Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 31, 2014

Sharing teaching strategies throughout a department

“Recording some of my lectures gave me the flexibility to have students do group work on case studies several times a quarter. These were optional class meetings but students still came. They were really interested in the chance to apply chemistry concepts to a real problem.”

Colleen Craig
Lecturer, Chemistry


Chemistry faculty build on a long tradition of collaboration to share best practices in teaching with technology. “There’s very much an open-door policy about help with teaching. That really set the tone for me,” says A.J. Boydston, who has advised numerous Chemistry faculty about setting up online office hours, recording lectures, and other technologies.

Many other faculty also share their experiences with using technology to increase in-class time for active learning. For example, recording some lectures allows Colleen Craig to offer students in Introduction to General Chemistry (CHEM 110) the option to work on case studies, and Boydston to have his organic chemistry students tackle problems together in class. “I break lecture to pass out slips of paper with exam-level questions on them and have students work on them in small groups,” says Boydston. The problems are set at a level that challenge the majority of students, so there’s inevitably an initial stunned silence, then a buzz of discussion. After about five minutes, he asks for students to volunteer their ideas and guides them to a solution. “It’s not that hard to have the discussion in a large class of 300 because the three or four responses you hear on how to approach the problem end up representing everyone in class.”

“My quality of life improved when I stopped teaching the textbook in lecture. By putting lectures of basic material online, I was able to reclaim class time for discussing, for helping my students learn to think like a chemist.”

A.J. Boydston
Assistant Professor, Chemistry


Boydston, Craig, and Stefan Stoll were Teaching with Technology Fellows in summer 2013.

Initial, informal results indicate that the changes faculty have made can improve learning. Stoll, who created about 70 online lectures for the winter 2013 session of his course Physical Chemistry (CHEM 455), found that average student scores increased about 10 percent on mid-term and final exams that were similar in complexity to those offered in previous quarters. “The students had a very, very positive response to the video lectures,” says Stoll. Craig reports that students showed higher levels of engagement and demonstrated greater achievement on assessments after she redesigned her course.

Producing these materials can involve substantial time and thought. “The mini-lectures don’t come out of thin air,” says Boydston. However, once a module is created, maintenance and revisions take considerably less time, according to Boydston and Stoll. Modules can also be shared with other faculty, a process that is easier in the newest version of the Canvas learning management system. Once a faculty member gives other faculty access to modules, they can pick and choose elements to transfer to their own course modules. “Maybe they like and use a third of the lectures,” says Boydston. “Or maybe they revise or add to the information in ways I can transfer back and use.” Here are suggestions from the Chemistry faculty on using technology to enhance teaching and learning:

“Creating online videos is an upfront investment that’s going to pay off. Now that I have the slide designs and scripts, I can modify and re-record them, which takes a fraction of the time.”

Stefan Stoll
Assistant Professor, Chemistry


Record nuts-and-bolts lectures to free up in-person class time for more interesting topics: “The first lecture I recorded was basic chemical nomenclature,” says Phil Reid. “That was really liberating for me because I hated that lecture. I was bored giving it, so you know the students were bored.” Boydston records two to five short lectures on fundamental, introductory material for each week of his in-person organic chemistry class. Each lecture, as is common among Chemistry faculty, shows the screen of Boydston’s tablet with voiceover. One of the topics he recorded first was how to draw molecules using software. Students who already have this skill can skip the lecture and go straight to the module quiz, while those who need more help can re-watch if they need to. “That way when we get to class, we can move onto more interesting topics, such as how a molecule’s structure affects the way it reacts with other molecules,” says Boydston.

Record lectures to provide an introduction to difficult material: By recording seven lectures a week, Stoll says he created a sort of video textbook for his section of Physical Chemistry (CHEM 455), which covers quantum mechanics. The online lectures provide an introduction to concepts and equations that Stoll explains more fully during in-person class. “You always need to reinforce the basic concepts,” says Stoll. “Just because students have seen a video once, that doesn’t mean they really understand the topic. They’re just a little prepped.”

Stoll’s video presentations start with an empty slide and then show him hand-drawing a series of equations, diagrams, and terms while explaining them via voiceover. “Because quantum theory is such a scary subject for students, I wanted to convey, at least subconsciously, the fact that you don’t need fancy graphics to understand it. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen.” While Boydston posts his videos through Canvas, Stoll has opted to post his videos on YouTube (Stoll’s YouTube channel). When the class was in session, Stoll made videos available only to his students, so he could track analytics. After the end of the quarter, he opened them up to the public.

Focus on audio quality when recording presentations: “The podcasting literature says that if your audio quality is not good, you’re going to lose audience,” says Stoll. “You need to make sure your voice is clear and there’s no noise in the background.” Stoll purchased his own microphone to improve recording quality and, to minimize background noise, records late at night in his kitchen with the refrigerator turned off.

“The key is to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish and find the simplest method to accomplish it. Sometimes that’s with technology.”

Jasmine Bryant
Lecturer, Chemistry


Require a syllabus quiz: Craig has begun requiring that students in her introductory chemistry class pass a quiz about the class syllabus before they can access any other course materials. “Students don’t have to memorize the syllabus, they just need to know that they can look up information there on things like department policies, important due dates, and what students should do if they miss a lab or an exam,” says Craig. “The goal is to empower them to answer their own questions.”
Create video quiz keys: “I’ve recorded a short five-minute video where I work through the answer key of the weekly quiz and explain my reasoning,” says Jasmine Bryant, adding that she got the idea from Boydston. “A minority of students viewed the video, perhaps 80 out of 300, but those students really liked it.”

Offer online office hours: “When you offer online office hours on Sunday evening, you’ll have 60 to 70 percent attendance; it’s just amazing,” says Stoll. About 120 students attended office hours that Bryant recently offered on the Sunday just prior to the final exam. “Most just listened,” says Bryant. “The students with questions type them in the chat window, and I answer them. I share the screen of my tablet so I can draw pictures to explain concepts. It’s basically a broadcast.” Boydston’s advice on online office hours is available on page four of the Provost report “Putting Learning First: How Students Learn and How Technology Can Help.”

Jasmine Bryant in organic chemistry lecturing

Chemistry faculty such as Colleen Craig and Jasmine Bryant (above) informally coordinate their teaching of large undergraduate classes, which primarily serve non-majors. The department runs three sections of general and organic chemistry series in parallel, often with different instructors. Therefore, each quarter hundreds of students shuffle sections and instructors.

“We need to make sure students get what they need in each course to progress successfully to the next,” says A.J. Boydston.“So we’ve developed team-based knowledge of what students need to cover in each quarter in the sequence.”

Technology helps them coordinate. Boydston and colleagues voted to use a common online homework system, and they share course content such as recorded lectures. “Recent changes to the Canvas learning management system make it easier to share materials on the fly, even during a course,” says Phil Reid.

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to use technology in the classroom to engage students.