Several professors at Carleton College, one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the United States, have recently collaborated on a book entitled Reflections on Learning as Teachers. Faculty at all stages in their careers—from beginning as an assistant professor to nearing retirement, and in fields ranging from classics to physics--have written essays describing their experiences in the classroom. A variety of innovative approaches to teaching and learning, ranging from service learning to study abroad, are described and evaluated. Graduate students interested in teaching as a career, professors looking for new ideas, and anyone interested in how approaches to teaching have changed over the years will find this book to be a very helpful guide. (I should confess a conflict of interest at this point; I am both a trustee and a graduate of Carleton College.)
We reprint here Tricia Ferrett's chapter on the challenges and rewards of making fundamental changes in her approach to teaching chemistry. Although the subject is not astronomy, the systemic changes she made in her introductory chemistry course are very similar in nature to the kinds of changes recommended for introductory astronomy courses. For this reason, I thought that the readers of AER would benefit from the insights offered in her essay.
About 10 years ago, I set out to transform my introductory chemistry classroom into one that honestly reflected—in concepts, rigor, topic, skills, and process—how “real science” is done.1 wanted to educate both future scientists and scientifically literate citizens to engage science in their lives.
Prior to the transformation, my courses were organized around a standard text that covered a group of chemistry concepts that had been mostly unchanged for decades. The goal of coverage drove the course. Text applications of chemical principles to real-world problems were rare, though some leakage via “Chemistry in Action” or “Chemical Impact” sections2 could be found in colored boxes. Still, it was as if the real world and real science were offered as side dishes while isolated and unapplied concepts dominated the menu. Even more disturbing was the fact that scientific inquiry and an authentic critical perspective were entirely missing from the texts. However, in lab I routinely engaged my students in open-ended experiments and projects, following a long tradition at Carleton. The class work and lab were oddly out of synch.
The primary learning cycle for students centered on doing text problems and problems that I created. Text problems were mostly simple, “plug and chug,” sometimes multi-step and challenging, and occasionally slightly integrative of two or three simple concepts. Text authors worked to bring the real world into the problems, but rarely in a truly convincing and meaningful way. This lack of authenticity spurred me to invent more complex problems and little mini-modules on the chemistry of vision, solar cells, and the atmosphere.
On the pedagogy side, I lectured in a highly interactive way, hoping to draw students into the beauty, wonder, and complexity of the natural world. I wanted to converse with my students about chemistry in the world, and I wanted to know what they were thinking. I figured that feedback and conversation would give me a better view into their learning processes. I cherished my students' fresh viewpoints and challenging questions. I was convinced from my own experience that higher engagement with the world and with each other would lead to greater learning, long-term retention, and involvement by women and students of color, those who tend to occupy the margins of the scientific community.3
In addition to teaching courses, I also headed a scientific research group with Carleton undergraduates. In my chemistry lab, the research group stumbled along, working on questions with no clear answers. We were fully in charge of posing the questions and assessing which ones were worthy of study and why. We debated priorities and agonized over lengthy “to do” lists. We constantly marshaled all of our knowledge and skills to solve messy problems with no perfect solutions. Compromises were rampant, as were discussions about the risks of compromise. Guessing, testing, hypothesizing, negotiating, and refining steered the way once a challenge was defined. Tricky problems took more than one brain to solve.
Science content also sat center-stage. We learned tough subjects together on a need-to-know basis, many of them outside of chemistry: electrostatics, electronics, vacuum science, mechanical design, and classical mechanics. We called on other experts and the original literature as needed.
Students were involved in every aspect of the work, and they had true intellectual input into the project direction. Once in a while, we'd get something right and celebrate. More often, we'd relish the small weekly victories that represented incremental progress. We worked as a team, with some tasks delegated to individuals. We learned about each other's strengths and weaknesses and used this awareness to support each other and more effectively solve problems. We worked hard to maintain our sense of humor, purpose, and focus.
Students often remarked that this kind of learning environment was powerful—and nothing like learning in courses. They said that we were doing more than—“just chemistry.” We were doing “real science,” and it was miles away from my introductory chemistry classroom.
This lack of congruence between my research and teaching led me to work with dozens of chemistry faculty from universities and liberal arts colleges to make “systemic” changes in introductory college chemistry. Apparently others shared my growing unease. In 1993, the National Science Foundation (NSF) thought the time had come to overhaul these courses, and they were soliciting major curriculum development proposals spread over five years. NSF was convinced that grassroots discontent among college chemistry instructors had grown enough that systemic change was as inevitable as it was needed.
The faculty groups I worked with in the ChemLinks Coalition4 and the Modular Chemistry Consortium5 (MC2) decided that traditional introductory chemistry missed the boat on three counts: 1) it did not develop a wide range of scientific and critical thinking skills in our students, 2) the chemistry content was disconnected from students' lives, the real world, and authentic scientific inquiry, and 3) it was not providing a rich range of effective and active learning activities. We aimed to write topical modules as deep case studies driven by modern scientific issues. We hoped to teach the core concepts of chemistry through the windows of real science, linking naturally to interdisciplinary issues. We planned to infuse materials with a broader range of active class and lab activities, with a major focus on changing ourselves as teachers. We ended up using a “storyline” as the organizing thread and line of inquiry, stringing together authentic contextual questions that students would naturally want to answer.
After six years, many meetings and pedagogy workshops, thousands of emails, and approximately $6 million from NSF, consortia authors wrote over a dozen topical modules.6,7 Published under the ChemConnections name, modules revolved around issues including global warming, dietary fats, star composition, airbags in cars, and automobile air pollution.8 I co-authored one of the early modules on the Antarctic ozone hole and edited and tested many others.9
At first, I leaked new activities into my course. I did a little ozone chemistry, and the next year I did a little more. I taught an early version of the ozone hole module mid-way through my course, but it was sandwiched in with my older, more traditional text-based approach. Most students enjoyed the little real-world forays and breaks from my interactive lecture mode.
Finally, I took a gentle plunge and taught a new version of the ozone module from start to finish. Students spent more time in class working a problem or discussing in small groups. They worked more with real data sets, interpreting them as we built, tweaked, rejected, and refined atmospheric models. Student response was still quite positive, with significant numbers of students wishing we had spent even more of the term studying real problems in depth.
My fully modular course was launched in the spring of 1999. Thoughtful and sensitive students spotted the rough spots in the new curriculum and helped me work out the bugs.10 Many students embraced the real-world context, the process of authentic inquiry, and the more active classroom. A small number objected to the inclusion of class activities and scientific writing in the course (“you need to lecture more” and “writing is for non-science classes”). Over time, I gained the perspective that some students were experiencing a scary shift in their own view of science. I had to learn to help students move along attitudinal and intellectual development curves—toward “real science.”
After I had taught the modular course for three years, student resistance ebbed and I got much better at teaching with modules. I had raised the bar with a richer and more challenging set of educational goals, and it took a while for all of us to adjust. After bouts of uncertainty with new teaching methods, I eventually came to sympathize with the cliché “the third time's a charm.” Student culture changed as students in my modular course moved on, quite successfully, to become science majors and graduate students. I recruited teaching assistants who had taken my new course. Their maturity and enthusiasm for this kind of learning helped support the new educational goals.11 Colleagues around the country were also experiencing success.
Were my students really learning more or better, and what did this mean? I noticed gains in students' ability to demonstrate and integrate their knowledge of chemistry and to apply this knowledge in context. For example, when presented with new reactions in the earth's atmosphere, they reasoned in sophisticated ways about which ones must be fast and dominant, based on what they already knew about ozone hole chemistry. Students suggested calculations that were needed to address additional chemistry, and some of them just went ahead and did these calculations as part of their final project. Students were starting to do math upon their own initiative because they saw value in the outcome—a real step forward in quantitative literacy. A few students started to act more like junior and senior chemistry majors.
They all started acting more like real scientists; they posed new questions and worried about tricky effects we had not yet considered. They worried about the global issue of ozone depletion. They started to play it forward, jumping ahead with proposals as if they were truly engaged in inquiry and solving a serious problem. Many were inching their way into sophisticated systems thinking. Students were routinely demonstrating a deeper conceptual understanding of chemistry.
In short, my students were developing a critical perspective. Students also did as well or better on my traditional chemistry exam questions as they had before; no obvious compromises had been made in the chemistry content arena. For me, there was no going back in light of these gains.
Amidst all the learning gains, some stubborn student resistance remained. A small portion of my students persistently wondered if they were learning enough “real chemistry.” It was a fair question—with all this other stuff going on, were students getting less of something important? They knew my course was different from what they had experienced before, and they were not sure if they were being well prepared for the future. I knew their concerns were sincere, justified, and understandable. Many college chemistry teachers voiced the same worries.
At the same time, I found this “real science” concern ironic and even amusing. Module authors had designed this holistic and rather radical new college chemistry curriculum with the aim of better educating introductory students by doing “real chemistry.” Modules raised the bar by asking students to learn and then apply concepts in real situations. Many students got it and were thriving. The curriculum was more cognitively demanding, and most students appreciated this and rose to the challenges. But a few did not, and they were vocal and sometimes angry. Overall, a number of students articulated a common gut resistance to a new kind of science education unmatched to their past experiences and proven success strategies.
With the help of the outside evaluation team on our project, we were able to surface and separate some of the issues behind student resistance to learning with modules. What follows is based on my own experience, but it is consistent with research results from in-depth focus interviews with hundreds of students across the country who have learned with ChemConnections modules.12
Much of the student resistance can be traced to young students' lack of understanding that “real science” is more like learning with the new modules. Context-rich modular problems are better examples of how science works than the simplified textbook examples. Real problems require modeling, analysis, estimations, lucky guesses, and deeper conceptual understanding. It is harder to get correct answers in the messiness of the real world, and that raises anxiety.
I was trying to break down students' oversimplified notion that a “plug and chug” textbook problem solved with complex formulas constituted real science. For example, in addition to asking students to derive a molecule's 3D geometry or calculate the heat released in a chemical reaction, I also asked them to undertake harder tasks, and many were filled with natural ambiguity. They were designing new experiments, interpreting real and sometimes conflicting data sets, taking imperfect data, designing better refrigerant gases, and ultimately struggling with complex policy questions (what should we do about global warming or the fats in our diet?).
Doing real science requires an appreciation of the uncertainty inherent in original inquiry and maybe even a delight in it. My research students were naturally mired in ambiguity. Some undergraduates have not yet achieved this acquired taste, particularly if their stage of intellectual development and certain forces in American culture dispose them to expect “right” and quick answers.
Some students feared that they might not be learning “enough real chemistry” to carry them forward. Module authors worked hard to include the traditional core chemical concepts in the modules, often in even more depth. The content is still very central, but it is now wrapped in context and inquiry. The chemistry emerges more naturally on a need-to-know basis and often in the same logical “chunks” as in the texts.
For example, I include about 80-90% of the chemistry I used to “cover” in my course by using three carefully selected modules. I now include a quick module-text comparison exercise in my course that helps students see how much we are still “covering.” I still assign traditional text problems; many students find this comforting.
Students (and some faculty) also tend to assume that because a topic is “covered” in a lecture class, effective learning will ensue. All of my experience and the research literature on learning indicate that deep learning is not simply transmitted from speaker to listener. Learning that “sticks” requires steady inquiry, personal struggle, reflection, and refinement of ideas. Learners must self-construct their understanding and build upon what they already know.13 The learning path is frequently messy and nonlinear. In addition, lasting learning often occurs in a particular context where an important problem is solved, a question is tackled, or a complex topic is analyzed. Content divorced from context can leave ideas hanging without an organizational framework, freer to slip away over time.
Many students found the new curriculum both interesting and doable and this sometimes produced anxiety. The statement “this can't be real chemistry because I like and understand it” captures a common student response. More accessible and relevant material was one of our goals, but some students do not expect such a virtue.
Yet a different group of students missed the notion that modules aim for more depth to help them gain a deeper understanding. These students may, out of habit, passively skim the surface of material and never dig in, resulting in a learning experience that feels superficial. I have learned to guide students on how and why an in-depth approach is valuable.
Overall, I have had to work with students to help them understand that effective science learning can occur when their work feels interesting, challenging, accessible, and even doable.
Digging even deeper, the statement that “this is not real science” may also reflect a desire for an intellectual scaffold on which to hang ideas. A number of students asked me for help in building a framework of key chemical ideas. They wanted to “see the chemistry forest through the trees,” even in introductory courses. More students were now asking for the forest.
In a traditional chemistry course, the intellectual scaffold is the chapter headings—the logical traverse through topics in a chemistry text. Effective or not, the text organization is a chemistry scaffold. It also has the advantage of being accepted by the community of college chemistry teachers. However, the elegant textbook structure is of most immediate use to faculty and is seldom dealt with by students, who are busy working their way through memorizing “the chemistry trees.” The security blanket of the text organization may be just that for students--a powerful illusion.
More thoughtfully, some students and instructors work to make connections between chemistry ideas and to place them in an overall framework. Themes of micro/macro, statics/dynamics, structure/function pervade valiant efforts to do this. It is essential that teachers convey the broad utility of thermodynamics, atomic and molecular structure, kinetics, equilibrium, and elementary periodicity. Our best students work to build this scaffold for themselves by self-organizing the chemistry ideas. Courses and instructors can help do this explicitly.
Mature students often voice a major risk associated with teaching in context. In dealing with particular applications, students may not fully decipher the generalities and their broader applicability. Some of my best students asked for a chance to generalize principles across contexts, testing for range of applicability. The act of applying chemistry ideas in a different context is critical in reaching this higher cognitive level. This transferability concern is now active in the revision of our curricular materials.
Finally, change of any kind is simply hard. The writers and adapters of our curricular materials had to remind themselves constantly about how long it takes substantive change to take hold. The careful assessment evidence on our project shows that teachers simply need to be patient, waiting until a new course is perceived as more “normal” and less “experimental” within a department or institution. We also need to wait until students reach a development stage that allows them to appreciate what “real science” really is. It helps to talk openly with students about the natural difficulties they face in confronting new educational expectations.
Some instructors have also found ways to help students understand what it takes to learn something deeply. For example, I now talk with students about how various types of questions (factual, logistical, probing, integrative, synthetic) encourage more advanced cognitive levels. The conversation about metacognition is now on the table, and this seems to help students better appreciate the less obvious developments in their own cognitive skills.
My introductory chemistry students now behave more like my research students. Learning requires the use of a wider range of critical thinking and “thinking like a scientist” skills. Students do more writing that aids their learning. They are asked to work in teams and communicate with others about their work.14 The work is hard, satisfying, messy, analytical, critical, uncomfortable, and more relevant. Upon student initiative, we talk together more about how best to tackle environmental problems, how complex systems work, the ethics of caring for the planet, our own health, the tensions of technology development, and more. Students talk more openly, and with some self-awareness, about their struggle with skill development. The learning feedback loop now operates openly and quickly—I can much better see and adjust to where my students really are in their learning trajectories. I am a more authentic partner in life-long learning, side-by-side with my students, in the midst of problems that matter to all of us. The significant gains I see in student learning, both in content and skill areas, are confirmed by careful assessment of many modular students across the country.15
“Real science” has surely taught me that one answer always breeds more inquiry. Our project raised complex questions about resistance to change and the theories of change that reformers in education use as they attempt to make lasting improvements.16 By far the toughest personal thing about all this change is that I have had to live with and learn from the risks that I took. Changing my teaching was a big deal that made me see things in new ways.
When I started to converse more and in different ways with students, I was faced with the reality of what they actually understood, and it was far less than I had assumed. I came to realize that this was my problem--I had been flying blind. My clearer vision, promoted by more active learning activities and conversation, allowed me to meet students where they were and help them move even further forward. My relationship to students changed, mostly in very positive ways. I was brought closer to the experience and feelings of learning and to my students. However, different learning expectations also brought out the wrath of a few vocal skeptics. Dealing with the skeptics was a new experience in my teaching life, but it taught me about intellectual stages of development and student resistance that is rooted in being stuck at one stage.
Before I began this journey, my own identity as a teacher was pretty stable. I was comfortable with who I was, and what I heard at tenure was nicely congruent with my self image.
As I tried new teaching techniques, I regularly moved out of my comfort zone. At first, I thought I was actually changing my teaching strengths. A wise friend recently suggested that I have discovered a more authentic teaching persona and one that draws on a wider range of my personal strengths and values. My struggle with mid-life and a few health issues have not made this transition any easier, but the whole package has helped me come to a tighter focus on who I am as a teacher so I can give my best to students.
There was also the real risk of not getting tenure. I averted this risk intentionally by deciding, with the strong advice from mentors at Carleton and elsewhere, that I wait to teach with modules until after tenure.
I look back on all this with mixed feelings. I played it safe at a time when the stakes were high. But I also felt like the waiting game was unhealthy. At the same time that I was determined to have my students take more risks in their learning, I was told to put my passions on hold until I could tolerate the risk of failure. It was not clear to me then whether my colleagues sympathized with Boyer's notion that my curricular work was a legitimate “scholarship of teaching.”17
I suppose one has to be savvy about timing. Yet, sending a message to untenured faculty to minimize risk prior to tenure is quite inconsistent with the realities of striving for excellence in teaching over a whole career. Fortunately, I had lots of experience in risk-taking prior to tenure, and I was encouraged by several college administrators to take more risks after tenure. I also had good departmental support for working in ChemConnections.
In making change, there is the risk of being perceived as marginal by colleagues. Since many of the participants in ChemConnections were lone reformers in departments that were neutral or negative toward the project goals, marginalization was felt strongly. A friend of mine who has made it her life's work to study change once remarked to me “Dear, change always comes from the margins.” I learned to let go of what others think and follow my instincts. I had to focus on my own teaching strengths, not the expectations of others based on theirs and tradition. From the large network of teachers in the consortium I was able to get the support I needed to push forward to create the kind of science education I thought I could offer.18
The last bit about risk relates to my identity as a scholar. My own increased appreciation for environmental science and other science-rich issues have led me to examine my laboratory research agenda. This has been especially hard because at tenure, my mentoring of research students was highlighted as my greatest strength. I went to college and graduate school in the late 70 s and mid–80 s when interdisciplinary research did not exist, or at least its presence was not apparent to me. My teaching career at Carleton, combined with the decade-long journey into a new kind of teaching and learning, has honed my own skills of synthesis, integration, and systems thinking. In teaching more about scientific skills, I have come to better understand and develop my own. I have lost my youthful taste for simple problems requiring only a reductionism approach. I now yearn to work on real-world problems that are more complex and applied, and I want to do it as part of a collaborative team. The ongoing shift in my scholarly agenda honestly reflects this growth.
Of course, the struggle to learn and teach has merely shifted its guise. In order to move forward with my new aspirations, I will have to confront a few more of my own fears–and some departmental, institutional, and professional traditions. Teaching in a way that reflects the practices and values of “real science” made my own intellectual life temporarily rife with uncertainty and change. But even with all the risks and difficulties, the changes have been worth it! The chance to learn with committed colleagues and students, both about new areas of science and about improving education, has been a gift. It is not a trivial matter to sustain one's enthusiasm for teaching over a 30-year career. I have had one grand experience with how to build the process of renewal into my professional life. Ahead I see an intellectual and teaching life that is more meaningful, satisfying, and built upon truer passions.
Tricia A. Ferrett. 2004. “Is This `Real Science'?” Susan Singer & Carol Rutz (Editors). Reflections on Learning as Teachers. Northfield, MN: College City Publications. ISBN: 0-9746379-1-2.
Tricia A. Ferrett, professor of chemistry, joined the Carleton College faculty in 1990. She earned her B.A. at Grinnell College and her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley.
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