Teaching Hub

Teaching Complex Topics in Large Courses

by Kevin Shaughnessy, Department of Chemistry

My large class assignments are organic chemistry, which is one of the more challenging lower-level courses that science and pre-health students will take. There is a large volume of material that is highly interconnected. My goals in the class are for them to not only know basic facts, but also be able to take what they’ve learned, evaluate problems, and come up with solutions based on concepts they’ve previously learned. They need to be able to synthesize and apply the knowledge they are gaining.

One strategy I commonly use is to ask a series of questions during lecture that let students use what they have learned already to come up with hypotheses related to new concepts. Sometimes these are set up so that they will make a wrong prediction because a results is counterintuitive to prior results. In other cases, their prior experience can lead them to the correct conclusion. In either case, rather than just providing them the outcome, I like to encourage them to use their knowledge and synthesize new concepts based when they already know.

Another strategy that I use is to try to explain nearly everything in the class in terms of a few fundamental concepts that tie it all together. By constantly referring students back to these concepts, I think it helps them start to develop their own understanding. Organic chemistry has a reputation as a heavy memorization course. It is true that there a lot of information to remember, but by focusing on the fundamental underlying concepts, that information becomes much more intuitive.

Finally, I try to relate things were discussing to everyday life. This fairly easy to do because organic chemistry impacts nearly everything that they do. This helps keep students engaged in class and also helps them remember concepts.