Who Your Students Are-Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Recognize Who Your Students Are

Students are not only intellectual but also social and emotional beings, and all these dimensions interact to impact learning and performance. To plan an effective course, it is important to consider who our students are, taking into account their:

"We may exhibit an admirable command of content, and possess a dazzling variety of pedagogical skills, but without knowing what's going on in our students heads, that knowledge may be presented and that skill exercised in a vacuum of misunderstanding."
– Stephen D. Brookfield, The Skillful Teacher (2006)

Prior Knowledge

"[Students] come to formal education with a range of prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and concepts that significantly influence what they notice about the environment and how they organize and interpret it. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, solve problems, and acquire new knowledge."
– Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, How People Learn (2000, p. 10)

New knowledge is built on existing knowledge. Thus, when you are planning a class it is important to determine what your students are likely to know coming into your course and (later in the planning process) how well they know it.

What your students know.

If your course is part of a sequence of courses, it is a good idea to find out what material has been covered in the course preceding it. You can do this by talking to a colleague who has taught the preceding course, or asking for a copy of his/her syllabus, assignments, and/or exams. Pay attention not only to what topics have been covered but the extent to which students have been asked to apply particular skills and knowledge (for example, have they been required simply to identify theories or to do something more sophisticated, such as make predictions on the basis of different theoretical orientations? Have they been required simply to analyze aspects of stagecraft and lighting, or have they used these insights in creating designs of their own?). The extent to which students have been required to actively do something with what they have learned will determine how deeply they know it.

You might also talk to colleagues teaching "down-stream" courses (i.e., courses that come later in the sequence than your own) to determine what kinds of skills and knowledge they expect students to have leaving your course. This will help you determine the proper scope and pace of your own course.

Another good idea at the course planning stage is to check your students majors on the course roster, or, in the absence of a course roster, ask someone in the department about the kinds of students you are likely to have. If the majority of your students come from within your discipline, it might be reasonable to assume that they have certain kinds of background knowledge, skills and experience. On the other hand, if a large number of students come from outside your discipline, you might have to recalibrate. Finding out about your students majors in advance can also help you think about how to build effectively on their prior knowledge to make the material in your class relevant and engaging. For example, if a number of students in an anthropology class come from the design department, using examples and illustrations that relate to different cultural aesthetics or the use of objects in diverse cultural contexts will help students connect their disciplinary knowledge to the new material they are learning and to see its relevance to their own interests and future work.

How well they know it.

New knowledge cannot be built effectively on a weak foundation, thus it is important to determine where students prior knowledge is "fragile", i.e., where it contains inaccuracies, naive assumptions, and/or misunderstandings of the contexts and conditions in which to apply particular skills. There are a number of ways to assess students prior knowledge. One easy way is to administer a simple diagnostic pretest during the first week of class. A well-designed pretest can identify areas of robust or weak understanding. If mastery of prerequisite skills is poor across the majority of the students, you may have to adjust the pace or scope of the course accordingly. If a small number of individuals lacks the necessary skills, this information can help you advise them appropriately, perhaps to seek outside tutoring or even, in some cases, to drop the class.

Another way to assess students prior knowledge early in the semester is to ask them to draw a concept map illustrating a key topic from your course (e.g., global climate change, Mexican immigration). A quick glance at the concept maps students draw can give you a good sense of how well students currently understand the issue and help you identify misconceptions and inaccuracies.

Intellectual Development

Knowing how students conceive of knowledge and of the role of teacher and student in learning can be a helpful starting point for designing instruction. Below we consider the stages of intellectual development and their implications for teaching.

Stages of intellectual development

There are a number of models to describe students’ intellectual development in college (Perry, 1968; Belenky et al, 1986, Baxter-Magolda, 1992). Although they have slightly different emphases, all the models describe a similar progression, described here with vocabulary borrowed from Perry.

Dualism: In early stages of intellectual development, students tend to see the world in terms of good-bad, right-wrong, black-white distinctions. Knowledge, to their mind, is unambiguous and clear, and learning a simple matter of information-exchange. Students at this stage believe the teacher’s job is to impart facts and their job is to remember and reproduce them. At this early stage of intellectual development, students may be frustrated when the teacher provides conditional answers (e.g., “It depends on the context”) or introduces more questions rather than giving “the right answer”.

Multiplicity: The next stage of intellectual development begins when students realize that experts can disagree and facts can contradict one another. To students at this stage of development, everything becomes a matter of perspective and opinion, with all opinions accorded equal validity. They feel more empowered to think for themselves and question received wisdom, but they are not necessarily able to evaluate different perspectives or marshal evidence to support their own. They may also view instructor evaluations of their work as purely subjective.

Relativism: At a more sophisticated stage of development, students begin to recognize the need to support their opinions with evidence. They accept that reasonable people can disagree, but understand that some perspectives have more validity than others and that even the word of authorities should be analyzed critically, not swallowed whole. Like students at the dualistic stage they may have strong views, but these views are grounded in examination and reflection. They begin to perceive the role of the teacher differently: as a knowledgeable guide or conversation partner, not an infallible authority but also not “just another opinion”.

Commitment: The last stage in Perry’s model does not involve a jump in intellectual sophistication so much as the application of knowledge gained in the relativism stage. Here, students make choices and decisions in the outside world that are informed by relativistic knowledge.

It is important to note that students do not necessarily move through each of these stages in lock-step. Some students might take longer to move out of dualism than others; some might get comfortable at the multiplicity stage and never reach relativism. By the same token, students do not necessarily move through the stages sequentially: when students encounter new intellectual challenges (for example, material that fundamentally shakes their beliefs or assumptions) they may “retreat” to earlier stages temporarily. Baxter-Magolda’s work is sobering in that it suggests that (a) students enter college at a far lower stage of intellectual sophistication than we often believe, and (b) they generally do not progress as far as we might hope.  The graph below, based on national data, illustrates where most students are intellectually during the four (or five) years of college. Apparently, while multiplistic thinking increases in college and dualistic thinking decreases, relativistic thinking does not develop to a very significant degree.
national data
Adapted from Baxter-Magolda (1992)

Implications for teaching

Helping students grow intellectually requires balancing the support you provide with the challenges you pose. In other words, it is important to push students out of their comfort zone, but to do so gradually enough so that they do not panic or become discouraged. As Knefelkamp points out, learning is an ego-threatening task (not incidentally, so is teaching). Too much challenge to the ego and students rebel or retreat; too little and they don’t progress: either way they don’t learn. One of our tasks as instructors is to recognize the stage where our students (or most of our students) are and to help bridge the transition to the next stage. For example, students who are solidly at the dualistic stage – perhaps freshmen in an introductory-level class – might simultaneously be taught facts (terms, definitions, theorems, etc.) and presented with situations in which there are conflicting interpretations of facts, so that they are encouraged not simply to accept what they are told, but also to postulate explanations for discrepancies. Students at the multiplicity stage can be asked to identify perspectives and opinions, including their own, but also required to support them with examples, illustrations or data and to evaluate the opinions of others relative to the evidence available.

You might want to explain to students how you want them to approach material that does not lend itself to dualistic analysis. For example, in a psychology class you might say: “We will be discussing a number of theories to explain differences in personality and their implications for human behavior. There is not a single “correct” theory; rather, I will expect you to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each, and to compare and evaluate them in terms of their explanatory power.” You might also choose to explicitly address students’ emotional reaction to material that pushes them outside their comfort zone. For example: “Some of you are used to thinking of learning in terms of right and wrong answers. In this class we will be dealing with many shades of gray, and raising as many questions as we generate answers. This may frustrate you for a while, but it will help you develop more sophisticated ways of conceptualizing problems, so hang in there.” Some instructors actually take the time in class to teach the stages of intellectual development, so that students can become more aware of their own intellectual growth over time.

Cultural background

How might cultural differences among your students (or between you and your students) affect the course you are planning?

While all cultures value learning, the kinds of learning valued in particular cultures, the manner in which learning is believed to best occur, and the ways in which the roles of students and teachers are conceptualized may differ profoundly from culture to culture. When students from different cultures share a classroom – or if you, as the instructor, come from a different culture than your students – it is important to consider how cultural background can affect classroom dynamics and learning. A document created by the Eberly Center and the Intercultural Communication Center called Recognizing and Addressing Cultural Variations in the Classroom can help you as an instructor:

  • understand the types of challenges international students face;
  • explore issues that may affect students in your courses; and
  • offer suggestions based on strategies CMU faculty have successfully employed

It is helpful to note that the same strategies that can help facilitate teaching and learning in a multi-cultural classroom serve the interests of all students, regardless of cultural background.

Generational Experiences and Expectations

Generations have their own cultures, informed by different social trends and world events. Generational differences can influence the habits and expectations students have when they come to college, how they approach learning, and how they conceive of the appropriate roles of teachers and students. Research comparing the Millennial Generation (students graduating high school after 2000) to other generations suggests that the cohort of college students we are now teaching has distinctive characteristics that influence the dynamics of our classrooms and have implications – positive and negative – for teaching.


Baxter-Magolda, M. B. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students' intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L, & Cocking, R., eds. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Brookfield, S. D. (2006). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., & Guido-DiBrito, F. (1998). Student development in college: Theory, research and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York: Vintage Books.

Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2004). Millennials go to college: Strategies for a new generation on campus. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Collegiate Registrars.

Perry, W. G., Jr. (1968). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.