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.