The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2.1 Variation in students' abilities

The widening participation agenda increases the need for active learning in seminars. Lecturers increasingly face groups of students of mixed ability and mixed experience. Students in the same group may have very different levels of understanding and may be facing very different problems in trying to improve that understanding. The organisation of the seminar ought, therefore, to provide the lecturer with opportunities to diagnose a range of misunderstanding. It is no longer plausible to assume (as one might in the course of a discussion) that the understanding of a topic demonstrated by one student will be fairly typical of the group or that other students will have been able to understand the significance of dialogue between the lecturer and one student in the group. Seminars that are planned to provide a range of opportunities for interaction can play a critical role in helping lecturers to identify specific problems.

For example, seminars on quantitative methods often include some students who have studied mathematics at A-level and some who have not. The latter will have considerable difficulty working through problems that students who have studied mathematics to A-level will find very straightforward. One response to this problem is to organise the students into small groups and give students who have higher levels of attainment in mathematics an explicit peer-tutoring role towards those who are less confident. The more confident students will develop their understanding because they will have to clarify their own understanding when they try to explain ideas to their peers. The students with lower levels of mathematical attainment will benefit from more extensive dialogue than would be possible in a session entirely focused on the lecturer.

Top Tip: Consider grouping the students by ability in seminar sessions in order to focus on specific areas of understanding and application.