Learning about Effective Active Teaching Techniques from a Chemistry Professor

*Disclaimer: This blog post should have been written two weeks ago*

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending “Creating Effective Active Learning Environment in Large (and Small) Lecture Classes presented by Dr. George Stanley of LSU.

In his presentation he gave some excellent tips and techniques that anyone teaching a STEM and non-STEM courses can use to increase student success.

I was excited to sit in his presentation and have many of the same techniques I use in my courses justified and shown as effective in his course.

First off, if you ever have the opportunity to see Dr. Stanley present you will immediately notice his enthusiasm for both chemistry and student success. Anyone who teaches knows that if you are not excited about the topic there is no way you can get your students excited.

Some of the techniques Dr. Stanley uses are the following:

No Text Books!

Rather Dr. Stanley provides a full copy of lecture notes at the beginning of the course electronically for FREE or students can purchase inexpensive printed copy of the lecture notes. He also provides 2 years of homework, exam questions and associated answer keys. Now I know for my new instructors that is intimidating. If you can’t afford to give up a test bank you can at least provide example homework and exam questions in your lecture notes and review sessions. Most students don’t purchases textbooks these days and in many general education and introduction level course we are working towards OERs


Study Groups

Students choose their study groups consisting of 2-6 students (depending on class size) based on the choosing of a specific element. As a cell and molecular biology professor I would use cellular organelles. On the first day of class students pick up an element and find others who chose the same element. Those are the folks they can do homework problems with in the course as well as in class assignments/questions. Students must turn in their own handwritten homework assignment but are welcomed to work together. This helps cut down on student anxiety as they get to work in groups for in course problem sets or assignments. It also helps create classroom community.

Daily in class single – question quiz

Dr. Stanley gives out a single question quiz in EVERY class. This promotes attendance and attention in the course. These quizzes count for 10-15% of the student’s grade. When asked what he does with excused absences he simply won’t count that quiz for that student that day rather than try to get folks to make it up. These quizzes are low stakes but gives both the professor and student immediate feedback on their understanding of the topic. I personally like to keep my students on their toes and give out weekly quizzes in my courses. These questions are usually very short and require some sort of explanation to allow me to understand my students thought process behind their answer. These quizzes are taken as individuals not in a group.

Essay style questions

Dr. Stanley and I both use this technique of providing mixed question type exams. Dr. Stanley who teaches chemistry uses essay style questions to have his students justify their answers. This can also be used in statistics, math courses and other courses where many questions are mathematical. You can also have students justify why they picked a particular multiple choice answer to give the professor insight into the student’s thought process but also allows the student to explain the various concepts they have mastered while studying for your exam.

Weave the relevancy of of the key concepts into all lectures

This should be a no brainer, but for some of us this is tough especially when teaching the 100 level welcome to (insert subject name here). The worst thing you can say to me while teaching is “Why do we need to know this?” Dr. Stanley recommends that you provide a story line to let the student know where you have been, where you are going and how it all fits together. This helps students piece together the various concepts they are mastering. I personally like to use current events, various health issues/diseases, and “phenomenons” that we observe in our daily lives to bring various concepts home.

Other techniques

  • Dr. Stanley has open office hours and 1-2 help sessions before each test
    • I give my students options for help sessions and have posted office hours but will always make time for a student who requests to meet during other times of the week
  • Lecture demonstrations to reinforce key concepts and show how fun the reality of chemistry is in action
    • Many courses I teach have a lab section and feel that many concepts can be demonstrated in the lab however you can create some fantastic activities and demonstrations without chemical reactions
  • Dr. Stanley provides science outreach opportunities for his students to earn extra credit and experience teaching and performing chemistry demonstrations for K-12 students in the community
    • This is a win win for both K-12 students and college students! K-12 students get to experience science from a young hip college student who looks and sounds like them. The college student must master a concept to teach and provide a hands on demonstration. It might also help a chemistry student realize their potential as a science teacher.

Overall Dr. Stanley’s presentation was an excellent reminder of how we can all incorporate active learning activities and increase student success in any courses we are teaching.

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