by Beatriz Brando, Chemistry (Home Department: Education)
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016
Chemistry 1AL, General Chemistry Lab for non-majors, is generally structured such that students attend a weekly one-hour lab lecture, a four-hour lab, and have the option to attend office hours with GSIs or a review session with the head GSI for extra help. Review sessions are meant for consolidating knowledge and helping students with content, but often end up as simply more streamlined versions of the lecture. Common strategies for review sessions are to lecture about topics considered challenging, or to show students how to solve difficult problems. Students are more often than not passive listeners and practice problems are usually completed independently. I had previously taught as the head GSI for Chemistry 1A and Chemistry 1AL and found myself frustrated with this structure of review session. Students were generally unengaged and attendance was poor with numbers ranging from 20 to 100 students in courses of 800 to 1200 students. I also found myself uncertain if there was a strong benefit for students attending the review session, other than the opportunity for a different style of lecturing.
Through my education classes and my own personal research, I had begun to learn more about active learning strategies and wondered if this had potential to improve how I ran review sessions. The challenge, however, was determining how these strategies could be applied to a larger lecture environment with hundreds of students. I received some clues while attending a talk about Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). The researcher talked about strategies for MOOCs, but also how these strategies could be applied to larger classroom environments. Specific strategies included keeping all lecture components short and interspersing the lectures with group worthy problems to encourage student engagement and integration of knowledge.
Based on this talk and what I’d previously learned about active learning, I decided to completely restructure my review sessions to center on group work. Rather than simply talking about important topic areas or discussing how to solve problems, I decided to select important topics and develop challenging problems that would probe student knowledge and understanding of them. Students were encouraged to work in groups and then we discussed the answers as a class. I developed short lectures to follow up on these topics and expanded as needed based on the responses and questions I received during the review session. These sessions allowed me to concretely link topics to problems and probe general student understanding of them. It also provided students opportunities to teach each other during group work, and to critique their own understanding and therefore ask better questions.
The first evidence I had that my review session redesign was working was student attendance. Rather than the 20 to 100 students I had previously seen at my review sessions I now had hundreds of students attending, in some cases filling all the chairs. It proved difficult to directly assess the effect of my review sessions on student grades since attendance was not taken. However I decided to evaluate the success of my review sessions based on my instructor evaluations. Student were overwhelmingly positive about me as an instructor and in particular my review sessions. Students described finding them helpful and approachable. Some students even claimed that they had learned more at my review sessions than in the rest of the course. Restructuring my review sessions changed the way I approach teaching. My students enjoyed being active participants in their learning, and I enjoyed seeing my students engaged and appreciated the opportunity to connect with them, even in a large lecture hall.