Group work in a diverse classroom

Teaching at an international college, diversity is the norm. In a class of 25 students, I may have students from nearly a dozen distinct regions: Hispanic, African, Russian, East Asia, Southeast Asian, Indian, Arabic.

Some are straight from high school, others have studied here for some time. One would expect that English as a second language is a common thread, but increasingly I see students with very good English (e.g. from India and Nigeria). Most come from traditional educational backgrounds (focus on memorization, few hands-on activities, limited learner input). The one commonality is that they are all decidedly different from myself (Canadian, white male); I am the minority. Diversity isn’t just a side consideration for the class, it is everything.

The college offers significant support and smaller classes, catering to the cultural, language and educational challenges that come with such a population. Cultural friction or racism is rare (the students self-select to some degree in choosing to attend an international school in Canada) and when it does occur, is not white-centric but based on regional differences (e.g. Chinese/Japanese or Indian/Pakistani) with which I am less familiar.

Differences in learning style, language, and experience in the subject are significant, and are made more difficult because students often not mature enough as learners to recognize their own learning style or value their prior experience. My challenge is therefore to cater to differences that may not even be recognized by the students themselves.

One strategy that I have used is to adapt some of the principles of Team-Based Learning (TBL). I had always used group activities in the classroom, but allowed them to self-select each time. After reading about TBL, I started “permanent” teams for the duration of the course, assigned by the instructor. I purposely design these groups based on diversity as much as possible (gender, race, language skills, semesters of study, prior Biology courses, etc.) and find this is particularly important, and effective at addressing diversity in my challenging situation (Brookfield, 2006).

This way, students get to know each other and shy students can participate better rather than having to struggle with new people each time. Students come to value each other’s experience, both inside and outside of the classroom: one can help with English language but may be in their first semester, receiving help from a student more experienced in the course content. With various first languages, it also forces students to use English (a group of primarily Chinese students may, for example naturally choose to converse in Mandarin, though it is a college requirement to use English).

Brookfield (2006) suggests that grouping students by their background or with an eye to diversity both have their benefits. My classroom may be unique in that students are so used to diversity, and that no one race/nationality is a strong majority, but I would recommend diverse groups (having had some experience with nationalities grouping together when I allowed self-selection) based on my experience.


Brookfield, S. 2006. The Skillful Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass


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