Faculty Learning Strategies: Core Chemistry

April 7, 2016 - Audriana Stark

This months Faculty Learning Strategies comes from Dr. Sushilla Knottenbelt, with the Chemistry Department.

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Sushilla KnottenbeltSTEM Gateway is proud of Dr. Sushilla Knottenbelt for her dedication to student success in Chemistry that is demonstrated through her commitment to continually improving her teaching. Dr. Knottenbelt has been an active member in the STEM Course Redesign projects since 2012. She served on both the Chemistry 121 and Chemistry 122 Course Redesign Teams and has collected data that indicates that the changes she is making in her teaching are resulting in better student learning. You can check out her publications and presentations in the STEM Gateway Publication and Presentation page. Dr. Knottenbelt has been recognized at the local level as the 2012-2013 Outstanding Lecturer or Affiliate Faculty of the Year Award at UNM.

Dr. Knottenbelt has provided the following advice to students aiming to succeed in the classroom:

The most worthwhile things you learn take effort to learn them. Expect to have to work hard to understand the concepts – it won’t all come easily, but it will come. Many students feel discouraged when the going gets tough in chemistry, and feel like giving up. That’s a great time to get help. Your instructors, TAs and classmates are great resources to help you look at a problem in a different way. My most successful students in General Chemistry are very good at finding help – they are often in my office hours or email to ask me questions. Asking for help in this class is a strength, not a weakness. Another mistake many students make is to believe that once they understand a concept or a way to approach a problem, that is enough and that they will always be able to do that type of problem. At its most biological level, learning is simply making new neural connections in our brains. These pathways are reinforced by practice, and so the more problems you do after you understand how to do them, the stronger the pathway becomes and the less likely you are to forget it. It’s important to do this soon after you have learned it, before the pathway ‘becomes overgrown’ and you forget it.

Work for the long-term learning and not just the points. If you work for the points and the grade, you may get the points, but will miss out on the learning and forget easily. You’ll have to do the work again when you need the knowledge later. If you work for the learning – following up with your whys even if you got the answer correct – you will get the points and grade, and you will have a solid foundation of knowledge to carry on to the next unit or course.

Top tips

  • Ask questions of yourself all the time: what are you supposed to know? How well do you know it? How can you tell how well you know it?
  • Get help when you need it.
  • Practice often and a lot. Several short sessions of study over a week work better for learning than one long cramming session. Treat exam preparation like training for a marathon – do some most days and make sure to rest well the night before.
  • Take the opportunity to teach when you can. Explaining something to someone is a great way to determine how well you understand it.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you don’t understand something – you will be able to understand it with the right kind of effort and help.
  • Plan to ask for help – it can save you a lot of time. Your professor and TAs are there to help, and enjoy the opportunity to work with you one-on-one in office hours to help you learn.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you don’t do as well as you hope on a test or quiz. There is no exam that measures your worth as a person or your potential as a learner. Take any failure or disappointment as an opportunity to rethink your study strategies and find some more effective techniques. This will help you not only in your current course, but will help you become a better learner for when you move on to more difficult courses. Don’t hesitate to approach your professor, a TA or a peer for advice on what to change. Then make the changes, commit to them, and see how they work on the next exam.

A mistake or misunderstanding is an opportunity for learning. Make sure you have a good reason for everything and then if incorrect, explain your reasoning to try to find out where you were off target.

Don’t give up! You can do it!