The course draws students across majors - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

The course draws students across majors

Some courses are required across a variety of majors (e.g., Introduction to Statistical Reasoning) and thus draw students from very different backgrounds, facilities and motivations.  In this case, students bring very different ways of thinking to the classroom as well as important differences in background knowledge and skills.  Often, the consequence is a significant group of students for whom there are significant gaps in important knowledge and skills.

Identify and clarify expectations up-front.

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

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)


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, the necessary prerequisites, both in terms of previous 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?).

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.

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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