A Voice in the Sciences

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Ryan Steele, Chemistry

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007

The Problem: The fields of chemistry and physics are often portrayed with static equations and a barrage of mathematics. Certainly some truth exists in this portrayal, and a proper education must fundamentally prepare students for these aspects. A scientist’s professional life, however, includes dynamic verbal exchanges, which require the ability to cogently and rapidly express both conceptual and mathematical ideas.

Simply put, preparation for this aspect of a career in the sciences is wholly absent in graduate courses. The lecture-homework-exam format, though functional, leaves no opportunity for verbal “performance.” A chemistry graduate student could quite literally complete one or two years of coursework without saying a word . . . until oral qualifying exams, of course. From a student development perspective, this silent treatment of the sciences presents long-term career ramifications as well as a more immediate impediment to learning. From a teaching perspective, the silence leaves misconceptions hidden and unaddressed.

Such was the state of affairs during my own graduate courses and when I began work as the GSI for Chemistry 221B, graduate-level Quantum Mechanics. The students were initially completely silent and, as I soon discovered, were using this silence to hide several fundamental misconceptions.

Solution and Implementation: I therefore began once-a-week, hour-long, voluntary sessions between the graduate students and myself. The conference room where we held the sessions was large enough to hold the five to twenty students who attended on a given week, yet intimate enough to hold a discussion, not a lecture. Each week I prepared a worksheet of simple problems covering topics and misconceptions I discovered in lecture or office hours. The ground rules were simple: no discussion of the course’s official homework problems was allowed, and the students were to do the talking. I would start the sessions, serve in the role of moderator, and provide feedback in the form of identifying mistakes. Otherwise, the students were speaking and working through problems on the marker board. Guided by similarities to English Language Learners’ pedagogy, I realized that they must be allowed to make mistakes and have those mistakes corrected in a productive manner.

The basic implementation issues were straightforward. Each week I had to prepare the session’s material, which involved the construction of appropriate problems, focusing on potential misconceptions. However, two unforeseen implementation problems required the most focus and were the most crucial to the project’s success:

  1. The students had to undergo a transformation that allowed them to make mistakes in front of me and in front of their peers. The natural resistance to this transformation is difficult to overstate; nerves and ego are a difficult combination to battle. My first technique to effect this change was to simply call on specific students to perform the problems on the marker board. When combined with my guiding commentary, though, and presenting mistakes as a learning opportunity, voluntary participation began to increase. Additionally, allowing the students to work in pairs for five minutes before presenting the material in front of the rest of the group greatly increased their comfort with the problems and their willingness to participate.
  2. I had to humbly undergo a transformation that allowed me to let the students’ discussion guide the session. Frankly, I had to shut up. Letting students speak and make mistakes does not mean conceding control of the classroom or the teacher’s sense of authority. Admittedly, this approach is more difficult. I would often slip back into lecture mode. Any time I caught myself lecturing, though, I forced myself to turn the next thought into a question. If I could elicit the same material through their mouths and eliminate mistakes along the way, the session was much more successful than any lecture I could have prepared.

Assessment: Quantitative assessment of such a program is difficult, but qualitative feedback was essentially built into the structure of the sessions. Each mistake made — and corrected — in front of the group was an indication that the sessions were working. Continued voluntary participation, even after fifteen weeks, was an obvious indication that the students valued the sessions. Assessment of the students’ progress, however, was the main focus. In individual students, the willingness to participate became a strong indicator of comfort with the material. Not all students reached this point. A few remained quiet or stopped attending, and, sadly, it was these students who performed worst in the course. The ones who were initially quiet, however, received most of my focus and made great strides, in both participation and performance in the rest of the course. Those who still attended but remained silent later confided that the sessions were still valuable because they saw other students’ mistakes.

The students who attended the extra sessions became much more fluent in “speaking chemistry” and were able to demonstrate by the end of the semester that they could think on the fly in front of a critiquing audience. Course evaluations, discussions with students, and unsolicited e-mails all confirmed that the sessions were worthwhile. The common theme among these reviews was that the presentation style (student inquiry and performance) actually provided more learning than the lectures, despite the inevitable presentation of less subject matter.