What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘lecture hall’? For many students, taking a class with hundreds of other students may seem intimidating or uninspiring. However, Dr. Mary Jo Bojan, one of the instructors for Chem 110, is aiming to change all of that.
Chem 110 is Penn State’s first-semester general chemistry course, designed to prepare students for the more advanced courses they’ll have to take during their college career. Even though the class is vitally important, many students struggle to learn in large classes like Chem 110. Dr. Bojan’s answer to this problem has been to create an active-learning environment that gives students a chance to engage with the material they’re studying.
Instead of just delivering lectures, Dr. Bojan works hard to give each student the chance to participate in the lesson. “I want students to do as much active learning as possible,” she says while explaining how she structures the class. Each lecture contains active-learning opportunities that designed to give students the chance to put their knowledge into action. These opportunities include group problem-solving activities and live, in-class chemical demonstrations, such as fuel cells and combusting balloons.
During lecture, students are also encouraged to sit in their teaching assistant’s (TA) section, giving them the chance to talk through problems and build a close-knit learning community, even in a crowded lecture hall. Dr. Bojan says this is an important part of the class. “Big lectures are impersonal,” she explains, “it’s less intimidating when they sit with their TAs, and it gives them a smaller setting for collaborative learning.” Learning assistants—undergraduate students who have taken Chem 110 before and have volunteered to help other students succeed—are also on hand during lectures to give students a helping hand and answer questions.
Chances for active learning don’t end in lecture, however. In addition to the three weekly lectures for the entire class, each student is also assigned to a weekly recitation led by a teaching assistant. Recitations give students the chance to develop a deeper understanding of the topics they’re studying. Each group contains about thirty students, giving them the chance to participate actively in class work, to practice problem-solving techniques, and to ask questions about the material they’re studying in a smaller environment.
Outside of class, students continue the active-learning with their electronic textbook, a unique resource that was developed by Dr. Bojan and other faculty members at Penn State. The book is customized to Penn State’s method of teaching chemistry and reinforces the problem solving methods that students learn in class. It’s full of tools that students won’t find elsewhere, like interactive practice problems that link back to the text and interactive molecules. Although the book is designed to be used in Chem 110 and Chem 112, students have access to it for five years after they purchase it, so they can use it as a reference in other classes.
For students who don’t have a strong background in chemistry or math, there are even more opportunities to engage with the material covered in lectures. Chemistry 108 is a one-credit course that dovetails with Chem 110 to give students at risk of failure extra tools and support. Students in Chem 108 attend one extra recitation a week, where they receive extra help from a TA and have a chance to ask questions. These students also have access to extra resources, including problems that are written in scaffolded steps to help students arrive at the right answer and mastery-based modules that make no assumptions about prior knowledge. “Chem 108 provides an alternate mode of learning,” Dr. Bojan explains, “it provides additional structure, and students appreciate this. The work they do in CHEM 108 enables them to do better in CHEM 110.”
Thanks to Dr. Bojan’s methods, students take away much more than scientific knowledge when they leave Chem 110. Aside from a strong academic foundation, Dr. Bojan hopes that her students develop other skills that will help them excel in upper-level science classes. “I want them to take away problem solving skills, communication skills, and the ability to reason and make connections,” she says.