Explore Strategies - Enhancing Education - Carnegie Mellon University

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

My students’ background knowledge and skills vary widely.

The course has no specific prerequisites.

Generally, a range of background knowledge and skills among students is expected and even productive. However, when there is a significant group of students who lack the critical prior knowledge necessary to succeed in the course, you need to make a decision regarding how much responsibility you are willing to assume for tutoring or remediation.


Set appropriate prerequisites if you have
the ability to do so.

Empower students to make the appropriate decision
about what to do next.

Identify and clarify expectations up-front.

Revisit course objectives.

Split sections.

Direct students to Academic Development
and support services.

Facilitate the formation of study groups
based on background and skills.

Have your TA offer extra non-required remedial instruction.

Point students to extra resources (texts, handouts).


Set appropriate prerequisites if you have the ability to do so.

Even in courses that do not traditionally have prerequisites, instructors often have leeway in setting the standards and requirements for their courses. Check with your department, college or other appropriate unit to determine if you can institute or adjust prerequisites for your course.

Empower students to make the appropriate decision about what to do next (e.g., work extra hard, delay taking the course, etc).

Explain to the students how their lack of background knowledge or skills may influence their ability to successfully master the material in the course and achieve a passing grade. Empower students to make the appropriate decision about what to do next. Options include working extra hard, seeking help from a tutor, and postponing the course until they have acquired the necessary background.

Identify and clarify expectations up-front.

Use the syllabus, the first day of class, and your course management system to state very explicit expectations for the students. Clarify your learning objectives, your expectations in terms of high school courses as well as relevant bodies of knowledge and skills. In addition, state clearly the options students have for catching up if they do not meet the appropriate expectations (e.g., will you do extra review sessions or will students be expected to catch up on their own?).

Revisit course objectives.

If you have limited control over which students enroll in your course and a significant number of them are missing crucial background knowledge or skills, you may need to revisit your course objectives. This means you may need to scale back on the scope of the course and include the material or skills your students are lacking. For example, if your students lack important writing ability, you may need to address the specific writing skills they need to succeed in your course in parallel with your course content.

Split sections.

Some courses have experimented with separate sections for specific majors (e.g., a linear algebra section for computer scientists, physics for engineers) or for students based on scores to a diagnostic test. If this is a feasible option for you, you can tailor the course to the students’ prior knowledge, ability and/or motivation. You can fine-tune the learning objectives, and introduce examples and applications that are relevant to the major or appropriate to the students’ ability. Check with your department if splitting classes into such sections is an option for your course.

Direct students to Academic development and support services.

Some of the services that Academic Development offers include supplemental instruction, individual and group tutoring, and study skills workshops. In addition they facilitate the formation of study groups within courses.

Facilitate the formation of study groups based on
background and skills.

Advise students to form study groups within the course if they are having trouble staying up-to-date. Some instructors leave space in the syllabus for the contact information of two students, then ask everybody on the first day to turn to their left and to their right and ask the students next to them for their contact information. This way, the students start connecting on the first day of class, and will be more likely to follow up if they need help.

Have your TA offer extra non-required remedial instruction.

If your pre-assessments identify a well-defined, self-contained area where students are generally lacking (e.g, basic combinatorics) you can ask your TA to conduct an optional review session on that topic.

Point students to extra resources (texts, handouts).

If you don’t want to spend extra class time on specific topics, consider providing students with handouts, textbook chapters they can review, online tutorials or other complementary materials. These materials can be viewed outside of class, when students have more time to work through them. If possible, include self-scoring exercises so that students can monitor their own learning.

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learning principles

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. MORE>
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. MORE>
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn. MORE>
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned. MORE>
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning. MORE>
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning. MORE>
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning. MORE>