Learning Why and not just How

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Anamika Chowdhury, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

“I practiced all the homework questions, attended all classes, and even went over lecture notes multiple times… still failed to score well. I give up!” I was rather perplexed to hear such distraught statements from several students in my discussion sections after the first midterm. Indeed, these were students who seemed to put in time and genuine effort to learn the subject. Alas! The output was not up to the mark. After having one-on-one conversations with some of them, I realized that an essential element of the learning process was missing—understanding the fundamentals and reasoning the approach, instead of just robotically or mechanically solving questions.

Transport and Separations Processes, a junior-year course for chemical engineering majors, addresses subjects of great practical relevance: common processes of both industrial and daily life. However, the course also involves a lot of intricate mathematics, which often overwhelms the students. Consequently, they tend to categorize questions on the basis of the mathematical approach instead of the underlying physical phenomenon. In their haste to solve questions, students often forget to understand the concepts and, thus, are unable to appreciate the wide-scale applicability of these classroom teachings. This further translates into poor performance on exams, where they easily fall prey to trick questions. Hence, the challenge was to help students build a physical intuition of the subject matter.

To address this, I introduced a ten-minute discussion session at the end of each section in which I presented a common daily experience related to the ongoing classroom topic and asked students to identify and explain all of the associated course-relevant processes. For example, I would ask: “What kind of transport processes are involved when you dip your tea-bag in hot water?” or “Why do you smell the perfume of the person sitting beside you?” I then listed the answers proposed by students on the board and invited everyone to deliberate upon them, interjecting only to moderate. The students were encouraged to answer one other and to reason the correct answers. At the end, I would post to our bCourses portal a summary of the discussion, along with correct answers, for the benefit of the entire class.

Additionally, I worked with other GSIs to distribute a survey to the class that invited them to list all of the topics they felt uncomfortable with. The survey was open throughout the semester. More importantly, the anonymity of the survey gave students a chance to ask anything, without any apprehensions about the triviality of their questions. We found the survey feedback extremely helpful in identifying difficult topics, and accordingly prepared more relevant and useful discussion lectures. Furthermore, the survey served as a continuous interaction platform between the GSIs and students.

The most pronounced indicators of the effectiveness of the aforementioned strategies was high attendance during discussion sections throughout the semester and constantly increasing class participation. To my surprise, I would often notice students from other discussion sections in my class, which was extremely motivating for me. The discussion sessions were particularly well-received. Not only would the students converse about the question presented by me, they frequently presented their own examples to highlight the relevant concepts. The class average improved by ten points in the second midterm, and several students mentioned that they felt more comfortable with the material. In addition, comments from student reviews—such as “I liked how you asked questions to the section for engagement” and “She was so helpful and answered all our questions and made us understand conceptually instead of just regurgitating information”—further indicated that students found the exercises to be helpful in promoting subject matter understanding.

Looking back, I realize that the discussion sessions were not only useful to students from a learning perspective, but helped me improve my own scientific communication skills. In the future, I hope to continue to utilize these methods.