I want students to achieve at levels that surprise them. This process usually begins at 9:10 on a Wednesday morning in early September when I have the mind-boggling thrill of teaching organic chemistry to 450 first-year students.
Organic chemistry-these two words can bring a dead stop to the polite chat you were having with the person next to you on a plane from Detroit to San Francisco. And yet, on those early Wednesday mornings, I have an incredible opportunity to leverage an important thing we know about the transition from high school to college: students expect college to be different from high school.
For students who want to engage organic chemistry on a broader and deeper level than we do in the large lecture, I have created elective options that they can take during the year. One of these, "Structured Study Groups," emulates the studio assignments I had when I took drawing classes in college. Students are tasked with creative work and then bring the results to weekly sessions for presentation, peer review and critique-all under the watchful guidance of a junior or senior student leader. Many of these tasks surprise the students. For example, they don't always believe I mean it when I point out that a big chunk of the syllabus is blank because they are the ones who are going to fill it in. For my students and me, teaching and learning are both community property.
As a professor, I favor providing opportunities for open creativity and shared leadership experiences for my students. I see my function as no more or less than one of the legs that give balance to a stool. Not only do my students take a great deal of responsibility for learning from each other, but this kind of complex teaching also relies on a team of instructors. Each year, a team of four to five upper-level undergraduate student instructors lead sessions where the bulk of the student-generated work is created. Graduate instructors in the laboratory sections must also learn what it means to teach differently as their students begin to call the shots. I see this sort of teaching as a true partnership between my undergraduate and graduate instructors, my students and me.
To my surprise and delight, my departmental colleagues have found this idea of teaming with graduate students and post-doctoral associates an appealing way to get their teaching ideas accomplished. During the past decade, faculty-led teams have become de rigueur for instructional development projects in my department.
Extending the intergenerational research group structure to teaching groups is finding broad appeal. I accept many U.S. and international invitations to talk about this program. In 2007, the University of Michigan embraced an overture to institutionalize my work, and I was appointed as the co-director of the Instructional Development and Educational Assessment Institute. In IDEA, we are extending the teaching group structure we have created in chemistry to other science and mathematics departments. We are also implementing the concept at the K-12 level. International collaboration is the next frontier.
Five years ago, I could only dream of leveraging my earlier work into such exciting opportunities for student achievement. Today, I am privileged to see increasing numbers of students who can surprise themselves with what they can do.
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