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This issue of CDTL Brief features articles based on select presentations at the Teaching Workshop on Freshman Seminars conducted by the Faculty of Science on 22 April 2009.

September 2009, Vol. 12 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Freshman Seminar: A Forum to Learn More by Teaching Less
Professor T. S. Andy Hor
Department of Chemistry,
NUS Teaching Academy Fellow

Many of us tend to ‘over-teach’ because it is very tempting to subscribe to the notion that the more we teach, the more students can learn. This is obviously a misconceived notion because the learning outcome is determined by a complex mix of factors and the amount of materials we dish out is hardly a gauge of our effectiveness in teaching, let alone learning. Let us not forget the basic rule of education — teaching can only be as effective as learning permits.

We can all learn from the science of chemistry here. The yield of a chemical reaction is not only determined by how much substrates it consumes, but also by how the reaction conditions are optimised. There are many reactions with 100% consumption of reagents but very poor yields of products. In the classroom, this is translated into poor learning outcomes because of a disconnection between teaching and learning, and the less-than conducive environment. This is where the freshman seminar can make an impact.

Students generally learn best when they are (a) motivated, (b) inspired, (c) engaged and (d) challenged. We can put these into practice in these seminars.

I have conducted two freshman seminars since the programme was launched: “The Artistic Molecules and Molecular Art” and “The Five S’s of Molecular Science”. They have one feature in common—the use of molecules to motivate learning.

The most valuable teaching materials are often those that matter most to our lives. Molecules in all shapes and sizes are present everywhere. Without them, we cannot live. Yet, if we come into contact with the wrong ones, we are dead. The irony of these statements provides a great driving force in motivating even the most “unmotivatable” students. The seminars give us an opportunity to introduce a myriad of activities that help students overcome the kinetic barrier of learning.

Inspiration is the best catalyst for knowledge acquisition and application. Different students get their inspirations from different sources. They are also inspired by different modes of teaching. The freshman seminar gives one a the chance to know each student and take a personalised approach to meet individual needs.

One of the biggest challenges facing teaching and learning in NUS is the large classes, impersonal environment and the ‘free size’ curriculum. These are by no means unique to NUS but the common side-effects of any large comprehensive national or state university. Every challenge creates an opportunity. By injecting some ‘fresh air’ into a ‘boutique education’ within a comprehensive structure, we can seize the opportunity and make a real difference here.

Researchers take pride in their new discoveries and creation of new knowledge. An inspirational teacher can offer new insights that can help students grasp difficult concepts. Inspirational teaching is not about delivering a highly organised lecture or one that is delivered by a charismatic professor. It is about offering insights and perceptive ideas that make learning enjoyable and enriching. Learning molecular chirality is such an example. It is a topic that even a chemistry major would find difficult, let alone novice students in the heterogeneous freshman seminar class. Yet, there are many examples in life that can inspire such learning; cutting dragon fruits is one of them (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Appreciation of the concept of homo- and heterochirality through cutting dragon fruits.

Is it too hard to differentiate “homochirality” from “heterochirality”, or “diastereomers” from “enantiomers”? How about taking on a challenge to cut a dragon fruit so that two halves are the same and yet not the same? Or cutting two dragon fruits in the same yet not the same way? Sounds mind-boggling? My students had hours of serious fun doing it.

Teaching would never be effective without engagement. Why do our students need to attend our classes if they can learn everything from textbooks, literature, the Internet and so on? The key and the difference is engagement.

The small group setting of freshman seminar provides an ideal opportunity to engage the students on a one-to-one basis. My typical freshman class comprises 50% of chemistry major, 25% of life science major and 25% of other majors such as physics, mathematics and statistics. The heterogeneity presents a formidable challenge to any professor in a big class. In the freshman seminar however, it presents an ideal opportunity to practise personalised teaching. Every student is different and each requires a special approach to maximise the learning outcome. This can only be achieved if we make a serious effort to engage individuals in the class.

Engagement requires more than personal attention. It is a chance to introduce different activities in and outside the classroom including projects, essays, field trips, literature review, presentations and teamwork. One will find that different students respond to different situations and demands, and the mindset of ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ students will change as soon as the class is put through different challenges. I have not met a student in my 25 years of academic life who is strong in everything or weak in everything.

Students can be classified according to four levels of abilities: (a) gifted, (b) admirable, (c) competent and (d) inadequate. The bottom-line of a professor is to transform an inadequate student to become a competent one and to stretch the potential of students regardless of their abilities. This requires patience, skill and resourcefulness. One will never be considered as an adequate professor if one fails this challenge.

Chemistry offers another example to show us how we can approach students of different abilities. Take for example a simple 3-step reaction: A + B ? … ? … ? C + D. An inadequate student would struggle to get the answer of “C + D”. A competent one would get this, but unable to explain why it must be “C and D” instead of “X and Y” or whatever. An admirable one can go beyond the basics by offering an alternative pathway such that A + B ? C + D takes place in one step. This is an academic challenge that is industrially relevant.

With a group of gifted students, one should challenge them to propose a single-product reaction (condition) such that A + B ? C when the formation of D would be undesirable. This would then become a molecularly economised equation and a model process of our future chemical and pharmaceutical industry. Freshmen seminars thus allow us to introduce contemporary concepts to the class in an informal atmosphere. The horizon of learning is thus expanded, not by the quantity of the teaching materials but by approaching the materials from a fresh angle.

It is relatively easy to bring ‘hot-from-the oven’ research findings to the classroom. This is where education and research intersects and how even the most gifted students can be intellectually challenged. A good example is the concept of molecular assembly. It is natural for materials scientists to introduce to students ideas of Molecular Porous Materials (MOM), Porous Organic Materials (POM) and Molecular Organic Framework (MOF) (see Figure 2). These materials are good illustrations of the essence of the five S’s (Shape, Space, Structure, Symmetry and Science) of molecular science, and are taught as advanced topics in a standard chemistry curriculum. Yet, when these are shared in our seminars, students would be surprised at their own ease of absorption and assimilation.

Figure 2. Porous materials developed in the research laboratory of the author.

Molecular symmetry is another essential concept in chemistry, but it is rarely possible to introduce it to freshman classes. The freshman seminar is an exception. There is an easy way to learn symmetry through molecular models and daily encounters (see Figure 3). This is another example of how we can lower a learner’s kinetic barrier. When we further link symmetry to molecular origami, it is not difficult to see why we are getting some delightful responses from the students.

Figure 3. Home-made “molecular models” built by students as a means to learn chirality and symmetry.

Freshman seminar is an experience not only for the students, but also the professors. It provides an ideal forum to build rapport and trust between faculty and students. This form of experiential teaching lets us exploit our desire to influence how our students should approach knowledge acquisition, integration and application. This is achieved not by over-indulgence in the process of knowledge transfer, but by sharing the different mechanism in knowledge dissection, assimilation and creation. If the freshman seminar can impose a positive infl uence on the subsequent learning and development of our students, we would have every reason to rejoice as a faculty member.

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Inside this issue
Freshman Seminar: A Forum to Learn More by Teaching Less
FSE1202: Great Discoveries and Inventions
Freshman Seminar Module: A Mathematical Experiment
Promoting Individual Learning Through Small Classes
Teaching Sustainable Development to Freshmen
A Freshman Seminar in FASS: “Representing War”
At Last, Learning Can Really be Fun!