by Dr. Christopher Richmann, ATL Assistant Director
Chemistry was the only class I ever earned less than a B in for my entire academic career. This means I am the one Neil Garg (Baylor’s Cherry Award recipient) is talking about when he mentions students who “hate Chemistry.” But like many others who have heard Neil teach or speak about his teaching, I believe my disdain would not last long if I learned chemistry from a teacher like him. Of course, Neil’s approach to teaching is not magical, but it is reflective and caring. For these reasons, the Academy for Teaching and Learning was eager to partner with the Cherry Award office to host the Cherry Award Summit on Great Teaching on April 24, an afternoon of presentations and discussions focused on enhancing STEM education.
At his keynote address, Dr. Garg spoke of “optimizing” the student experience. This term has become corporate-speak in some corners. But Neil chose the term for two good reasons. First, there is something about wanting “the best” (i.e., “optimal”) for students that is central to great teaching. Second, the term has resonance with Neil’s own field of chemistry. Because no one would ever accuse me of knowing much about chemistry, I had to look this up. Apparently, “optimizing” in chemistry refers to arranging atoms in such a way that reduces the push and pull of atoms upon each other as much as possible. What is perhaps more enlightening, from the perspective of teaching, is that (according to Wikipedia), “optimized structures often correspond to a substance as it is found in nature.”
We often think of teaching as transforming; and I think that is right, to learn is to be changed. To learn well is to be changed greatly. This change can be difficult, and cognitive science has revealed to us that we learn more—and remember it longer—when it is difficult, in the right way. But that does not mean that the process of learning is inherently unnatural. In fact, quite the opposite. As the educational theorist Jerome Bruner put it, “the single most characteristic thing about human beings is that they learn.” Because of our many intrinsic motivations, we learn quite a bit quite effortlessly.
Optimizing the student experience, then, means to me this “correspondence to nature.” How can education make learning less artificial, more natural? What lessons can be learned from our effortless learning and applied to our difficult learning? As Neil pointed out in his presentation, motivation is key. Students are motivated when they feel connected to a caring community. Students are motivated when they see the relevance of material. Students are motivated when they are convinced that past performance does not predetermine future achievement. Students are motivated when they conquer a vexing problem, an experience that makes them feel “invincible.” Students are motivated when they can be creative in how they process, communicate, or apply material—as seen in abundance with Neil’s famous student music videos.
These sources of motivation were further elaborated in presentations on “Effective Teaching in Large Classes” and “How to Be a Great Graduate Student Instructor.” The afternoon also included a frank and insightful panel on mentoring graduate students, making clear that community and support are as crucial to graduate student training as undergraduate teaching.
My favorite part of the event was the “lightning brainstorm sessions.” We took four topics—Critical Thinking, Creativity, Discussion, Motivation—and shuttled participants through eight-minute brainstorming sessions at each station. A conversation facilitator took notes and shared highlights with all participants at the end. We were delightfully surprised to find so much resonance in these conversations. For instance, whether trying to integrate creativity or facilitate discussions, participants noted the importance of setting the tone for these activities early in the class—a point Neil made in his presentation as well.
Conscientious teachers will always be productively agitated by the students who hate, or expect to hate, their subject. What can instructors do to help students experience this subject as a gift, rather than a threat? Maybe without realizing it, all the great presentations and conversations at the Cherry Award Summit on Great Teaching circled around ways to motivate students, which is to say, make learning natural again. In short, we all want to optimize the student experience!
Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2014).
Jerome Bruner, Toward A Theory of Instruction (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1966).