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Teaching mixed graduate/undergraduate classes: contexts, tools, and strategies

~By Vadym V. Pyrozhenko, Associate Professor of Public Administration; Director, Master of Public Administration and Policy

A very familiar challenge of teaching students with different levels of abilities and motivation becomes more onerous in mixed graduate/undergraduate classes. If you teach such a class for the first time, this blog post will hopefully give you hints on anticipating and overcoming a few challenges. Quick adjustments in teaching techniques can be successful if tried within a broad teaching approach that stresses flexibility and attention to the students’ individual needs. If you begin with the right mindset, mixed classes can empower and motivate both undergraduate and graduate students and can also be very intellectually stimulating for you as an instructor. 

What are mixed classes and what do they look like?

Most decisions related to offering mixed classes are normally a prerogative of the graduate program. The program can decide to expand its elective course options for their graduate students by building a new graduate section on the top of the existing undergraduate class. Or the program may open its graduate classes to the undergraduate students by creating new undergraduate portions. Mixing of graduate and undergraduate students can certainly happen in purely graduate classes within accelerated (4+1) programs. However, the instructor does not have to treat 4+1 undergraduate students differently from the graduate students. Although many pedagogical challenges are similar in such graduate classes, we will focus on those mixed classes that include officially designated graduate and undergraduate sections. So far, we have called them “mixed” classes but U.S. graduate programs have used other names as well. My tentative name list is incomplete but is already staggering: “cross-listed” classes, or “hybrid” classes, or “split” classes, or “combined” classes, or “stacked” classes, or “joint-listed” classes, or “mirrored” classes. In your conversations on mixed classes with your colleague from a different graduate program thus make sure you are talking about the same thing. 

The specific student mixes in the mixed classes vary a lot. Your 400/500 mixed class might have graduate students mixed with a few undergraduate students. In a different 400/500 class you may have three graduate students working hard to keep their GPA above 3.0 while being surrounded by two dozens of undergraduate students many of whom will be happy with any course grade that would not pull their GPA below 2.5. Or you may end up having a nice 50/50 split. Within each group, students’ levels of abilities and motivation may vary quite dramatically too. Some undergrads will be non-major sophomores who are also non-traditional students. A few juniors will be transfer students transitioning from a community college to a university academic environment. Some seniors might be taking the class at the graduate level as part of their 4+1 track requirements and they will be sitting next to their senior peers taking it at the 400 level. If work experience matters for your field, those students with significant work experience might be more skillful and knowledgeable compared to those students having no experience. Graduate students’ profiles will also vary in terms of capability, interest, career stage, and age. Some graduate students could be easily bored with the substance of the course material if it relates to their jobs while still being ill-prepared for the academic work. Other graduate students who are taking the class as a required class might be better prepared and more motivated compared to those graduate students who come from a different graduate program to satisfy a cognate class requirement. Some graduate students will have very limited work experience, others will be seasoned professionals approaching their retirement and hoping that the graduate degree will propel them into a good consulting career path. Generational differences will be a factor you have to deal with especially if you end up having students from three generations in the same classroom. Finally, doctoral students are occasionally allowed to take Masters level classes but it is very uncommon for them to be mixed with the undergraduate students.

Program controls over mixed classes

The above overview hints at specific student mixes that you might hypothetically encounter in your mixed class. What you do as a driver at a magic roundabout junction consisting of five mini-roundabouts if an ambulance is approaching quickly from your left side, and a firetruck behind has just turned on its siren, and you see that a hazmat truck approaching from your right is having brake issues might be a driving school instructor’s favorite question. In practice, driving situations are manageable and the range of specific student mixes in the mixed classes is limited due to stable student patterns in the same course and due to deliberate program controls. Established mixed classes within the same graduate program likely have their stable student patterns. If you are teaching such a class for the first time, it is a good idea to talk to your colleagues who have taught it before and ask them about what types of students to expect. Newly offered mixed classes have yet unknown patterns and thus they will certainly create more uncertainties and stress for the instructors – and not just for the novice instructors. Luckily, graduate programs can proactively develop certain program controls over the mixed classes. 

I did not set a goal of learning about program controls over the mixed classes for this Hub project. However, here are three real-life examples of program controls that my colleagues from graduate programs at University of Michigan-Dearborn shared. First, course prerequisite requirements can be introduced to limit the range of undergraduate students allowed to enroll in the mixed class to upper-level students only. Second, the number of the enrolled undergraduate students can be capped. Third, the program can restrict the number of mixed classes that graduate students may count towards their Master’s degree requirements. “No controls” is an option too but it is a risky one if the program skipped the discussion of the pedagogical aspects of the mixed classes when deciding to launch such classes. It is easy for the program to ignore the pedagogy when the decision is chiefly driven by administrative reasons (and I have not heard of any program that would start offering the mixed classes for purely pedagogical reasons). It is not uncommon for higher education institutions to have policies about their mixed classes. For example, George Mason University has detailed guidelines on its “cross-level listed” undergraduate/graduate courses. In the absence of such university policies – which is the case of University of Michigan-Dearborn and of the greatest majority of universities – graduate programs would benefit from finding the time to discuss the pedagogy of the mixed classes and would avoid some challenges if sufficient administrative resources to managing them are allocated on a regular basis.

Besides the variation in program controls among different programs, those departments having more than one graduate program may have different policies for different programs due to external professional certification standards that impose stricter rules on mixed classes. Therefore, prior to launching their mixed classes, graduate programs must double check what external accreditation or professional requirements and best practices exist in relation to the mixed classes.  

Tools used to teach the mixed classes

When asked about how they teach the mixed classes, the instructors told me that they include additional learning objectives, grading scales, reading materials, and assignments for the graduate students. The instructors also expect more from the graduate students in terms of understanding complex concepts, doing more advanced analytical work, and applying theory to practice. However, it is impossible to have completely different syllabi for the grad and undergrad students in the same class. Therefore, the choice of specific tools to differentiate graduate-level assignments can be a matter of compromise between your ideals of graduate education and the reality of teaching a mixed class. 

Below is the list of common assignments in mixed classes:

  • Mandatory readings for everyone. More pages of readings per week and/or extra readings for the graduate students. Some of those readings are optional for the undergraduate students and marked by an asterisk in the syllabus. 
  • Homework assignments for the grads are completely different or have more questions. Some of those assignments are based on videos that only graduate students must watch. 
  • Research papers are for the graduate students only, exams are for the undergraduate students only. 
  • Graduate students have an extra group project which they must present to the entire class. 
  • Graduate students teach a short portion of the class and/or facilitate a discussion. To prepare for their teacher/facilitator role, graduate students have additional course meetings with the instructor. 
  • Graduate students have a day-off on the day the undergraduate students are writing their exam. 

Two teaching strategies in the mixed classes are differentiation and integration

One simple piece of advice to anyone teaching a mixed class for the first time is differentiate as much as you can and then integrate as much as you can. You start with the differentiation strategy by selecting a few tools from the assignment toolbox above. Not differentiating enough devalues graduate education. On the other hand, too much differentiation might hurt your graduate students. Depending on the specific student mix, your differentiation can look very differently in different mixed classes. For example, most of your undergraduate students are major students enrolled in this upper-level class after they have taken several foundational and/or related courses. In contrast, your graduate students are mostly working professionals taking your class as an elective; they have only a basic knowledge in your subject area, took one or two relevant classes many years ago, and they generally value applied knowledge over theoretical knowledge or academic skills such as data analysis or citations. In this case, one extra assignment for the graduate students could draw on the same course material that the undergraduate students master but the graduate students must apply that material to their main field of study or their work experience in such a way that the disciplinary boundaries are productively crossed. You might call this assignment “reflection” and end up having the same assignments for both grads and undergrads but the questions, requirements and expectations for the reflection assignment will be different for each student group. I was told that reflection can be used as part of the broader “ungrading” instructional approach. I have not used ungrading and thus cannot comment on it. However, some instructors use it successfully and I hope it has captured your curiosity and you will explore on your own how it could fit into  mixed classes. 

The integration strategy comes after differentiation. It is best to create maximum opportunities for the grads and the undergrads to interact and work together in the classroom. Many students bring their misconceptions to the mixed classes: graduate students may look down at the undergrads and may believe that the undergrads worry too much about the grades while the undergrads can be intimidated by more mature graduate students. Such misconceptions result in student isolation if the integration strategy is underused. Integration techniques are much trickier compared to differentiation techniques. To use them effectively, you must first learn about and then build on your students’ strengths. For example, graduate students are usually more engaged in the classroom and it is natural to use them as ad hoc “teaching assistants” or to formally assign them facilitator roles, such as leading an online discussion forum. Graduate students will appreciate this extra opportunity to build their leadership skills and it will help them establish rapport with the undergrads. Another idea is to have some group projects which are structured by the instructor around mixed teams, such as when one graduate and two undergraduate students are paired to do lab work. When graduate students start sharing their knowledge and experience in small groups some synergies can naturally emerge that contribute to integration. Ideally, graduate students empower and serve as role models for the undergraduate students. Some undergrads may even decide to pursue graduate studies and so your mixed class can become a small pipeline for your graduate program. 

Concluding thoughts

Depending on the specific mix of students in your class, teaching a mixed class can be more or less challenging. Without exceptions, there will be more work compared to your other purely graduate or purely undergraduate classes. It can be much more work. The intellectual challenges can be motivating and rewarding too if you enter those classes without rigid and preconceived ideas about the students. I want to praise the efforts of those instructors who teach mixed classes. I especially thank those six faculty members at University of Michigan-Dearborn who found time to talk to me and were kind enough to share their experience with mixed classes. This blog post summarizes their experience. I hope you will find it useful. 

Photo by Lucas Miguel on Unsplash

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