Those Who Can, Teach: Anna Donnell
Continuing our series of interviews with innovative educators, we find out how new tools are bringing a fresh approach to chemistry teaching at the University of Cincinnati.
What motivates you to teach?
I’ve always loved figuring out how the world works and helping others do the same. My passion for science started at a young age and developed alongside my enjoyment of teaching others. In my role as an educational developer, I not only get to teach faculty about evidence-based pedagogies, but I also work closely with faculty in a range of disciplines to incorporate evidence-based practices into their teaching. Many new faculty are surprised that CET&L exists as a resource and welcome new ideas for making their courses more engaging, inclusive, and active.
What motivates your students to learn?
For many students, an experience or person piques their interest and causes them to want to learn more. We can work to motivate students by relating chemistry to the world around us and by getting to know our students, but we also need to work to keep students motivated and continue to support them through graduation and in their careers. I was lucky to be educated and mentored by several inspiring female teachers who made chemistry relevant, but, perhaps more importantly, they also gave me a bit of a push and the confidence to continue to study chemistry and pursue my PhD. They continue to mentor and support me, and I have become a mentor for some of their students as well!
What is the best approach to teaching analytical chemistry?
I approach the subject from a very practical, hands-on, real-world point of view. Creating active learning opportunities during class where students can apply knowledge to real-world situations is not only motivating, but develops skills that they will use when they graduate. Students enjoy connecting what they are learning in the classroom to their local community or to issues that affect their daily life. I often try to incorporate applied chemistry through videos, current events, and literature to engage my students.
What is your biggest challenge in teaching?
Today’s students are juggling far more than just their coursework. Most of my students are working part-time jobs and they need to develop time management skills to attend to both areas of their life while trying to feel connected to the college community. To overcome this challenge, I am very purposeful in the work that I have my students do outside of class, and I also communicate how what they do outside of class connects to what we are doing in class. I want students to feel like these assignments matter and that I respect their time.
What valuable skills are graduating students lacking?
Communication skills, often classified under “soft skills”, are continually recognized by employers as highly desired but not necessarily well developed in students. Partly because these skills sit outside the content of the class, they often aren’t directly addressed. In addition, large class sizes may limit communication-based activities, such as presentations. We can provide a variety of ways for students to practice their communication skills, even in large classes, such as group activities, projects, and “low-stakes” (or informally graded) writing assignments.
What impact has technology had on the way you teach?
The benefits of technology far outweigh the potential for distraction. Efficiencies in students working together in groups and streamlining some of the logistics of teaching, such as turning in assignments and grading, have made life far easier. For group projects, I use a file sharing tool called Box – everyone has access through their university username, there is technical support through our Help Desk, and I can monitor groups’ progress at any time rather than waiting for groups to turn in the final assignment.
How do you see the future of new technologies in education?
Educational technology is rapidly evolving and expanding; however, we can’t count on our students knowing how to use it. The notion that students are “digital natives” assumes that students can figure something out because they’ve been exposed to technology their whole lives. In reality, students don’t want to have to keep learning new technologies for each course they take, it’s exhausting and hard to keep track of which tool you are using for which class.
I work with faculty members to figure out the simplest tool that students are familiar with that meets the pedagogical goal, rather than start with the flashiest new tool out there. Our first step is to see if a university-supported tool fits their needs because that guarantees that all students have access, students may be familiar with the tool already, and there is technical support. Our next step is to identify resources for students on how to use the tool. This takes the burden off the professor so that they can focus on the activity or assignment, rather than answering technical questions about the tool. Often, the simpler the tool, the better.
Could you give an example of a course you’ve helped redesign?
Over the past few years, I’ve worked to redesign our Analytical Laboratory course. A major component involved developing new experiments that incorporated real-world applications. I developed an experiment to detect arsenic in sinus wash and tap water using inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), which continues to be one of the students’ favorite labs. Students can bring in their own tap water sample and are eager to test water from their homes and locations around the city. I also developed a robust rubric and peer evaluation form to aid in grading the laboratory reports and monitoring how students work in groups. Both of these tools have resulted in more consistent grading and fewer group dynamic issues.
What advice would you give to teachers who want to incorporate new techniques into their teaching?
First, I would start with your goal. Do you want more students to participate? Do you want to figure out a better way to grade a particular assignment? Do you want to know what students retain from pre-class reading? From there, I would look to see what others have done so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There is a great deal of literature out there and plenty of resources on active learning, assessment, course design, inclusive teaching, and so on. Your institution may have a Center for Teaching and Learning that can also help you find strategies that fit your goal. Finally, start small. Try to incorporate one new strategy in the next course you teach; gather feedback from students and reflect on how you think it went to help you make adjustments for next time.
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