6 Who Your Students Are

University of Florida (UF) students come from diverse backgrounds. Of the 56,567 students enrolled in the fall of 2019, 37,874 were undergraduates. Among the undergraduates were 69 American Indian or Alaskan Native students, 3.295 Asian students, 2,182 Black or African-American students, 8,626 Hispanic students, 79 Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Island students , 1,499 Multi-racial students, and 1,239 Race/ethnicity unknown students along with 866 non-resident alien students from more than 85 countries.

UF students are academically motivated, as attested by the fact that UF consistently ranks in the top public universities in the nation for both the number of National Merit Scholars enrolled and the number of National Achievement Scholars enrolled. Applicants for UF’s fall 2019 freshman class had an average high school GPA of 4.3-4.6, and an average SAT score of 1330 – 1460.

Students also lead a rich social and extracurricular life. They belong to more than 1100 registered student organizations, attend more than 2,000 campus concerts, art exhibits, and theatrical productions a year, and enjoy a variety of outdoor activities every day of the year.

How Students Learn

Adapted with permission from Chism et al., 1992

The characteristics presented at the beginning of this section provide a demographic and attitudinal profile of the UF undergraduate population. Equally important to teaching is an understanding of how these students are likely to differ in the ways in which they learn. Three broad categories of descriptive literature on students’ ways of learning will be discussed here. They include cognitive development, cognitive style, and differences based on age, disability, and cultural background.

Ways of Describing Cognitive Development

The most widely known work on the cognitive development of college students is Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years by William Perry (1970). Although Perry’s study was completed some time ago and was based on a small sample of students from Harvard and Radcliffe, the scheme of development that he described has proved helpful to many in understanding students in different settings.

Perry concludes that students move through stages of cognitive development, each of which is qualitatively different and more complex than the previous stage. As students move through these stages, the ways in which they perceive, organize, and evaluate experiences and events in their lives change. Perry describes nine positions, or stages, of which the first six pertain most directly to cognitive development. He uses the term dualistic to describe the first three positions. The ways in which students at these stages differ are based on how they account for uncertainty:

Position 1 – All information is either right or wrong. Uncertainty is not perceived.

Position 2 – All information is either right or wrong, and where uncertainty seems to exist, it is really an error committed by a wrong authority.

Position 3 –All information is either right or wrong, but uncertainty is acceptable in areas where experts do not know the answer yet. Someday the right answer will be discovered.

Students in the dualistic stage are often confused or hostile in a classroom setting in which multiple points of view are presented. They want “just the facts” and do not want to hear that there are conflicting opinions. They want the instructor to be strong, authoritative, and clear in the position that is taken. These students are apt to play a passive role in class. They regard the instructor as the person who already has the knowledge and may not feel that there is any value in contributing an opinion or listening to the opinions of their fellow students.

Students in positions 1 and 2 are able to learn (often by memorizing) basic facts and definitions of words and concepts; they can identify parts of a whole; and they are beginning to compare and contrast and provide explanations of why they answer as they do. In position 3, the student can compare and contrast and see multiple perspectives, parts, opinions, and evaluations. The students can do basic analytic tasks, but need to learn to use supportive evidence.

Perry uses the term relativistic to describe students in positions 4 through 6. During this phase, the students’ previous categories of right and wrong are transformed. Knowledge is now seen as uncertain or valid only within a context. The positions are differentiated by the following traits:

Position 4The student begins to feel that most questions cannot be answered with absolute certainty and when uncertainty prevails, feels that all answers are of equal value.

Position 5The sense of relativism enlarges and the student begins to form non-absolute criteria for making judgments.

Position 6The ability to make judgments increases and a personal stance or commitment develops.

Students in position 4 can compare and contrast abstract analyses and synthesize information. They can perform both positive and negative critiques and use supportive arguments well. At this stage, the student is developing the capacity to relate learning in one context or class to other issues in other classes or to issues in real life. In Positions 5 and 6, the student can relate learning in one context to learning in another with some ease and can look for relationships in learning. The student can evaluate, conclude, and support her/his own analysis and can synthesize various points of view. Finally, the student learns to modify and expand concepts of knowledge, and perhaps generates new ways of looking at a given question or formulates new questions.

Implications of Cognitive Development Theory for Teaching

Administration of instruments designed to assess cognitive development in terms of the Perry scheme has revealed that, although students of a given category vary in their cognitive levels, most college students in the traditional age range of 18-24 enter at the dualistic stage and many progress toward the advanced relativistic stage as they go through college. Some students enter college at higher levels and some will not progress, so one cannot assume homogeneity in a group of students at a given age. Nevertheless, a general guideline is that most nontraditional students (i.e., those over 24 years of age) can perform cognitive tasks that most freshmen cannot. Instructional expectations should be based on this general guideline.

Widick, Knefelkamp, and Parker (1975) use the notions of challenge and support to draw implications for teaching based on Perry’s theory. They argue that students at a given level need to be stretched or challenged to continue to reach higher levels, but also need support to handle the challenge. They caution that one cannot expect students to skip over developmental stages; tasks must be at, or only slightly above, a student’s level. Specific recommendations are summarized below.

Challenge students who are in the dualistic stages to move on to other levels by:

  • Employing curriculum content that represents two or three (but not more than three) diverse views of the subject or topic.
  • Assigning different kinds of experimental learning activities and helping students to encounter content diversity through such activities as structured discussion, structured group experiences, role playing, field trips with structured observation guide.
  • Providing experimental encounters in prestructured ways that emphasize differentiation and the use of evidence to support views.
  • Using a variety of media (print, audiovisual) to convey information.
  • Incorporating opportunities for students’ ideas to be heard in class.

Support dualistic students as they work toward other levels by:

  • Responding to their need for structure by presenting activities and by using a syllabus that itemizes such things as specific assignments, policies, and due dates, and by using outlines of each class, textbook sections, etc.
  • Preparing handouts that help students fulfill course requirements (e.g., how to write a bibliography, how to follow the correct format for a lab report).
  • Personalizing interactions with students by providing opportunities for students to get to know each other and the instructor; using small group work in or out of class; using feedback techniques such as logs, journals, or response forms and responding to written assignments as concretely as possible.

Challenge students who are in the relativistic stages to move to higher levels by:

  • Providing them with opportunities to choose positions and defend their choices.
  • Asking them to narrow choices and weigh pros and cons of alternative arguments or choices.
  • Drawing upon course material that stimulates thinking about personal philosophy and life choices.
  • Setting learning tasks that call for students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate from personal perspectives and then from progressively more abstract or experimental perspectives.
  • Calling for students to apply learning from one context to problems in a different context.
  • Posing activities that ask students to generate new questions or evaluate assumptions inherent in how points of view are constructed.

Support relativistic students as they move to higher levels by:

  • Providing choices of assignments and projects and minimizing the structure and guidance provided.
  • Allowing for more flexibility and creativity in formats of written work.
  • Continuing personalization through group work and by providing opportunities for participation and peer teaching.

Cognitive Styles

Another way of describing differences in students is based on the idea that people have different ways of learning. Research in this area has mushroomed in the past several years, producing descriptions of styles based on a variety of organizing ideas. A few of the dominant schemes are described below.

Field Independence and Field Dependence

Based on studies of perception, Witkin & Moore (1975) describe a central differentiating characteristic of learners based on how they handle information in context. They call learners who perceive in holistic fashion “field-dependent learners.” These individuals rely on external stimuli in approaching a task and have a much more difficult time separating the individual parts from their context than do “field-independent learners.” Field-dependent students tend to be more social in their interests and like instructors to structure classroom goals for them. They prefer group work and student discussion in class.

Field-independent students try to analyze things into component parts and they like to work independently (Witkin & Moore, 1975). Field-independent students are able to set their own learning goals and prefer the freedom to participate in setting their assignments. They like to work with abstract ideas and prefer to work with a minimum of structure and guidance.

Kolb’s Learning Styles

David Kolb (1981) posits that four main processes are used in learning:

  1. Concrete experience involves learning through direct involvement in a new experience.
  2. Reflective observation applies to learning through watching others or through thinking about one’s experiences or those of others.
  3. Abstract conceptualization refers to learning by creating concepts and theories to describe and explain observations.
  4. Active experimentation refers to learning by using the theories and concepts one has derived to solve problems and make decisions.

Kolb states that most people apply these four processes in a cyclical fashion as they learn, but that each person engages in some activities more than others. There are four learning styles which are comprised of a combination of these preferences. Each of the four styles is described below.

Convergers rely most on abstract conceptualizing and active experimenting. They like to find specific, concrete answers and move quickly to a solution. They are relatively unemotional and prefer dealing with things rather than people. Convergers often specialize in the physical sciences or engineering. They prefer learning tasks that have specific answers.

Assimilators rely most on abstract conceptualizing and reflective observation. They like to integrate ideas and are more interested in theoretical concerns than in applications. Assimilators tend to gravitate toward math and the physical sciences and like research planning. They prefer learning tasks that call for them to integrate material.

Divergers rely on concrete experience and reflective observation. They like to generate many ideas and enjoy working with people. They often are attracted to such fields as counseling and consulting. Divergers enjoy class discussion and working in groups.

Accommodators rely on concrete experience and active experimentation. They take risks, are action-oriented, like new experiences, and are very adaptable in new situations. They prefer a hands-on approach and often are attracted to technical or business fields, such as marketing and sales.

Learning Modalities

Several researchers have focused on the extent to which individuals’ sensory receptors influence their learning. In general, they describe the following different types of learning:

Auditory learners prefer to learn by listening. Lecturing is the teaching approach that works best for them.

Visual learners prefer print material. They learn best by reading or responding to visual cues that are written or drawn on the chalkboard or shown on overhead transparencies.

Tactile learners like to manipulate objects. Laboratory or hands-on methods of learning are most appropriate for them.

Kinesthetic, or whole body learners, like to learn through experimental activities. They prefer simulations, exploratory activities, and problem solving.

Implications of Information on Cognitive Styles for Teaching

  • Knowledge about cognitive styles can help instructors become more effective in their classroom endeavors.
  • People will probably be more productive if they are studying via a method compatible with their cognitive style.
  • No one method should be regarded as a panacea for all students in all subjects.
  • Greater attention should be given to building on the strengths of an individual’s cognitive style.
  • Matching classroom procedures to the styles of individual students might be accomplished by:
  • obtaining a class profile and providing instruction that is as compatible as possible for that profile
  • providing assignments and activities to students in accordance with their profiles (i.e., providing students with options for demonstrating their learning).
  • Mismatching of instruction and styles may be beneficial in that it provides a means of growth for the student and an opportunity to practice being adaptable to other styles.
  • Instructors who pay attention to the cognitive styles of their students are likely to modify their teaching styles. This is beneficial to instructors because by stretching themselves they increase their repertoire of teaching techniques and improve their effectiveness.
  • Knowledge of cognitive styles can help instructors understand why their relationships with some students are better than their relationships with others. They can imagine instructor-student interactions in which styles are at variance.
  • Instructors can learn many systems for formally identifying students’ cognitive styles. However, they can also learn much from observing students and noting their behaviors. For example, an instructor can identify students who appear to have particular preferences in learning situations. They can do this by asking themselves which students:
    1. Appreciate a clearly detailed outline and lecture
    2. Respond enthusiastically to a group work setting
    3. Like to read and think on their own
    4. Demonstrate the concentration necessary to work through a lengthy laboratory procedure
    5. Plan their study activities most thoroughly
    6. Like the freedom of a creative assignment
    7. Are motivated more by grades than by accomplishment
    8. Prefer the generation of alternatives rather than the specification of one right solution
    9. Relish a heated discussion of issues.

Guidelines for Responding to Student Differences

How should you respond to student differences?

While working in a group setting makes it impossible to respond to each unique need, try to be sensitive to individual differences by:

  • Providing options for participation, for assignments, and for class activities.
  • Varying the ways in which instruction is provided. Try to supplement lectures with opportunities for discussion, with audiovisual aids, and with hands-on or real-world experiences when possible.
  • Try to extend the learning styles of your students as well as respond to them. Students from an oral tradition need to have more writing experiences; students who view knowledge from a dualistic perspective need to be helped to understand that things are more complex; students who rely on concrete experience need to develop greater facility with abstract thinking. It is important, however, that efforts to extend student learning styles and cognitive levels build incrementally on given levels. Do not expect major leaps or changes in direction.
  • Respect individual differences, avoid thinking about students in terms of stereotypes, and keep channels of communication open.
  • Be vigilant in avoiding sexist or racist behaviors and humor in your own actions. Correct these behaviors if they are displayed by students.

What are some ways for determining which approach is appropriate?

  • Talk to others who have previously taught a course about what can be reasonably expected of the students in that course.
  • Use the first class session to obtain information, either on cards or orally, on students’ backgrounds (major, hometown, age, etc.), prior preparation for the course (e.g., related course work, previous degrees or work experiences in the area, etc.), and expectations for the course (personal goals, career goals, preferred learning activities or instructor styles).
  • Administer a pre-test at the beginning of the course or unit to determine students’ entry levels.
  • Watch students’ facial expressions and other nonverbal signs of understanding, confusion, or emotional response in class.
  • Encourage students by speaking with them outside class, or routinely arrive early and talk with students before class. Make a point of speaking with a wide range of students and not only with the high achievers.
  • Provide for early feedback through a test or paper that will count only marginally if at all, toward the final grade.
  • Administer a learning-style inventory to assess differences in the students, or ask students to provide a self-report on the ways in which they learn best.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for students to comment on the instruction. One way is the five-minute paper: ask students to take the last five minutes of class to comment on one main concept that they learned and to list questions they would like addressed in the next class. Students may also be asked to assess how well the course is going and to make suggestions for change.
  • Obtain student evaluations of instruction at midterm to provide direction for the remainder of the term. Obtain student suggestions again at the end of the term to improve the course the next time it is taught.

Special Considerations for Teachers of Freshmen

Adapted from recommendations of the Committee on Instructional Development, President’s Commission on the Freshman Year, Northeastern University 1987-1988

There are some special characteristics of first-year students that set them apart from other students. Teachers of freshmen should keep in mind:

  • Entering freshmen have been socialized for twelve years into a system of primary and secondary education within which
  • they performed according to a set schedule of daily, often collected assignments;
  • many students moved together from class to class and from term to term, forming a continuing and strong support network;
  • weighted grading systems differentially reward performance in courses by level of difficulty;
  • all of the institution’s resources (including the teacher) were right there everyday in the classroom.
  • As a result, the expectations of university academic life, emphasizing self-initiation, independence, and responsibility may be quite jarring for first-year students.
  • Most often, college is the first extended experience freshmen have had with independent living. For many, it is also their first extended urban experience. The transition from family, town, and school, to the newness of an independent social life, can all too easily overshadow what may be perceived by the student as dull academic responsibilities.
  • The very size and complexity of the University can be tremendously confusing and intimidating to students whose entering class is often larger than the population of the entire high school from which they came; whose classmates and even roommates are strangers to them; whose training to be mostly passive receivers of educational services makes them unused to seeking out assistance, especially in an alien environment.
  • For the most part, entering freshmen are used to being in the upper halves of their graduating classes, to being widely known and respected by their peers and teachers — in other words, to being “big fish in small ponds.” At the university, many of them are anonymous, submerged in large classes, and competing with the cream of a number of high schools — very “small fish” in an awfully “big pond.” This is often a difficult transition.
  • Unlike upperclass students, whose prerequisites assure some consistent entry levels into courses, the variety of learning styles and the level of preparation of freshmen varies as widely as do their study skills. Students are often shocked to discover what is expected of them as freshmen.

The material in a later section (Part 2) on “Building a Supportive Classroom Environment” may provide some suggestions for minimizing the difficulties faced by freshmen in your classes.

Accessible and Inclusive Teaching: Supporting Students with Disabilities and Diverse Learners

Students with disabilities are a rapidly growing population at the University of Florida, as elsewhere in American higher education. By the end of the 2018-2019 academic year, over 3500 UF students were registered with the Disability Resource Center (DRC). The DRC is a department dedicated to facilitating access for students with disabilities. The DRC will work with you to implement accommodations seamlessly and effectively. Our goal is to partner with instructors to think more broadly about the design of courses, classroom space, activities and assessments to create a more inclusive learning experience for all students.

Barriers and Disability

Academic, physical, technological, and attitudinal barriers may exist when an individual with a disability interacts with an environment that is inaccessible. Often, individuals regarded as having a disability may experience a chronic illness, cognitive or learning impairment, medical, physical, psychological, and/or sensory condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. While many students with disabilities have a long-standing diagnosis and have utilized accommodations in their previous schooling to address barriers that may prevent their full participation, there are many students with disabilities who are not yet diagnosed when entering college.

Accommodation Letters

Students who register with the DRC and receive accommodations, will present their accommodation letter to their instructor at the beginning of the semester. However, it is important to note that some students with disabilities may not register with the DRC until the semester is well underway. Instructors should always accept a student’s accommodation letter at any point in the semester, instructors can reach out to the student’s learning specialist if they believe some accommodations requested are unreasonable or inapplicable in their course. Please note that a student’s diagnosis is not included on the accommodation letter to protect their privacy. While we often think of disability as a physical impairment, the majority of students with disabilities have cognitive impairments that may not be noticeable.

Students will communicate their academic accommodations to their instructors through the DRC Accommodation Letter requested each semester. Accommodation Letters will reflect the academic accommodations established during the student’s initial appointment. It is the student’s responsibility to ensure each of their professors receive the accommodation letter. Students are encouraged to share their accommodation letter with their professors as soon as possible. This will help ensure access to accommodations and support are established at the beginning of the academic semester.

Accommodations are approved on a case by case basis. Accommodations are directly related to the student’s disability and the barriers they may encounter. The most common accommodations TAs may encounter are:

  • Access to lecture materials
  • Extra time on tests
  • Low distraction environment for tests
  • Consideration for class absences
  • Ability to record class lectures

Teaching Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities are more similar to other students than dissimilar. First and foremost, they are students.

Revising our perceptions and attitudes is perhaps the most important accommodation for a student with a disability. In addition, the student’s own suggestions, based on their experience with the disability, will prove invaluable as you adapt your instruction to the student. Dialogue between you and the student is essential early in the term, and follow-up meetings are recommended. You should not feel apprehensive about discussing a student’s access needs as they relate to the course. If you have any questions on how to best support a student with a disability in your course, do not hesitate to contact the DRC.

Addressing Access Barriers

Accommodated Testing

While the DRC offers accommodated testing services, many instructors decide to facilitate their students’ testing accommodations through office hours or private appointment. If your student requires assistive technology or an alternate format, it may not be possible for you to provide their accommodations and they may need to test at the DRC. It is important to note that the purpose of accommodated testing is to address barriers that impact the equitable participation of the student with a disability. For example, if the TA is able to offer additional time and a low distraction testing environment in a nearby room, then the student can test with the TA and not have to leave class to test at the DRC.

If you and your student(s) decide that you will use the DRC testing center for testing, you must create a testing outline as soon as possible that specifies all necessary course proctoring information. More information can be found on our DRC Instructor Portal. An overview of the process is included under the “Resources” tab. If any issues occur while attempting to submit the contract – please contact the DRC Testing Office at drctesting@ufsa.ufl.edu or call 352.392.8565.

Important DRC Testing Policy: Students must submit ATRs at least 4 business days prior to the exam date. Weekends and the exam date is not included in this 4 business day policy. It is important for you to complete the proctoring information as soon as you receive the accommodation letter. If you do not have your course proctoring information on file, your students will be unable to submit their test requests.

Instructors must approve or decline ATRs at least 2 business days in advance of the test date. If the ATR is not approved/declined before then, the request will expire. Please note, if students are unable to submit test requests because you failed to supply the course proctoring information or failed to approve the ATR in time, you will need to accommodate the student in your course or allow them to test at the DRC at a later date.

Exam materials should be sent to the DRC at least 2 business days in advance of the student’s exam date. For students who require alternative format exams, the DRC testing staff would need to create an accessible version of the exam and thus would need the exam materials 3 days in advance instead of 2. Any reminders or notifications will be sent via email, so please check your email and the instructor portal regularly.

Access to Course Content

TAs can accommodate a student who cannot take notes or who has difficulty taking notes adequately in several ways:

  • Allow the student to audio record lectures
  • Provide the student with an outline of lecture materials
  • Assist the student in borrowing a classmate’s notes

Students must ask the TA’s permission to audio record a lecture; however, if the student’s disability is such that recording a class is a reasonable accommodation, the TA is legally required to give such permission.

Physical Access

When a chair user is in your class, be aware of situations that may make it difficult for them to attend class. If the student uses an elevator to get to class, for instance, check every day to see that it is in operation. If not, make every effort to move the class for that day. The student should not have to miss class because of a physical plant problem.

When planning events, on and off campus, that are a part of your structured class activities, care should be taken to make sure that all individuals in the class have access. On a historic campus, such as the University of Florida, not all areas are accessible. Equitable access may be achieved by moving the activity (workshop, lab, meeting, trip, or other class activity) to an area that is accessible. If your office is not accessible to someone in your class, you should make alternate arrangements to meet with the student(s).

Accessible Teaching Resources

The Disability Resource Center (DRC) serves as a resource on access, inclusive instruction, and how to empower students with disabilities. The DRC staff works with instructors to help facilitate access to an equitable collegiate experience for students with disabilities.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for learning can be created for a variety of diverse learners by designing courses with accessibility in mind. The DRC is happy to consult with you on how you can utilize UDL in your course to support students with disabilities. You can also visit this site for more information:

U Matter We Care

As a UF teaching assistant, please take notice of your students or other fellow Gators in distress and contact the U Matter We Care initiative—call 352-294-CARE or email umatter@ufl.edu to express concern about someone and get assistance. See http://www.umatter.ufl.edu/ for further information and additional resources. Always call 9-1-1 in an emergency or 352-1111 to connect to the University Police Department.


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UF TA Handbook Copyright © by John Jordi; Genavie Cueman; and Jennifer K. Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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