by Christiane Stachl, Chemistry
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016
I was a graduate student instructor for Chemistry 4A in fall 2015, and I have to say that the general chemistry courses at Berkeley are anything but a joke. For example, Chem 4A is intended for chemistry majors with a strong background in the subject. Yet, there is a huge disparity in the amount of chemistry knowledge these students have before beginning their undergraduate career. Additionally, the course moves at an astonishingly fast pace, leaving most students feeling overwhelmed and unsure that they can pass the course.
The students enrolled in Chem 4A also have to attend weekly laboratory sessions, in which they carry out experiments that will acquaint them with basic chemistry lab skills. While the concept of having a mandatory lab component is great, it actually seemed to serve as an additional source of stress for the students, mainly because the lab concepts did not always line up with the material that was being covered in lecture on any given week. Thus, most of the students felt as if they were taking two separate classes, which made the lab portion of the course seem less valuable than it really was.
In order to deal with these issues, I began handing out a 3×5 notecard to each student at the start of every lab section and had them write something they found particularly confusing about the lab procedure or pre-lab, or something that seemed irrelevant about the lab in relation to that week’s lectures. Then, right before the students left at the end of the lab period, I told them to use the other side of the same 3×5 notecard to write whether their knowledge of what they wrote earlier had changed or not. They handed their notecards to me before leaving the room that day.
We did this during every lab period over the duration of the semester, and I used their feedback to prepare for my office hours that week and to modify my next pre-lab lecture (which was usually devoted to explaining the purpose of an experiment, demonstrating techniques, and discussing potential issues and chemical waste disposal). I devoted two to three minutes of every pre-lab lecture to relating the chemistry of that day’s experiment to a concept covered in lecture and also to an every-day process, so that the laboratory concepts would seem more important and relevant to my students. Additionally, although the length of our lab periods was not enough to dedicate time to reviewing lecture material, I told my students that I would spend half of my office hours addressing the common issues they had written down on their notecards that week.
The outcome of this was extremely high attendance at my office hours — on average, about half of my students attended. Having so many students in my office hours also helped foster a comfortable and inclusive learning space, in which the majority of my students became very comfortable asking me detailed questions and telling me explicitly which lab and lecture concepts they were struggling with. Additionally, they were not afraid to participate in group discussions and actively think about the material I presented to them.
This assessment technique allowed me to attune my style of teaching during lab and office hours to match my students’ needs and learning preferences effectively. By the end of the semester, most of my students had told me they enjoyed how the notecard activity made them actively aware of whether they had learned in lab or not, and motivated them to ask me and their peers very pin-pointed questions during my office hours. Overall, I also received excellent feedback from my mid-term and final teaching evaluations. They confirmed that my way of adapting my teaching to my students’ learning preferences based on their feedback was effective in enhancing their motivation for the course and maximizing the amount of knowledge they took away from Chem 4A.