by Jade Fostvedt, Chemistry
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2020
“Does anyone know the d-electron count for this iron complex?” My question was met with nervous stares and silence from the 30 students in the lecture hall. “Anyone?” No response. “Anyone?” After a painful few minutes, I answered my own question and moved on. This excruciating exercise was repeated during subsequent office hours and review sessions. I was astonished; This was an upper-division, majors-only chemistry course. I thought the students would be more engaged! Twice a week, I devised challenging problems and worked through them at the board in the front of the lecture hall. I frequently asked for student input, and occasionally a student would kindly oblige me with an answer. The underlying issue was the format of my office hours, which implied to the students that I had all of the knowledge and that the students were merely in the room to sponge up the information I shared with them. Ultimately, this resulted in a very one-sided classroom environment, with the students as passive learners. To shake things up, I decided to make a dramatic change in my teaching.
I stopped working through problems for the students. I answered their questions with questions of my own. I refused to give them quick answers to their questions. Instead, I turned the whiteboard over to the students and encouraged them to brainstorm solutions together. I physically flipped the classroom; I sat in a desk while students commanded the board. From the back of the room, I quietly guided their thinking, gently correcting when the students got off track, and celebrating with the group when they arrived at the right answer. In short, I facilitated a collaborative and active learning environment, with the students as leaders.
The format of my office hours enabled the students to explore their thinking. There are many ways to solve a problem in science – routes to correct answers can be as diverse as the students themselves. I emphasized this to my students and encouraged them to utilize their preferred learning styles when answering a problem. For example, I was teaching the students about group theory, a mathematical method used to characterize and understand molecules based on their symmetry. Solving problems can be approached in two ways: mathematically or spatially. I was transparent with my students and confessed that my ability to solve problems mathematically was weak. Ultimately, the mathematically-minded students stepped in and became my teachers, showing me and the other students how to work through the proofs. What a transformation from my one-sided lectures early in the semester!
After these changes, my review sessions and office hours felt more like a conversation among peers than a one-sided ordeal to be endured. Attendance and participation reached an all-time high. The students were more confident and outgoing, and they genuinely seemed to be having fun during office hours. Student evaluations provided further confirmation that this change was for the best. “She creates an inquiry-oriented classroom where the students learn to answer their own questions,” commented one student. At the end of the semester, the students who regularly attended office hours scored roughly 10 percent higher on the final exam than their peers who did not attend. Bolstered by this success, I applied the same format to my office hours the next time I taught an upper-division chemistry course. Again, the attendance and reviews were positive. These experiences taught me that learning is more effective when students are given autonomy, elevating them from students to scholars. By flipping my office hours, learning became a collaborative process that the students and I undertook together.