8 Jul 2019

Reflection on teaching after my 20th year

Submitted by Adam R. Johnson, Harvey Mudd College
Cohort 1
Reflection Piece 1

Being a VIPEr fellow has been very interesting for me because I have been a member of IONiC since before IONiC even existed. I know the main themes and the overall goals of the project as well as the leadership team, but for the past year or so I have been deliberately kept out of the loop as the team leaders planned the workshop. This has been so that I can have an authentic experience as a participant, and also so that I can relate my experience to the leadership team in case there are any unforeseen problems in communication or day-to-day running of the workshop. There haven’t been many. I don't know what is going on with the data collection, analysis, or conclusions. I have truly enjoyed my role as participant, I am excited to be a part of this research project and this workshop has really given me the freedom, and more importantly, the time, to think deeply about my own practice in teaching inorganic chemistry.

I watched my five teaching videos on bonding over the last three days and at first I was very apprehensive about it. The last time I videotaped myself I used an actual videotape recorder and I was pre-tenure. When I watched those videos, I was so fixated on my mannerisms and nervousness that I could barely focus on the teaching or the content. But now as an older, more experienced teacher, I know that many of my mannerisms and traits are probably here to stay and there probably isn't much I can do about it. Additionally, I am comfortable watching myself, which was a surprise. That comfort allowed me to focus more on my teaching style, what I was delivering, and how I was delivering it. I remember that after one of the daily tapings I felt very pleased with myself that "this was a day where I did a lot of active learning and I can't wait to see it on video." But when I watched the five videos, I honestly was not able to discern which of them corresponded to that class. Even on the day where I did the most active learning activity, I spent something like 11 minutes introducing it, I didn't engage at ALL with the students while they were working, and after they were done, I presented their work instead of letting them do it themselves! On one day, I left a perfectly good opportunity to do active learning slip away and instead I just lectured.

I am not beating myself up over this. For a number of reasons both personal and professional, I have not had the time I need to develop my teaching over the past 3-5 years. In addition, I gave myself permission to go off-script and follow my ideas in real time to let the students see my (often derailed) train of thought. As I watched myself do this in class, I can see that I was following a thread to completion, but what it ended up doing was causing a lot of repetition. For example, on one day, I said we weren't going to do MO diagrams but just generate LGOs, but as we went on, I started drawing MO diagrams. Then, during the next class I stepped back and taught them how do draw the MO diagrams that I had already done. It felt very repetitive. Maybe it's OK. I know from experience that this is difficult material and the students need repetition. Also, the students don't watch five lectures back-to-back-to-back, but saw them over a 10 day period, so there was more time to forget and need reminding. 

My main takeaway from the exercises and activities at the workshop so far is that I want to refocus my daily plans. I want to add deliberate, discrete learning goals for each day of the course. There really ought to be something that the students got out of my class each day, and I want them to be able to identify them. There are probably two or three places in my whole course where the idea is developed over a two-day period, but the rest of the time, I want to stop class five minutes early and have the students answer (in a minute paper) the question "what were today's learning goals?" If they can't name them, then I need to adjust my teaching. I also want to add more shorter literature discussions. Historically, either my literature discussion is the whole class discussion for an entire period, or I don't do anything. But in the workshop Sheila showed us that even for a big, scary, computational bioinorganic paper we could extract simple Lewis structures and resonance ideas. This changes my thinking about how to use lit discussion LOs in my class.

I already use a lot of LOs so I don’t need to add more. I do want to focus on making my classroom more active. I want to give the students time to struggle with some of the material instead of just presenting it. The funny thing is we have completely redone our first year chemistry course over the past five years (part of the reason I haven't had time to think about my inorganic offering) to essentially a self-written POGIL classroom. I know that this is the right way to teach and that it is effective (paper under review!), but I haven't had the time to actually develop these ideas or even search the VIPEr site to find LOs to use in my junior/senior course. At least three times this past spring, after class I wrote in my daily notes that I should have made that day's lecture into an activity. So I know what to do when I have time to think about it. 

So far this workshop I have developed the daily schedule for next Spring’s offering of inorganic chemistry. I am not changing the schedule at all, but I am going to change my focus and my discipline to aim at my daily learning goals. I will be more organized. I will continue to deliver good information to the students and assess their learning. I know I can't change my whole course, but I can change my whole focus. And if I add 3-5 new active learning exercises and remove their corresponding lectures, I will have made a significant change to my course. I am really excited to have had the time to think these thoughts. Now that I know what I'm aiming for, and have given the class the big picture attention that it needed, I am ready to do the work between now and January to make it happen.


I really appreciate your perspective and especially the self acceptance that you tout. However, I also know that you are the king of beating yourself up, so I'm not sure I entirely buy it.

I've worked hard on daily plans and do have daily learning outcomes. BUT, I still feel very unfocused at times. I will be back in inorganic next spring for the first time in several years, and I really enjoyed using some of the workshop time to work on my own course. I got a lot of great ideas for teaching lit discussions!

Adam - I like your realistic goal of adding 3-5 new learning exercises and giving the students more time to struggle with the material.  I also tend to fall into lecture, partiuclarly in inorganic when there are so many exciting developments that I want to cover. But you're right, our juniors and seniors need just as much time to struggle with material in class as our first year students.