Chemistry and Biochemistry
What matters most to you in your teaching?
How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?
How have your students responded to your use of technology?
What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?
How could the University better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?
Alternative view points
Exercises & assignments
Class web site
Virtual Office Hours (VOH)
Actively Engaging the Material
The students get a lot of information, and they have to figure out how to organize it. That is the hardest thing to do in organic chemistry: not to master the concepts, but to master their interrelationship. It takes some time to develop a sense of that connection, and after a while, they do.
I teach organic chemistry for both Life Sciences and Physical Sciences majors, typically involving 250-350 students per lecture section. In the Life Sciences courses, most of these are "aspiring physicians." The biggest problem teaching organic chemistry is that students come out of general chemistry classes with certain ideas about how to do chemistry. The way general chemistry traditionally is taught is very mathematical, and often there's more emphasis put on the process of getting the number than on understanding what the number itself means.
Organic chemistry is different in a couple of ways. First, it's not very numerical--it's very symbolic. Second, because it's not mathematical, it ends up being very conceptual. Consequently, the students get a lot of information, and they have to figure out how to organize it. That is the hardest thing to do in organic chemistry: not to master the concepts, but to master their interrelationship. There's stuff we teach these students in the first quarter that they may not fully appreciate in context, or even by itself, until a whole year later. It takes some time to develop a sense of that connection, and after a while, they do.
My biggest technology tool is a massive web site. It has a load of exams and practice problems and all other kinds of stuff. For the most part, it's text-based, so the materials download quickly. Fundamentally, it's a resource where students can go to find all the information together, and perhaps more importantly, it's presented from my viewpoint. Within the courses, the faculty agree to cover certain chapters of the textbook, but how everybody does it is up to them. I tend to be a lot more conceptual and spend less time going through algorithmic methods for problem solving. I may cover the topics in a different sequence than the textbook, and the web site allows me to make my organization of topics available to the world.
Distributing materials this way also saves time and money. Before I put the handouts on the web site, in a typical quarter I could end up photocopying as many as 30,000 pages. Now if I have to make a change to a handout, I can make it instantaneously. If a student comes up during office hours with a particularly interesting insight or puts two pieces of information together that I never thought of going together before, or has a particularly good analogy or discovers a typo, I can post the change immediately.
One of the features of the site is, in fact, a "Known Typographical Errors" list. It offers students a reward for critical reading. If they find something in the textbook or the web site that doesn't sit well, they need to think about it, and if it really is an error and it's chemically significant, they get an extra-credit point for it. I've been maintaining that list for about two years now--about 650 points have been given to about 325 students. In probably 5% of those cases, those extra credit points have actually bumped the grade up. So that has been a popular feature.
The site's primary resource is an online version of the Thinkbook, which is like the course reader. It's called the Thinkbook because I think the word "reader" implies a very passive way of interacting with the material. I'm hoping that as they read, students will actively engage in trying to organize the information in their own brains. So we call it the Thinkbook, which implies active learning. Having the web site gave me an opportunity to develop the body of material incrementally--I'm adding things constantly. The paper version of the Thinkbook probably would not have existed without the web site; a few years ago I discovered that students were printing it out and marking it up, so I asked them if they'd be willing to purchase a preprinted version at the campus bookstore.
Apart from the readings, the Thinkbook associates two types of problems with each lecture topic. There are "practice problems," which are very much like the kind of problems that you may find in a textbook. Then there are "concept focus questions," which are like a list of concepts you might get at the beginning or the very end of a chapter. Rather than simply presenting the students with a list of stuff that says "This is what you should know how to do," the questions make them think about, "What is the important concept here?" It's much more interactive.
There's also a bunch of problems we call "OWLS" --for Organic Workshop for Learning Success. Even though these problems are no longer used in a workshop format, we still stick with the name because after all, owls are wise. I've written these problems for TAs to use in discussion section in whatever manner they see fit. You can view them as exam practice because the students don't immediately get the answers--they have to wait until I think the TAs are done talking about the subject in discussion section, which is when I post the answers.
The site also offers tutorials, and a fairly massive list of other web sites, organized according to chapters in the textbook. If a student doesn't click with the way I present something in lecture or with what the textbook says, they can go to another web site and read what another instructor has put up. And there's fun stuff as well. I certainly have a sense of humor, and I don't expect students to think that this is the most boring thing in the world, so there's humor stuff up there -- a bunch of quotes about cats, for example.
I also use the website for communication. I post announcements there, but more important is the Virtual Office Hours tool built by Craig Merlic in our department, which allows students to post questions, and me to post the answers. If somebody doesn't understand something and can't come to office hours or discussion section, they can post it there, and everyone can see the answer.
Of course, in some ways, it's the same two-edged sword as any piece of teaching technology: it can do wonderful things in the right hands, but for some students it becomes a crutch. I provide many more tools for student learning than most people do--my organic chemistry web site is one of the largest that's out there. The problem is, students who are capable of learning the material on their own, but perhaps don't have the necessary work ethic, tend to look things up instead of figuring it out for themselves. I'd like to think I've helped some of the C students become B students, but there are still plenty of students who will look at this and say, "Oh, I don't have to think about it--I'm just going to go look it up." But I figure students should have enough maturity to make their own decisions about whether or not they study or come to lecture.
In the future, I want to include some animations on the web site. There's a little plugin that's particularly useful for chemistry called Chime. It allows you to take a molecular structure and rotate it to view it from a different perspective. There's some real value in it, because we spend a lot of time talking about the structure of molecules. Recently one of my students began making MP3 recordings of my lectures, and he offered me copies. It occurred to me that this could be a very simple way to make another resource available to the students via the web site.
I'm also giving some thought to creating an electronic version of a print textbook I'm currently writing. It would look very much like a standard textbook, but take advantage of technological capabilities such as animation and hypertext. As I get more work done on it, I'll be putting sample chapters up on the class web site for students to use.
Oral Interview, April 2004