A Vision of the Classroom

by Kyle Vanderlick

One of my goals, as a teacher, is to change the classroom from merely a room where students come to take notes to a forum where learning on the spot takes place, where self-confidence is built and exercised, where personal interactions with others are nurtured and developed. Sadly, the classroom is one of the most underutilized resources in teaching. Instead of being the engine of education, it often takes the back seat role.

In developing my teaching philosophy, I have taken cues from innovative educators (like Richard Felder, Professor of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University, and Eric Mazur, Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard), found inspiration from those who have taught me, and basically listened to my own instincts. Described below are some of the different strategies that I follow to create my vision of the classroom.


The classroom should be inviting. Establishing a personal and individual rapport with the students sets the stage for this environment. At minimum, I learn the names of all the students in the course. I take advantage of opportunities, like time right before and after class, to mingle with the students. I also hold office hours on the student's turf--in the undergraduate chemical engineering lounge--so that the atmosphere is informal and inclusive.

The classroom should be a place where success can be achieved by all. I use an absolute scale, rather than a curve, to assign grades. Of course it is especially critical to design fair and "do-able" exams to make this work, but everyone benefits from it. I believe it is essential that the students feel that their achievements are not linked to the failure or inabilities of others.

The classroom must be a place where not just one person does the teaching. The best person to explain a new concept is someone that has just understood it--not someone who "got it" over ten years ago. And, of course, the best way to cement new ideas is to teach them to others. To promote this, I randomly partition the class into "learning teams" consisting of three members. Over the semester, students will belong to three different learning teams: new ones formed for each period of time between exams. I do not enforce any structure upon the operation of the teams, nor demand any group product or level of commitment. I simply establish a good reason for the students to care about the welfare of their compatriots: if all members of the learning team score above a certain grade on the exam (corresponding to B or better), then all members receive three additional points, added directly to their raw score. Since grading is not performed on a curve, this inducement is effective. Moreover, it establishes the principle that an individual's achievements can arise from the achievement of others (this is often a revelation for some of the smartest students). In addition to facilitating learning, I have found that the teams promote socialization and class bonding, integrating the less dynamic and introverted students.

The classroom must be a place where learning is actually accomplished, not saved for later. Lectures should not amount to a transcription of the material as presented in the textbook. I try to design lectures that focus on concepts, not details; that allow me to express and share my perception of the topic. As often as possible I think of analogies that can be used to develop insight and a fuller understanding of concepts. I try to promote thinking and immediate digestion of material by asking questions, and stopping to have the students work on quick problems along the way.

The classroom must be a place where feedback and exchange is frequent and non-threatening. I encourage the students to ask questions, and I ask questions of them. I try hard to include all class members. One easy method is to pose each question to a different subset of people: requesting an answer from those wearing white socks; left-handed folks; those without a date on Friday night (always a big response). Students who never get the chance often pipe up. This method also makes it easy to subtly call on certain people.

The classroom is not limited to those enrolled in the course. Learning has been the most stimulating and empowering experience of my life; teaching has been the most rewarding. I especially enjoy bringing science and engineering into the lives of non-majors. I have found that office staff are always eager to know what lies behind the mumbo-jumbo they are typing, and members of my softball team become better hitters when they understand some simple physics. If I try hard enough, I truly believe that I could explain anything to anyone. Every day I have fun trying.

The Talk About Teaching series was developed by the Lindback Society and the Collge of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Vanderlick is an associate professor of chemical engineering who is the first holder of the Class of 1942 Term Chair. She won the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1993.