We talked a little bit in class this week about professors that have successfully engaged their students in a lecture setting and found ways to “reach them” with the subject material. Coming from a chemistry background, I am trying to think of ways of keeping students engaged in classes like organic and analytical chemistry. At some point, students need to just sit down and read the book. However, I believe we can do better in the classrooms where these subjects are taught.
I am in a class right now with a really great professor. In this class, we are learning the causes of air pollution and ways of mitigating it. I have been in similar classes before with similar subject material and every time, the time spent in class has been dull. It’s always been very passive learning on the part of the students with the professor talking at the class and doing little to engage them. But this professor is different. During class, she finds ways of working in current news topics, discussing public resources on air quality, and gives time to work on problems in class. These pieces of the lecture make the material real for students and break up the dense and monotonous 1.5-hour lecture that would typically be definitions, equations, and material.
All of this is to say that we can do better. While at some point, students need to sit down and learn the material by reading and practicing, lecturers need to get students to care. This can be done by making the material hit home, having them do problems so they feel like they have a starting point on the homework, or breaking up the lecture into different pieces. to keep them engaged.
But what about classes like organic chemistry. There aren’t many current news articles on topics related to organic chemistry meaning that they probably can’t engage students with current happenings this subject area. However, I have a few ideas that can make these lectures less excruciating. It may require that the professor get creative and even cover less material. But, would it be worth it if the averages on the exams were higher than 55%? Which is unacceptable in my opinion. No matter how you spin it, the professor is at fault. Either they aren’t teaching, they aren’t engaging, or their exams don’t match the level they are teaching. Anyway…, these professors can break up the class with problems, have students do intermittent presentations on reaction mechanisms, do small (and contained!) experiments followed by a discussion of what happened, or even do a one-day field trip to a chemical plant or lab. If I may add, my professor did none of this while I was in chemistry and the exam averages were definitely a 55% or lower! Was it the students or the professor? We’ll never know.
This may also be an issue for classes in the humanities. I have taken few classes in the humanities but for the ones I have taken, professors fill class time lecturing at students rather than letting them interact with the material. Lecturers teaching these classes can probably work in discussions or student presentations or maybe even field trips. While most professors feel pressured to cover as much material as possible in a semester, what good is it if students only take home 20% of it? It’s almost better to slow down and find ways to engage students. It will be less of a waste of the professors time and less excruciating for the students.