Learning to teach

Self-motivation is the best tool

Dilit Paul | Professor of Chemistry

As a faculty member at Pittsburg State University it is my job to advance the university’s primary mission, which is focused on promoting excellence in education for all students. To achieve this objective in the Department of Chemistry, we attempt to provide a nurturing environment that is conducive for learning. Since chemistry is a subject many students find to be intimidating, it is essential that the environment does not reinforce this perception.

At the beginning of each semester, I place a high priority on developing open lines of communication between the students and myself. Learning each student’s name as well as learning a little about each person’s background and career interest is a first step toward achieving this objective. It is also important to let each student know that the learning process is a joint endeavor that involves myself as well as the student. At the same time, I stress the importance of self-motivation and its impact on learning. Since it is essential students know what is expected of them, they are provided with a comprehensive syllabus that outlines the topics that will be covered in the class as well as the learning objectives and learning outcomes.

I understand that there may be different types of learners (depending on students’ learning styles- visual, aural, verbal, kinesthetic etc.) in a classroom where chemistry concepts can be presented in a variety of ways to fulfill the needs of all students. As all classrooms are mediated with technology, I am able to use different presentation modes: Power-Point with fancy slides, animation for demonstrating reactions, traditional chalk-blackboard, and impromptu Internet access as needed for selecting and disseminating appropriate information.

To enhance the interest in a topic, I first try to discuss its relevance to society as well as its applications. For example, in discussing the problems based on stoichiometry and limiting reagents associated with chemical reactions I use a hamburger recipe as an analogy. For example “1 hamburger patty + 1 bun = 1 hamburger sandwich. This recipe is comparable to the balanced equation for a chemical reaction. This example indicates that in order to make a hamburger sandwich we need 1 bun. That means the stoichiometric ratio between the bun and hamburger sandwich is 1:1. This simple example easily illustrates how the difficult concept of “Stoichiometry and Limiting Reagents” can be taught in a simple way.

The use of technology in the classroom has become prevalent and in the chemistry department, we have implemented the use of online homework. Currently we are using “Smartwork” and “Sapling” in all general and organic chemistry classes. Online homework has the advantage of providing the students with immediate feedback as they attempt to solve problems as well as helpful hints if the student is unsuccessful in his/her initial attempt. It is like having a tutor by his/her side all the time. This is an extension of learning opportunities, not a displacement of, nor a substitute for, classroom instruction.

Chemistry is an experimental science, and we learn the theoretical and abstract concepts by doing experiments in labs. For that reason, our lecture and laboratory curriculum is integrated in such a way so the concepts students learn in the lecture class can be observed in the lab. This intertwined lecture-lab approach creates a very comfortable learning experience for all of our students. I remember last semester when I was teaching the concepts of the theory of reaction rates (i.e. how fast reactions proceed), I had a hard time explaining the rates of chemical reactions because the concept is inherently difficult. I tried to get the idea across by giving popular examples such as the speed of a car is analogous to the rates of reactions, where distance and time is needed to determine rate. However, during the same week we performed the “Iodine Clock” experiment, in which students determined the time needed to complete a reaction by observing the color change indicative of the completion of the reaction. Dividing the concentration of the exhausted reactant by the time needed to see the color change gives the rate of the reaction and students were pleasantly surprised to see that such a difficult concept can be easily understood through a simple experiment.

In summary, excellence in teaching from my perspective includes: (1) informing students on what they need to do to succeed in the course; (2) creating and maintaining the students’ self confidence by providing a caring and nurturing environment; (3) enhancing students’ interests in chemistry by linking chemistry concepts to real life applications; (4) strengthening students’ self-motivation and actively engaging them in the learning process; (5) varying my teaching methods, and (6) making myself accessible to the students. Finally, it gives me genuine pleasure to share my chemistry knowledge with my students because chemistry is so relevant to our everyday life.

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Learning is messy

Joey W. Pogue | Associate Professor of Communication

One of my first tasks when I get a new batch of students is to become acquainted with them usually by initiating the telling of stories. To do this I might say something like: “What is your major?” or “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Their answers to these initial questions lead to other stories, and new subjects are brought into the mix and a dialogic approach to the enlightenment process is established.  Besides getting to know my students as a group and as individuals, these narratives allow me to see how the world looks through their eyes. This interaction lasts for at least the course of a semester with some students and, for others who may choose to go to graduate school, lasts a period of several years. One irony that I always emphasize over and over to students is that, even though I am the teacher, students always seem to teach me more than I manage to teach them. I also tell them that I am actually curious about what it’s like to be them. “What’s it like to be 18, 19, or 20 years old, or a non-traditional student, in 2011?” I ask them. “It must be quite an adventure,” I marvel! With all the new tools they have to pursue enlightenment – computers, Gus, Angel, the Internet, smart phones, etc. – the very ground beneath their feet is constantly shifting.   “So, what’s it like?” – I ask them over and over. It’s hard for me to imagine.

As students tell me their stories, I reciprocate by telling some of my own. I have had a fairly interesting life and participated in a wide variety of professions before I became a teacher, which has given me some good stories to tell. As they listen to my recollected adventures, I want them to try and see the world through my eyes and I admit up front that my vision has its limitations. I even go so far as to tell them that I am going to need their help in minding and maintaining the relational knowledge we will pursue. Finally, I try to convey the idea that my classes are not a place where they can indulge in what I call a fill-in-the-blank mentality. As we study communication phenomena, we are going to look at some pretty “messy stuff.” As we investigate this “stuff,” there may not be a “right” or “wrong” answer for the problems we investigate. Nevertheless, I tell them that there is a proper degree of engagement which they will be expected to maintain. And, with this engagement, issues of a more personal nature are going to, inevitably, be brought into the mix.

I see my pedagogical methods as a moving target. However, as the ground shifts beneath our feet and technology alters the nature of the interactions professors and students share, some constants remain – constants I experienced as a student in the 1960s that mirror the constants students experience today. What are these constants? First, life is subjective and, at times, it can be very messy. There are no black and white answers we can use to fill in the blanks or “measure” our sensations. As we go about inhabiting the individual profiles we project on to the world, there are times when the mask that we wear is extremely uncomfortable, we begin to sweat behind it and it becomes too heavy for us to carry. I witness this slip of the mask in my classes on a daily basis. In fact, the slip of the mask for my students and my self is one major theme of our focus.

When I teach subjects like Interpersonal Communication, Gender Communication, Family Communication and Media Ethics, the phenomena that my students and I investigate overlap with problems that they experience as they engage in the delicate process of being and knowing. Their plight and the mask they wear are my own. I want to hear from them. I want them to tell me what it’s like. They, in turn, want to hear from me. They want to know what it’s like. So, I make myself available inside and outside the classroom. In the classroom, I facilitate the discussion of “real stuff” that’s messy. These classroom discussions are interesting and exciting for most and, in many instances, they generate the necessity for one-on-one discussions outside the classroom about “really personal stuff” that’s “messy.” When I make myself available for these discussions, it can be a delicate matter. Indeed, it may take me to the edge of a cliff where propriety stops and the taboo begins. It’s risky. It can be frightening. It can be a nuisance. It takes up a lot of my time.  Boundaries must be maintained. But . . . , it’s also extremely rewarding. It’s gratifying.  It’s what I do and I love what I do. In fact, I look forward to going to work every day. I am blessed by my profession! How many people get to say that to themselves?

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