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In primary and secondary school in the US, some teachers will adjust homework so that it is a better match for students. For example, a teacher might give a strong math student more advanced math problems, while a weaker student might be given more remedial work.

I am currently teaching some 100-level undergraduate courses. While my assignments seem appropriate for the majority of students, I discovered a few that are really not ready, as they came from rural high schools that did not offer the necessary background. It is unlikely that these students can develop their skills to the same level expected of other students within the span of one year, unless I make significant adjustments to their work. As my assignments are too difficult for them, they have given up hope.

The students are too few to warrant a recommended creation of more remedial courses. I'd like to apply some of the differentiated instruction methods that are common in primary and secondary education. At the very least, I would like to: (1) offer these students alternative homework better suited to their level and (2) offer them exams more appropriate for the level that they can realistically achieve during the first semester of the two part course.

  • Do universities permit teachers to differentiate their instruction, or must every student be given exactly the same assignments and assessments?
  • If this is not permitted, is there some other approach or way of framing the homework and assessments as to make this seem fair for everyone?
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    It is impossible for these students to develop their skills to the same level expected of other students. — [citation needed] Impractical, perhaps, but impossible? Your university could, for example, coordinate with local community colleges to help remediate students with weaker backgrounds. – JeffE Nov 7 '14 at 14:48
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    Yes, impossible, at least in the available time frame. I cannot assign them 20 hours of homework per week. – Village Nov 7 '14 at 22:23
  • at least in the available time frame. — What available time frame? Do these students have only six months to live or something? (I might agree that it's impossible for you to develop their skills in a single semester, but that's not what you claimed.) – JeffE Nov 8 '14 at 20:15
  • I've edited my question. Hopefully that is more clear. – Village Nov 8 '14 at 23:55
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It would be very unusual, in my experience in the U.S., for one group of students in a class to be given an "easier" exam than other students in the same class. When the students who took the "harder" exam found out about it, they would have a valid grievance that the faculty member would be unlikely to win. If a colleague asked me about this, I would strongly discourage giving different exams.

At the same time, it is perfectly reasonable to give individualized instruction before the exam. This is more feasible with small classes than large ones. At smaller schools, it is common for faculty to meet one-on-one with students, explain background material, and suggest additional problems to help those students self-remediate.

Whether this is possible for you on how much time you have available to do it, and also on whether you can convince the struggling students to put in the extra work that will be necessary for them to succeed. Unfortunately, some students are unable to do that, or choose not to.


I also want to give some more personal remarks, because I empathize with the spirit of the question: not wanting to leave students behind when they arrive underprepared for a class. I also teach at a school where some students have clear potential but were underserved by their high school and don't have the background that is expected when entering college.

The question mentioned being "fair to everyone". This has many meanings. You want to be fair to each student - which means both recognizing where they are currently at, and not sending them forward without the background to succeed in their next class. You want to be fair to the other students by making the class similar for everyone. And you also want to be fair to future professors, by sending them students who have the appropriate background.

Sometimes, you will be in a position where you can't do all these things. Perhaps a student has real potential but simply can't get to the necessary level by the end of the course. Perhaps the student could get there, but has personal or family obligations that occupy their time. Perhaps a student is just not quite mature enough to put in the work needed.

This can be one of the more difficult situations for a professor. But it is also very common, particularly at institutions that are not extremely selective. If you talk about it with your more experienced colleagues, they will have their own experiences with it, and they will be able to give you advice and support.

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    Actually, there's a very good example of where differentiated instruction might come into play—in "mezzanine" courses offered to both undergraduate and graduate students. The undergraduate and graduate students may have different assignments, examinations, and even grading standards. – aeismail Nov 9 '14 at 15:48
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While I am sure different universities will have different policies, the ones I am most familiar with would require that all students end up being taught the subject at the same level and given the same (likely departmental) exam at the end, especially for 100-level undergrad courses. This is mainly due to the fact that the next-level of class would require a certain level of knowledge, and anything less would hinder the students further. Most professors that I know would attempt to solve this by assigning large amounts of reading and allowing students who are already familiar with the materials to simply gloss over it, but being very clear as far as what they will need to know on the test via homework and quizzes, such that they can study according to their needs.

I would be very careful about assigning different work to different students, however suggesting optional reading/assignments for the entire class would be safe, and mentioning that you think they would be a good introduction or something that you can go over more personally via office hours for those who you think are struggling would be a good compromise. If you still want to assign certain individuals extra homework, I would suggest creating a pre-test and assigning it only to those who do poorly (tailor it such that they only need to do work relevant to the parts they did wrong).

Instead of creating a remedial class for the few students, perhaps the university (or department) policy could create a self-paced course for those students, or require those who score less than X on whatever entry exam is used (SAT?) in the subject to take an "entrance test" in order to make sure that they are ready to succeed in the class (and of course provide them the means to study in order to do so).

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Differentiated Instruction

Differentiated instruction is based on the premise that students learn better when they are pushed just beyond the point where they can work without assistance. Teaching methods and presentation of material should be calibrated to the student's level of understanding so that learning is optimized for the entire group, regardless of differences in ability.


Is it fair? The best way to "seem fair" in a college-level course is to make every effort to be impartial and objective in evaluating students ... under most circumstances this probably means they should all be subject to the same required work and examinations.

However, it's perfectly natural to offer extra homework, practice exams, and additional instruction to students that need extra help. Often, you can help by encouraging/organizing student study groups -- which can be helpful both for engaging students with the course material and connecting those that need help with a wider network of support.


Is it permitted? Aside from rules set by the legal statutes that govern the region (i.e., city, state, and federal law), what is permitted by a university is entirely up to the policy makers of the institution -- commonly the president, provost, and board of directors for the school (often with advisory from the faculty).

So the short answer is, it varies ... you definitely need to check with your particular institution. In addition, this will depend on the level and aim of the course. For instance, 100-level courses are building the foundation for higher level topics, so there is much less leeway for instructors to change the amount of material to be covered or the course content to accommodate different students.

Differentiated instruction doesn't seem to be widely used in higher education. The issue was discussed in a recent article [College Quarterly, 2013]:

While a few higher education faculty members have embraced the notion of differentiated instruction, the assumption is the majority of college instructors will focus on the traditional teacher-centered strategy of disseminating information in lecture form (Burke & Ray, 2008; Chamberlin & Powers, 2010; Handy, 2005; Smith, 2006).

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As others have already said, alternative exams are fraught with danger for you, and especially for students who go into the next course believing they are prepared for it.

It sounds like you are prepared to do extra work. (Good.) Reserve a room and announce a study group, open to all students. For each session, start with easier problems/examples and show how they lead to results at the level expected for the course. Many, perhaps most of the students who are motivated to succeed will show up for every meeting. There will be some motivated students who cannot attend due to either class conflicts or job requirements. The best you can do is pick a time that suits the majority. The non-motivated will self-select out, and you will have learned something about them.

You've said you cannot get these students up to level. If you can get them through with enough preparation that they can master succeeding courses with extra effort, you will have done them a great favor. That is far better than contriving a passing grade that will cause them to fall on their faces later.

Anecdote: One such study group got me through a particularly hideous master's course: Distributed Database Systems. We met on Sunday mornings, sans professor, and figured out just WTF he had told us in the previous week.

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This does not answer the title question which, as others have said, depends on the university, but shows a possible approach to "give them hope".

You can give students the choice between two exam papers, an A-series paper which allows them to get an A grade, and a simpler, B-series paper which allows students to get at most a B or C grade. The choice between the two types should be done by the students before the beginning of the exam without seeing the exam papers.

I applied this approach many years ago in a course where the situation could be considered similar to yours: I can't say it was entirely satisfactory but at least eased the life of those students who, for lack of background (and willingness to catch up), couldn't aspire to get an A.

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