each other on the Discussion Board. Review sessions outside of class, and your office hours can also be used to cover problems not done in class, and students may be encouraged to come if you set aside specific times for addressing certain problems If you are uncomfortable with directly addressing differences in students’ ability levels in your classroom, you might try challenging the more advanced students with bonus problems given in class, on homework assignments, and on tests. The basic strategy is to design questions on two levels: one to test the baseline skills and methodical approach expected of the entire class, and the second involving alternative or more elegant methods, greater complexity, or more synthesis and integration with other types of problems. Real-world applications of the basic concept are particularly appropriate level two problems. Make it clear that students who go beyond the baseline expectations will be rewarded for their accomplishments in a way that does not penalize students who skip the advanced problems I think you’ll find your students will remain engaged when they recognize your efforts to accommodate their individual needs.


Quick Tip

Use two-level questions to make your entire class aware of alternative approaches to the same problem. Ask two students to present their different solutions to the class, then have the class write down the steps and principles used in each case. Not only will this let you check class understanding, it gives you the opportunity to highlight parallels and differences in the two approaches.


This content was adapted with permission from the book Chalk Talk: E-advice from Jonas Chalk, Legendary College Teacher, edited by Donna M. Qualters and Miriam Rosalyn Diamond.

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