Chemistry is colorful, odiferous, fast or slow, explosive, fiery, hot or cold, tactile. It is related in wonderful ways to almost everything that is tangible, and it happens everywhere! Everyone can have a fun time with chemistry! There are so many “why’s?” that can be answered when you know just a little bit of chemistry. That chemistry has all these wonderful characteristics implies that it would be an easy sell. But that has not proven to be the case. At the college level, many students take chemistry courses because they have to…because it is a “requirement for their major”. It is often perceived to be an unpleasant but required obstacle to their future goals. So how does one get past this, so that the wonders of the subject can be conveyed to students?
I have found in my own experience that there are certain prime conditions that are conducive to learning, regardless of the nature of the subject matter. These prerequisites are particularly important for subjects like chemistry, where there may be mental blocks to learning. Interestingly, the prime learning conditions have nothing to do with chemistry per se. Chemistry’s bad reputation has much less to do with the subject matter, and more to do with the environment in which it is often taught, the mode of its delivery, and attitude of the deliverer. What one has to accomplish as a teacher is a “safe learning environment”.
My teaching philosophy is based on the premise that for a student to learn some chemistry, they need to care to learn chemistry. Caring does not mean that they will want to major in it, or even that they will pass the course. It does mean that they will want to come to class because they will definitely learn something very fascinating that they can share with people they know, or use themselves. It also means that they will come to class because they are assured that their spirits will be uplifted, and that at some point during the lecture, they are likely to smile or even laugh. After all, chemistry can also be very funny. The cultivation of the attribute of ‘caring to learn’ occurs only in safe environments. I have found that safety is generated through:
1. clear articulation of goals and expectations
2. validation of student fears and concerns
3. acknowledgement of the challenges of the subject matter
4. adoption of a non-patronizing attitude
5. the practice of truthfulness
6. a perpetual show of genuine respect
7. maintenance of high standards
8. a smiling and reassuring face
9. enthusiasm on the part of the instructor
10. being mindful of the influence that background cultural differences has on learning styles
Once the safe environment is created, the students become comfortable enough to forget themselves and their fears, and then they start to really hear and see what is going on. This is followed by a sense of wonderment, and a recognition of the patterns of chemistry that are so crucial to developing an understanding of the subject matter. In such an environment, students freely ask questions, and start to discover some of the numerous interesting problems that remain to be solved.
The aforementioned factors that I feel contribute to a safe learning environment are, for the most part, ‘intangibles’. I have found that it is also important to be well prepared, and be receptive to newer more student friendly ways of conveying information, whether it be in the form of web accessible tools, or increasing the number of ways in which a difficult concept can be explained. Among other things, I have found the following to enhance and facilitate the learning experience of students:
1. providing online access to lecture notes, course syllabi, class announcements etc.
2. giving students access to me via e-mail, and responding to their questions and concerns promptly
3. breaking the lecture period up so that ample time is provided for solving chemistry problems in class, with every third lecture being devoted to problem solving
4. constantly demonstrating the relevance of chemical principles to real life situations
5. giving importance to student responses on entrance and exit questionnaires that are provided at the beginning and end of the semester respectively
6. giving students access to tutorials and self tests
I consider assessment of student performance to be a critical aspect of teaching. I insist on excellence. I believe that it is absolutely essential that the methods used to assess students are honest and fair, and that they not change from semester to semester. I apply an absolute scale, and I do not ‘grade on a curve’. On the first day of class, students are provided with the scale in the course syllabus, and this allows them to assess their performance at any point in the semester, regardless of the performance of the other students in the class, or other students who have taken or will take the class.
Through my service as a teacher, particularly at the undergraduate level, I have had the good fortune of having numerous rewarding experiences mentoring talented and culturally diverse students. I encourage those who are interested to do hands on laboratory research, and the results have been very fruitful. Most of these students go on to high profile institutions for graduate (or medical) school. They often have worked well and conscientiously enough to be co-authors on peer-reviewed publications, and several of them have won national awards based upon the work they conducted in the lab. To date, I have mentored 14 undergraduate students, and I look forward to continuing these productive collaborations.
Although mastery of the material is an obvious aim of the courses I teach, I feel that a successful semester of teaching is one in which I have learned something new about teaching, and the students have learned what questions to ask, how to reason analytically, and how to deductively reason through solving issues and problems, whether or not they pertain to chemistry.