“I’ll never use this stuff again, I just want to be a doctor.”
I love chemistry, and think learning it is fascinating- but many students who take my classes don’t feel the same way- and that's fine. Many of them have been taught chemistry (and other sciences) as a stale display of facts they have to memorize, rather than a living discipline that they can take part in. This feeling is complicated by my classes (general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry) being requirements that student's take because they have to- not always because they want to. Whether it’s for a professional school prerequisite or a degree requirement, a lot of students come into my class viewing it as a road-block they have to get past before they can do what they are really interested in. One of my primary goals, then, is to help students see how what they’re learning applies to their future goals. To make this work, I have to get to know my students personally, so as we learn material I can point out individually how it applies. I do this through a beginning of the semester survey, that I can follow up on through conversations at the start of class or during office hours.
My start of the semester survey asks students to tell me about themselves. I ask about their long-term career goals, favorite things they’ve learned in other classes, and at least 3 things they’re hoping to learn in my class. The next class, we discuss how different portions of the course will apply to students with different interests. If a large portion of the students are interested in something I wasn’t planning to cover, I try to re-arrange the schedule to add it in. One of my favorite examples of this was in introductory biochemistry. A number of my students were interested in medicinal chemistry and pharmaceuticals, so after we covered metabolism I added a lecture applying what we’d been learning to how our bodies process medicine. I can’t always add new topics, but I can point out in class material that specifically applies to a student’s future goals, which helps cement both the relevance of what we’re learning and underscore that I care about each student as an individual.
“I’m just not good at chemistry.”
A lot of students struggle with negative pre-conceptions of their own abilities. Early in their schooling, they may have been told that they are bad at science. Worse yet, they are bombarded with societal notions that they won’t succeed because of gender, ethnicity, or some other factor. These feelings about their own ability can be immensely difficult to shake, and a student’s belief in their ability to succeed is crucial to their actual success. Compounding these feelings are students’ expectations of enhanced difficulty in many chemistry classes (especially organic chemistry), coupled with a feeling that they need to excel or all of their future goals won't work out. Thus, another of my primary goals is to focus on helping my students develop confidence in their ability to succeed, which is accomplished by building supportive relationships with my students. They have to be comfortable with me and know I believe in their abilities and am there to support them in their learning.
For many students, approaching faculty members for help is daunting and uncomfortable. For students who may already doubt their abilities, the possibility that I might be upset or dismissive is too much of a risk, and the benefits of coming to my office hours don’t seem to outweigh it. To help counter, this, I require students come to my office to pick up their first test in person. When students come to my office, it gives me a chance to help them go through the test in a positive light- we can focus on where they did well, and come up with strategies for areas they can improve in. This helps them see me as a supportive and encouraging influence, as well as modeling a growth mindset by helping them focus on improvement rather than what they did wrong.
“But I did all of the old tests and homework, and the questions on the test didn’t even look familiar!”
It's easy to fall back on rote memorization and algorithmic approaches to problem solving, rather than building from a conceptual understanding to apply prior knowledge to new challenges. Moreover, there can be a strong association of speed and ease of recall with innate ability, which makes it feel like taking more time or struggling with a new topic means you can’t succeed. Accordingly, effective teaching needs to help students find new ways to approach classwork in a way that emphasizes learning rather than skill, and helps them see the benefit of “difficult” learning. To help students in this area, I incorporate three cognitive science principles into my classes- interleaving material, regular recall exercises, and a focus on integration of material.
Interleaving topics fits particular well into a chemistry course, since new material both builds on basic principles and reinforces earlier concepts through new examples and applications. Within a class, I find breaking up a topic over two consecutive days helps students retain the material. Rather than introducing a new concept at the beginning of a class, I introduce it at the end and then return to it the next session. This gives students an initial structure that they can fill in with material from readings, and helps them practice recall by pulling that material out during the second class. This principle also applies really well between lectures and labs. For instance, in my organic lecture and lab courses, some topics are covered first in lecture and then applied in the lab, but especially at the beginning of the semester, labs can be conceptually ahead of the lecture giving students a first brush with a topic that they then cover in more detail later in the semester during the class.
Another strategy I use is regular recall exercises that take the form of low-stakes quizzes and opening/closing questions for a class. By starting the class with an opening question on the board, I encourage students to focus their thoughts as they sit down and set up for the class. Sometimes the question is on a topic from earlier in the semester, and sometimes it’s a leading question based on what we will be covering later in the day. Closing questions at the end of the class help me get a feel for what students got from the class, so I can go back and clear up misconceptions when we meet next. I like to have students write answers for closing questions on index cards and in their notes- the index cards are handed in to me so I have something to review, and the answers in their notes give them something concrete from the day’s work to focus on as they study.
Finally, I feel that the integration of topics is something that’s all too easy for students to miss, both between classes and within a course. In biochemistry, for example, most enzymatic mechanisms we cover are modifications of something they already know from organic chemistry- but the setting is different, and it’s hard for them to see how it fits into what they already know. Asking how they would perform a transformation in organic chemistry before working through the enzyme catalyzed strategy helps students cement that connection. Integration is also important in metabolic biochemistry- the individual pathways are relatively easy for students to grasp, but seeing how they all fit together is a lot more difficult. To help students see the connections, my last week of class focuses just on integration. In one exercise during that week, I divide students up into small group with a poster board and metabolic cycle. They spend half the class drawing out their metabolic pathway and detailing control points, and then we come back together as a whole class to see how the cycles integrate by mapping the connections between each group.
Ultimately, not every one of my students will love chemistry and master the material, but it is my hope that I set up a classroom experience that helps them to finish the semester more interested, more confident in their abilities, and with a better understanding of how chemistry fits into their lives and careers than when they started.