On Teaching Chemistry: Volume 1

This is an excerpt from some of my recent insomnia-induced ramblings on teaching chemistry.

What’s the best way to teach chemistry? This question has as many answers as there are students of chemistry. Educators pat themselves on the back for inventing terms like “visual learners,” “mathematically inclined,” and the like, but the truth is, the way one learns is a hopelessly complicated function of personality. Some are averse to learning outright; some gravitate towards it. Some require a deadly serious classroom environment to absorb information; others find themselves more comfortable in a light-hearted environment. Naturally then, presenting chemistry in a way that appeals to every student in a classroom is an exercise in futility.

This doesn’t mean that the development of a teaching philosophy should exclude considerations of the nature of your average, everyday college student, of course. Because most college students are living in the same campus environment, generalizations can be (and always are, at least subconsciously) made by educators concerning their students. Giving the edge to nurture over nature, we can look to the average college campus to draw conclusions about its average denizen, the American college student in the twenty-first century.

Today’s vast media landscape has a profound effect on college students. When advertising first caught hold in America in the first half of the twentieth century, some were suspicious that it was bringing about the slow stupefying of the American public (many still are). As the number of media outlets expanded through the 1900s, advertising was there every step of the way to finance the ventures of those excited about presenting their product to America through a novel medium. Print, radio, television, and now the Internet have thus become inundated with advertisements on a daily basis. College students, along with every other American equipped with a pair of good eyes, are now daily subjected to hundreds of messages attempting to persuade them to buy this or that product or service. How can professors, who are “selling” a “product” that won’t improve one’s sex life, provide entertainment, or make one’s life easier in any way, shape or form, compete with modern advertisers?

This begs the question of whether professors are responsible for “selling” their material in the first place. To a first approximation, the professor’s material has already been bought and paid for on the first day of class. Any failure of the student to learn the material is thus a bad economic decision on their part, and no reflection of the professor’s innate ability. And yet if this model were realistic, we’d have no way to distinguish good professors from bad ones! Teaching would become an enterprise quickly turned over by administrators to books, computers, or robots. Education is more than just the material presented—when you buy a book, you pay for material; when you pay for college, you pay to learn. And persuading a student to learn at all is the first step in giving them the education they paid for.

That said, you can’t fault a student for not caring about the overarching goals of a field of study. If after sufficient exposure a student doesn’t care about the fundamental nature of materials and how to transform them, even the world’s greatest chemistry professor can’t help him out. The interesting problem for the frustrated professor, on the other hand, is figuring out what exactly constitutes “sufficient exposure.” Getting bogged down in justifying one’s field during lecture is a sign of weakness that today’s students will, I must harshly admit, ravenously exploit; at the same time, diving directly into the esoterica of molecular structure and reactivity is unlikely to capture many imaginations. Where does the position of this equilibrium lie?

More to come…

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