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Talk About Teaching and Learning
March 20, 2007, Volume 53, No. 26

Hey prof: RU Busy I have a ?

Andrew M. Rappe

Communication is the cornerstone of education. This truth is perhaps self-evident, but it provides a starting point for wrestling with many of the important issues in 21st century education. How do the communication needs of today’s student differ from previous generations? Despite modern technology, what aspects of traditional educational communication remain intact? How can modern technology help or hurt teacher-student communication? 

Arguably, our students are, as a whole, better prepared than ever for college-level work. However, I also find that our students have a broader distribution of preparation than ever. Some of our entering students have sophisticated knowledge from advanced high school and college courses, while others come to college with limited or no exposure to certain disciplines. This broad range of preparation makes for a heightened communication challenge. How can we catch students up, while providing a stimulating environment for everyone?

Getting to know what the students know, and mixing remediation with advanced material, are vital course activities, particularly in introductory courses. In my estimation, there is no substitute for discussion and question and answer sessions during course meetings and office hours. For example, calculus is a prerequisite for Chemistry 101, but some students have not learned it or last studied it several years ago. Accordingly, some early-semester office hours discussions are dedicated to forming strategies for how students can master the calculus skills they need in time to use them for chemical understanding.

One area where high technology can make a significant difference is catching up students whose preparation is weak or rusty. Major publishers now provide significant on-line resources that enable students to teach or re-teach themselves basic concepts, with a motivating and useful set of images, ideas, and hints. It is an interesting balancing act to present participation in these resources as important (bordering on required) so that the students who need the help participate, while excusing well-prepared students from an exercise that will yield little additional knowledge. For Chemistry 101, I found that making the on-line material “required” and “graded” but “not counting toward the final grade” struck the right balance.

The modern professor needs to convey genuine enthusiasm both for the subject matter, and for interacting with the students. I think that students can easily detect professorial interest, and the students respond to these perceptions. It could be argued that students should be self-motivated learners. But as emphasized above in relation to preparation, the breadth of the student distribution of motivation, maturity, and seriousness of purpose is wider than ever. Some students realize that their career prospects hinge on mastering material provided by their college instructors, while others are waiting for the professor to look away in order to send a text message. How can we keep students interested in course material?

Modern education has revealed that students have a range of preferred ways of learning, and that each student will be more or less effective at learning depending on how s/he is approached. For example, some students are “auditory learners,” learning by hearing and speaking about ideas, while others are “visual learners,” absorbing material best that is accompanied by visual aids. Some students have become self-aware in this regard, explicitly seeking educational venues that meet their needs.  Other students are not as fortunate, flourishing only in appropriate conditions without clear awareness of the issue. Clearly one key to keeping students learning is offering a range of learning styles.

Professors can adapt to this challenge by broadening the range of communication styles they adopt. In foundational introductory science courses, there is a huge up-side opportunity for converting lectures into lecture/discussion sessions. The new trend of problem-solving learning can interest and engage students in ways that more traditional presentations of material cannot. And while professors cannot and probably should not mimic the stroboscopic presentation of images and ideas found in 21st century media, students can handle and welcome some nonlinearity of presentation. Some breaks in cognitive flow to present disparate intellectual threads that are then woven together later (perhaps by the students in discussion or other exercises) can better maintain student focus.

Here are two simple ways that I adapt to multiple learning styles in a large introductory course. I use an “overhead camera” to project images from our textbook to a screen overhead. This way, students can see vibrant, relevant images while we are discussing course material, and they know that they (and I!) don’t need to transcribe these images since they can note the page number and view them at home as they study. In addition, I have instituted “active learning” in a few key areas of freshman chemistry. For example, my students recently ran around the auditorium exchanging packets of energy (slips of paper actually) and achieved a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. 

Another area where technology plays a crucial role is in student-teacher communication outside of class. The modern student yearns for intellectual connection with his/her instructors, and this is often conveyed through emails or discussion board postings. In private discussions with professors, a wide range of views are expressed. Some professors see this as a positive development, while others see 24-hour a day email as an intrusion and a burden. I would advocate an idealistic view. Generating genuine enthusiasm for subject matter is something we as instructors work to do. Correspondence from students is an indication of interest. To some extent, even emails of complaint indicate that the student cares enough to remain engaged in discussion. I try to view even these questions as “teachable moments.”  When professors perform and expect high standards of conduct and achievement through their communications, mixed with compassion and understanding, dialog with the students becomes a continuing set of opportunities to shape and improve the course climate. 

The students of the new century enter college with skills and expectations that differ from past generations of students. But I feel growing optimism that an understanding of our students’ backgrounds and approaches, mixed with an array of communication techniques can enable professors to engage our students, meet their educational needs, motivate them, and elevate their understanding.


Andrew M. Rappe is professor of chemistry in SAS and a recipient of the 1999 Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award.



This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - March 20, 2007, Volume 53, No. 26