by Suzanne Blum, Chemistry
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004
During 2002, I served as the GSI in Chemistry 113, an upper-level undergraduate chemistry course. During my first week, I realized that the students were not yet able to make the connection between what they were learning in the course and the bigger picture of professional chemical research. In particular, questions that the students asked about the practical aspects of carrying out reactions in the laboratory showed that they were not aware of how chemists applied these reactions and concepts to real research problems. A unique aspect of my situation was that I was teaching with a new professor, Professor F. Dean Toste, who was designing his course from the ground up. Fortunately, he was interested in discussing and providing opportunities for me to incorporate my teaching ideas into the course. I therefore had an opportunity to directly address the student skill deficiency mentioned above.
In designing my approach, I adapted a model from chemistry courses that I took as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, which discussed examples from the current chemical literature. I incorporated current literature into two lectures that I designed and presented to the class, as well as into problem sets and exam questions, thereby initiating student discussion about real research advances. The inclusion of unabridged current literature papers into undergraduate course problem sets was a new idea to Professor Toste. This led to a productive mentor-mentee relationship, where after I participated in the course, he and I would discuss the outcome and make adjustments to our future presentations of the material based on what had or had not been successful.
For example, I designed one group of problem sets by first selecting a recent synthesis paper from the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the premier journal in our field, and then giving that paper to the students to read, along with a set of questions intended to exercise their ability to make connections between the material in the paper and that in their lecture notes. During the two lectures that I designed and presented, I solicited student hypotheses about the meaning of the results described in the paper and of related examples from the literature. As our discussions progressed, the students mentioned that they now understood why a problem like the one in the literature might be interesting. In addition, students asked many practical questions, such as why the authors ran reactions at certain temperatures, and why certain reactions required the addition of acids, bases, or metal salts. Several students told me that, as they began to solve the problems and participate in office-hour discussions, they were surprised to find they could understand the material in this advanced context. Watching the students function at this higher level as a response to the literature-based material was an exciting process for me as their teacher. Assessment of this literature-based approach involved regular discussions with Professor Toste, as mentioned above, as well as discussions with the students, evaluation of their performance on exams, and analysis of their course evaluations. Students responded that being able to understand literature problems built their confidence in the material and increased their ability to see the big picture. On a midterm exam, one question asked students to design an experiment as if they were laboratory researchers. A correct answer required both an underlying understanding of the chemistry and an ability to apply it practically. Students performed unusually well on this question. In the course evaluations, one student expressed appreciation for how the course “linked the material to real life,” and another for how it “showed people how to use chemistry rather than teaching it as an abstract concept.” Due to its success, I plan to use this literature-based approach in future courses that I teach, and the professor plans to make this a regular part of the course. Furthermore, the professor has decided to provide similar mentorship relationships for teaching assistants in his future courses.