By Christa Rodriguez || Campus Life Editor
As soon as Catherine Drennan started teaching chemistry, she noticed an issue with her teaching style, and indeed the teaching style of most other educators: Students did not understand the value of their learning and how it applied to the real world. Currently a professor of chemistry and biology at MIT, Drennan based her research on these concerns, interrogating the ways in which a lecture not only helps students learn, but helps them make the connections between themselves, the real world, and the content of the class. She shared her findings at Thursday’s Common Hour on April 11.
Drennan started out by teaching high school chemistry, and noted that the “students don’t always see the value of learning chemistry to real world problems and don’t see themselves as future chemists.” She acknowledged that talking about old dead chemists, and showing their pictures did not allow students to see their identities represented. Later, as a professor of chemistry at MIT, she saw the same issues crop up – even at an institution particularly for students aspiring to be scientists. This got Drennan thinking: How can she inspire students to learn differently?
Especially with the diversity in learning styles that are likely to be represented in a given class, the disadvantages of a lecture outweigh the benefits. In larger classes, professors could be less likely to give more assignments that allow them to “check in” and assess students’ knowledge along the way beyond exams. Assignments like smaller quizzes or papers can add up and give a lot more extra grading for the professors who may not be willing to commit that time.
With that being said, these problems are most apparent in schools with larger class sizes – unlike most classes at F&M. Although I am not a STEM major, my experiences with lecture-style classes are very few, and even those were usually smaller and at least partly discussion-based. F&M tends to avoid these solely lecture-based classes as a general rule. However, Drennan’s solutions to these kinds of classes reflect smaller changes educators can make, rather than completely changing the format of the classes.
To remedy these issues, Drennan conducted a multi-year study of the freshman chemistry lecture. The test subjects were freshmen in a required chemistry class at MIT, including students not necessarily inclined to pursue chemistry.
Drennan outlined four selective pressures that were measured in her study. The first selective pressure was the use of educational technology clickers. Clickers are a great way to engage students in class, help them to understand the material, and give them a sense of where they stand relation to the rest of the class. Drennan particularly used clickers as a community-building tool by forming clicker competitions between recitations, with prizes throughout the semester. She enlisted the TAs to head the recitations as teams in the competition.
Drennan assessed the impact of selective pressures through surveys and in-person interviews. The control group used clickers, while the treatment group used clickers with the recitation competition. She found an increase in students’ understanding of material, identifying weaknesses, and overall enjoyment. “It’s not the use of clickers, it’s how you use the clickers that makes the difference,” Drennan said.
The second selective pressure involved the use of in-class examples that span disciplines. Drennan specifically noted the use of biology examples in the context of a chemistry course. The goal of this was to show the relevance of chemistry to another discipline, especially a discipline that others in the class were interested in pursuing. The assessments demonstrated an increase in the interest of chemistry and mastery of chemistry concepts from the control group to the treatment group. Even if the students weren’t into biology, it was still valuable for them to understand that chemistry is useful in other fields.
Another issue is the fact that students don’t see people like them represented STEM, and thereby do not see themselves staying in the STEM profession. I think this fact is especially crucial, as female students, as well as students of color and LGBTQ+ students tend to drop out of STEM at a higher rate and earlier on in their educations than cisgender white males. Although Drennan did not mention this in particular detail, I think her research is still important towards making STEM fields more inclusive, as more diverse perspectives are invaluable in science.
Selective pressure number three used short videos that depicted scientists their age doing important work in a lab. This motivated students to learn chemistry as well as inspired them to tackle challenging scientific problems. An impact worthy of notice is the fact that women’s feelings of inspiration significantly increased to the level of the male students’. This indicates to Drennan that doing well in school is not enough for female students (as it is for male students), but they need to know that what they’re doing is important. The videos gave the women this sense of importance. In my opinion, further studies could look at other intersections of identity to see how the inclusion of videos could push others to stick with STEM. The fourth and final selective pressure was TA training, which strived to make TA’s aware of issues that can hinder student performance.
Can one evolve the classroom lecture to stay relevant? To Drennan, the answer is yes! However, one does not need to drastically change how classrooms function. Instead, she said, “small changes can make a big difference” in getting students to engage with material and think differently about the subject. These small differences can go a long way in not only helping students learn in STEM courses, but also in making STEM more inclusive – which will only improve science as a whole. While these changes may be less transferable to smaller, discussion based classes like those at F&M, we will still have to grapple with these issues, just perhaps in different ways.
Senior Christa Rodriguez is the Campus Life Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.