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Students Participate in Large Chemistry Classes

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A common perception among faculty is that classes with enrollments of more than 100 are not conducive to student participation, let alone lively discussion. George Bandik, however, has been engaging students in his large chemistry classes for 30 years and still looks forward to opportunities in each class to draw students into discussions.  Bandik acknowledges the challenges of engaging students in his large classes, which range from 125 to 250 students, but he enjoys the challenge of helping his students become “better communicators about the subject through discussion.” Students appreciate his efforts and comment routinely on his helpfulness and ability to teach “the material for understanding.”

Bandik attributes the liveliness of his classes to a very specific sequence that he follows for each class session:

  1. He always arrives 10 to15 minutes early to chat with the students. Each session, he picks a different part of the room to sit among the students and talk for a few minutes. This helps him to get to know the students by name and to make them more comfortable speaking up in class.
  2. At the start of each session, he spends 5 to 10 minutes asking questions that cover material from the last class to “reinforce the basic concepts.” He carefully prepares questions that will remind students of what they learned in the last session. He targets a level of difficulty that they can master if they have spent a reasonable amount of time reviewing the material.
  3. After the review, Bandik introduces the topic for the day in a way that relates it to what the students already know. By asking questions, he encourages them to make the connections in their own words, affirm what they know and assess their own understanding.  This process was evident in a recent Organic Chemistry I class when he introduced an example and asked, “Why does this make sense?” When there was no immediate answer, he continued to offer encouragement: “You all know why this makes sense…Don’t doubt yourselves…Tell me some obvious things.” By taking the question down a notch and moving back into territory that was familiar to students, Bandik models a process of looking for simple things first when trying to figure out a problem. His patience and encouragement motivate students’ to overcome their reluctance to respond.
  4. He does not believe in summarizing at the end of a class session. “I just finish where I finish. I don’t want them to think the story is now complete.” Instead, he uses the questioning period at the beginning of each class as both a wrap-up of the previous class and a warm-up for the new material.

To provide additional active learning opportunities for students, Bandik runs a peer teaching program. Each semester, he selects undergraduate students from previous classes to lead study sessions for current students. He schedules these optional sessions every day of the week, with 10 to 15 students attending each session. Having two peer leaders per session enables the leaders to back one another up and assess each other’s performance. There are usually about 18 peer leaders per semester.

Bandik holds weekly meetings with the peer leaders to review the important learning points of the week. The peer leaders then write up their own problem sets. Their weekly commitment is 4 to 5 hours, which includes one contact hour with students, one to two hours to attend Bandik’s weekly meeting, and another hour or so to develop problem sets. What motivates students to become peer leaders? Bandik says it strengthens their resumes, gives them practice with responsibility and leadership, and, for students going on to medical or dental school, helps them prepare for their exams.

Bandik’s continuing enthusiasm for teaching large classes stems largely from the rewards from inspiring students with the message that “they do have what it takes to succeed.”

More information on peer teaching is available from the Learning Assistant Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder (http://laprogram.colorado.edu/) and the International Center for Supplemental Instruction at the University of Missouri, Kansas City (http://www.umkc.edu/cad/si/index.shtml).


MARCH 2012

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Students Participate in Large Chemistry Classes

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