Searching for the ‘Big Picture’

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Ladan Foose, Chemical Engineering

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008

Like drinking from a fire hose: having been a chemical engineering undergraduate myself, and having taught chemical engineering undergraduates, I know how apt that expression is. I have experienced how frustrating it is to feel no connection to the seemingly abstract and endless equations strewn on a blackboard. To understand this, it is important to sketch first a basic picture of how courses in our discipline are often (but not always) structured. During lecture, students frantically copy copious amounts of equations into their notebooks, rarely raising their hands to ask questions. Absent are lively discussions and debates that engage the imagination. In discussion section, graduate students instructors are often asked to cover material that would not fit into the lectures that week, or the section turns into an extended office hour that addresses only homework problems. The result is that undergraduates rarely get an opportunity to actually discuss and “digest” the concepts they’ve already learned before new material is introduced. This dilemma manifested itself in the comments from many students in my class that there was too much material. I also realized that students had difficulty understanding the crucial “big picture” of the course and didn’t see links between the topics in the course. Thinking of each new differential equation as a discrete bundle rather than as building on previous material made many students feel overwhelmed. Not surprisingly, students began to conclude that the entire course (and even the major) was “over their heads.”

My goal was to figure out how to address this lack of “big picture” understanding in my sections and office hours, while still getting to the material I was asked to cover by the instructor and the many homework questions that the students had. My favorite tool is actually very simple. Some of my students call it “storybook time.” During this time, I open the notes I’ve taken in lecture and, with the students gathered around me, I begin at the earliest lecture in the term, talking about what the “big picture” is for the course. We talk about how each new set of equations is connected to the ones from earlier lectures, and how these new tools help us address broad and unique sets of problems. Like any good raconteur, I get my audience involved, urging them to fill in the blanks and explain how they think the story goes. It is incredibly exciting to see the students make those connections, and realize that the flow of the topics is not random after all! I believe that doing this throughout the term truly reinforces the key concepts for the students, and also helps them understand the thought process and knowledge flow in a discipline that is really quite lovely and logical.

One of the clearest assessments of how it has helped to build the “big picture” is the change in the types of questions and answers that the students have asked after the story session. Instead of asking only content or procedural questions, students began to question why we set up problems a certain way and how the inherent mathematical assumptions relate to the physics of the problem. In addition to asking questions directly to probe understanding, I further assess the success of that day’s storytelling by having the class do some role reversal, where students go up to the board and play professor. The class and the “professor” help set up problems together and outline the reasoning involved, as well as what interesting variations can arise in such problems. This gives me an additional opportunity to observe how students think about and approach problems in the absence of my guided instruction. These sessions are a tool for me to understand whether students have captured the interconnections between concepts that we discussed during “story time” and also where students are still having difficulty. By grafting new knowledge onto previous knowledge in the interactive storytelling process, I have discovered an enthusiasm for learning in my students and an enthusiasm for teaching in myself.