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Chemistry 43 class operates without lectures and textbooks

One University professor has adopted an unconventional teaching method for his Chemistry 43 class.

Rather than lecturing during classtime, Stephen Craig, associate professor of chemistry, supervises groups of students working together on in-class problems. And instead of assigning reading from a physical textbook, Craig gives his class various video clips, recorded lectures, PDFs and e-book files centered on the class’ weekly topics. The class is one of the first of its kind for undergraduates at the University.

“My prior experience teaching Chem 31 was great, but so many of the best moments, I believe for both the students and for me, came from discussions during office hours,” Craig wrote in an email Saturday. “I wanted to create more opportunities for those types of interactions.”

The class is divided into groups of students that work together to solve assigned problems in class with the assistance of their instructors and the multimedia resources given to them.

Craig noted that the new method improved the students’ levels of engagement.

“The biggest difference I see is the intensity of the class period—it is hard for me or for the students to go on auto-pilot,” he said. “One valuable thing that happens is that the conversations we have as a full class are really focused on the less obvious aspects of concepts and questions, and I think that’s great.”

Craig said the new model has affected his daily responsibilities as an instructor.

“I have to be ready to respond to anything that comes up,” he said. “Duke students are remarkably adept at asking the really hard questions, so that’s a big difference from just talking through a set of materials that I have planned out in advance.”

This alternative, team-oriented model was based partially on the success of similar approaches at the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, Craig said.

Richard MacPhail, co-director of undergraduate studies for the chemistry department and associate professor of chemistry, said this method might be adopted on a wider scale if it proves to be effective.

“Since we have students in two sections of Chem 43 taking these two different approaches, we hope to have data at the end of the fall that will help us answer this question,” MacPhail wrote in an email Thursday. “If this approach is determined to be a success, I suspect that at least some chemistry faculty [would] be willing to try it.”

Many students responded positively to the class, noting its high level of engagement.

“I really like the structure,” freshman Claire Meriwether said. “I like that it’s more you discovering the knowledge than the knowledge being given to you. I think in the long term, I’ll be able [to recall the information better].”

Meriwether added that there are many benefits to the class’ small size, which is more rare in introductory science courses.

“My favorite part of it is the size—there’s only 30 people,” she said. “I know the professor a lot better than I would in a big lecture.... He’s really involved in all levels of the class, so I really appreciate that.”

Others expressed similar praise for the class’s structure.

“I like it because I can work at my own pace, and I don’t have to sit through the lecture and feel like I’m falling asleep,” freshman Katie West said. “I haven’t missed class yet.... You have a team, and you’re letting down the team if you’re absent.”

West said, however, she hopes for greater use of the textbook.

“I would like it more if we could have more work out of the book because I tend to start reading the book more of the time,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll ask people from other Chem 43 sections to send me their [practice problem sets].”

Craig noted that despite the positive student response, the new model still faces some hurdles.

“One general challenge is that the class period doesn’t necessarily feel as cohesive as it might in a lecture where I weave a story or stories from start to finish,” he said.

There are plans to test this method on other introductory courses next semester, depending on the results found this Fall, MacPhail said.

“We would also need to scale things up to a larger course size, which is a significant challenge,” he said. “We plan to explore scale-up options during the coming spring semester.”

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