April 21st, 2011

Teaching Large Introductory Survey Courses


An editorial in the Journal of Chemical Education offers this critique of the introductory general chemistry course.

  • The course covers too much material, sacrificing depth for breadth.
  • It’s taught as if student were majors and those enrolled in this course are not.
  • It’s taught with approaches that are “generally ineffective” at encouraging the understanding of basic concepts.
  • The course design is “inconsistent” with the research on how students learn.
  • The teaching methods used are not usually “pedagogically sound.”
  • It fails to engage student interest. They emerge from the course less satisfied with chemistry than when they began.

That’s a pretty scathing indictment and I’m not sharing it so that we can finger point at chemistry. Hats off to those in chemistry who care enough about their basic course to publicly name its problems. Moreover, I think a similar critique could be leveled against basic courses offered by many departments and not just those in science either.

The editorial shares a bit of history about the general chemistry course. It was developed in the sixties and has basically stayed the same. A noted chemical educator is quoted as observing that the current version of the course has been taught for so long, the reasons justifying inclusion of particular topics have been forgotten. What’s been added to the course is more content as illustrated by texts developed for it. “The texts of today are larger and more encyclopedic than ever, so that the typical course often appears to the novice as a disjointed, brisk trot through a host of unrelated topics.” (p. 230)

What’s particularly nettlesome is the failure of various efforts to reform this and other introductory level science courses. There have been any number of nationally funded, highly visible efforts to alter the content and delivery of these courses. Their success at changing what occurs in courses outside the funded project has been limited.

Of course, there are exceptions—many of those courses are taught by faculty who read blogs like this and are always looking to improve the learning experience. But in general, overall, would you agree that these introductory, service courses are some of the most poorly taught in the curriculum? And that really shouldn’t be a big surprise. First, there is no academic glory associated with this teaching assignment. In fact, it is often the newest (and least experienced) member in a department who gets “stuck” with the big introductory course, even though these courses happen to be among the most difficult in the curriculum to teach. Students don’t want to take courses with content they don’t think will be interesting or relevant. Most of these courses are packed with content and students. Often there are so many students them, teachers cannot possibly get to know all of them. The size also makes it more difficult for teachers to use strategies that engage and involve students. We’re not talking about a recipe for success here.

However, this is not a hopeless situation. There are many teachers who’ve found ways to make these courses vibrant learning experiences for students. It seems to me that what these courses need are advocates—not just folks willing to teach them, but faculty committed to their goals and willing to speak on their behalf. These courses are required for good reason. When I took one of these chemistry courses a few years back I finally understood why global warming, acid rain and fossil fuel depletion were such big problems. I can now discuss them knowledgeably and better sort out what’s fact and fiction.

I can’t think of one of these introductory level courses that doesn’t contain content relevant to individuals and the communities to which they belong. With a renewed sense of their importance, we could critique what we’re doing and use the many models of creatively designed introductory courses to find our way to solutions. We need to start teaching these courses more cognizant that the quality of life in the future depends on them. Or is that too much of a stretch?

We’re curious: If you teach a large introductory course, how do you make it a vibrant learning experience? How do you help your students find relevance in your content? Please share your strategies in the comment area below.

Reference: Cooper, M. (2010). The case for the reform of the undergraduate general chemistry curriculum. Journal of Chemical Education, 87 (3), 230-231.

  • Mick Charney

    This is a topic dear to my heart since I have been teaching large introductory lecture courses for just over a third of a century now. I teach a three-course sequence that surveys the history of architecture worldwide — actually, the "history of the designed environment." Fortunately, my parent discipline — architecture — regularly revises its national accreditation standards and course content criteria in ways that help me make sure that I stay current according to the evolving standards and changing interests of the profession.

  • Mick Charney

    When I was a student, however, non-Western building traditions were not even "on the map" in architecture curricula. Neither were they there when I started to teach myself. But I saw "the writing on the wall" early on years ago with all the then nascent discussions about newly-coined cultural concepts such as "multiculturalism" and "diversity;" and year by year I started quite deliberately to add a bit of non-Western, folk, or vernacular building tradition here and there to my course syllabi so that now I teach courses thoroughly imbued with traditions that are parallel to or divergent from the Western canon. I often find that students, who easily grow weary of Greek temple after Greek temple or Gothic cathedral after Gothic cathedral, perk up with discussions about more "alien" traditions and cultures.

  • MIck Charney

    Still, as first-year student, "freshmen" tend not to understand the long-term value for their own future careers of all these fundamental historical underpinnings to the design professions, believing that history, like Latin, is a "dead" discipline with no relevance. I've learned to talk about history as a dynamic (not static) discipline — history constantly changes. And I show them examples of how it has changed by citing specific examples. I start with revisions to pre-history. For instance, remember what we were taught about dinosaurs? They were once conceived as slow, cold-blooded, tail-dragging, lumbering creatures. Well, Steven Spielberg and "Jurassic Park" changed all that, didn't he, so that our students today conceive of them quite differently — as quick, warm-blooded creatures that are reputed even to have borne feathers!

  • Mick Charney

    Recently, I took to talking pointedly to my students at the start of the first intro course about what is ahead for them — not the next lecture or by the end of the semester or even by the end of their academic careers — but what is ahead for them ten, fifteen, or twenty years from now. I've created a PowerPoint lecture that chronicles the accomplishments of about a half dozen of my former students who are now doing great and wonderful things. Real success stories such as the former student who was for many years the executive director of the major national organization for my parent discipline's educational branch; the former student who now heads up his own line of architectural LEGO building sets; …

  • Mick Charney

    However, the single biggest tactic I employ is attitudinal — not the students' attitudes — mine! I've learned not to consider an assignment to teach intro courses as academic exile. Instead, I embrace the opportunity to catch students right at the very start of their collegiate educations. Then, four years later, I catch some of them again in my upper-level seminars as they are about to exit academe. I consider it a privilege to see them entering and then to see them again exiting — to be at the heart of both some of their earliest and some of their last educational experiences in college. It is an honor, but also a heavy responsibility; and I treat it as such. They sense that, I am sure; and now being in a large lecture hall is my favorite part of any day.

  • Mia Manning-Osborn

    I teach several sections of our intro to education course and love teaching those courses. I start off by asking them to use their own experiences in schools to generate a list of what makes a good and engaging teacher. By validating the experience and knowledge that they bring to the course, it invites them to immediately become engaged in the discussion.

    Another technique that has helped to turn these courses into something more manageable is to arrange everyone into "learning home groups". They sit together, work on in-class assignments, post to the same discussion board, etc. It makes it easier for me to know remember their names in the group and they begin to rely on one another for notes, info about assignments and get work for each other when someone misses class. The sense of community that is often fostered by working in their groups, both in an outside of class, does much to improve the atmosphere of the class and because this is a first-year course, gives them a way to connect with other students outside of class.

  • microbioprofe

    Although the biology course I teach is indeed "introductory' in every sense of the word, I teach at a small college and the largest number of students I have ever had in one class, and have stayed the entire semester, is 17!

    Nevertheless, in the summer of 2010, after attending a workshop where discussions were held about how to make introductory science courses more relevant and interesting, I decided to significantly revise the biology course. Inasmuch as diabetes is a significant problem among Pacific Islanders, which 99.9% of my students are; I designed the course focused on diabetes.

    Although the data is still relatively raw, compared to the fall 2009 and spring 2010 semesters, when only 38.8 and 38.4% of the students passed Biology with a C or better grade,which was taught in the traditional fashion; the fall of 2010 passing percentage jumped to 62.5%! Since the spring 2011 has not yet finished, I do not yet have data but, this revised approach to teaching introductory biology at least here in the Marshall Islands seems to be working fairly well.