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How should one engage uninterested students in a fast-paced, densely fact-packed science course such as chemistry or microbiology? I find that the only students who truly understand and engage with the material are those who already have a strong background in the material being covered, while the rest of the class is usually ranging from bored to panicking, depending on how much they care about grades. (For most of the students in these classes, the science courses are required for their major, so they are taking them because they have to, not because they are intrinsically interested in the sciences.)

So how could I engage the interest of these students without dumbing down the course material or slowing down the pace of the class? Neither seems a viable option given department wide standards at this institution.

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    How are you currently teaching the course? Number of students? Format (lecture, lab, seminar)? Suggested changes will depend on what you're doing now. – Thomas Jul 29 '13 at 18:19
  • Twenty to thirty students, three hours of lecture and three hours of lab per week. – J. Zimmerman Jul 29 '13 at 18:25
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    How do you do the lecture? Is it all lecture or do you use small groups, "flipping," etc.? – Thomas Jul 29 '13 at 18:26
  • Mostly lecture using PowerPoint; try to incorporate group discussion, occasional small groups although space and time constraints prohibit the effectiveness of small groups. I would like to incorporate out-of-class assignments that would force students to think about what they are learning in lecture without taking up too much of their study time. (This is a community college so many of the students are working parents who juggle multiple demands on their time. Anything I require of them out of class should directly relate to course requirements.) – J. Zimmerman Jul 29 '13 at 18:37
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From a pedagogical standpoint, you always want to teach with a couple of things in mind:

  1. You have to have a standard for the class.
  2. The standard you set should be influenced by the level your students start at.

These two criteria frequently are at odds with each other, which is a shame: you want to teach the most engrossing, intellectual class so that each student can obtain a mastery of the important details of the subject, yet sometimes your students don't have the background and are not prepared to learn at that level, or are unmotivated for other reasons.

A third issue, and the one that you brought up, is the question of what to do when you have a heterogeneous set of students where some are unprepared (or unmotivated) and others are well prepared. If you are at an institution where the standard is very high, one option (and probably the right one) is to teach the material with the expectation that everyone will try their best and that it will be challenging for everyone, and let the cards fall as they may. Do your best to point the struggling students who want to learn the material to avenues for help -- office hours, tutoring, key reading material, etc. Don't worry particularly much about the ones who don't care -- if you're teaching an engaging class and they are bored because they don't really want to be there, that isn't your problem. If you find that you do have too many panicked students, you probably need to re-evaluate your teaching style or assessment plan, and slow things down. This is just the reality of the situation: too many of your students aren't prepared for the class as you envision it.

From your comment:

This is a community college so many of the students are working parents who juggle multiple demands on their time.

I believe in this case you may end up in the situation I just mentioned more than you'd like. I would venture a guess that many of your students have academic priorities that are less about getting every bit of learning out of your course, and more about doing well enough to graduate and be prepared for whatever the next step in their career is. I urge you to try to put yourself in their shoes (this is always a good idea) and try to see from their perspective what the course means to them. I have taught a college physical science course to non-science majors at the community college level where I was happy to give them the exposure to the material -- most of them had never taken a physics or chemistry class in their life (high school or otherwise), and I knew that it would not have been a good idea to try to force a lot of math-heavy science down their throats.

So I haven't really answered your specific question about how to "engage the interest of these students without dumbing down the course material or slowing the pace of the class." My suggestions are (1) to re-evaluate why you think you're already engaging (and tweak it to meet your students' level), and (2) to make sure you are providing concrete assessments for them to study for (or work on in lab). If your students know what they have to do to get a "B" versus an "A", this might lower the level of panic if they see that shooting for that "B" will be obtainable while still giving them time to keep the other priorities in their life straight.

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If I may contribute something more from Chris Gregg's excellent answer, from my experience as a high school science teacher for over a decade, in a range of environments. All having students with a mix of abilities and motivation.

Make the scientific concepts relevant, link the concepts to current discoveries - show them where the science is headed. Show them how the science affects their lives and how it would continue to affect them.

This is not always easy time-wise and logistically as it is not always easy to find how it links to their lives. But I found that the question:

"Have you seen/heard about [everyday life concept related to the science taught]?"

and go from there.

  • I whole-heartedly agree with UV-D. Another approach to making science more relevant is to relate the topics you teach to hot button issues (stem cell research, eugenics, etc...). Most students take more ownership of their learning when they realize that they have the power to vote and decide on these issues and that what they are learning will help them to make more informed decisions as voters. – Paul Nov 14 '13 at 14:36
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As a student, even if I was deeply enthusiastic about the course, I would be completely unengaged in any class session that consisted of powerpoint lectures. There are many alternatives, such as flipping, peer instruction (Mazur, Peer Instruction: A User's Manual), and various other forms of active engagement (Hake, "Interactive Engagement Versus Traditional Methods: a Six-Thousand Student Survey of Mechanics Test Data for Introductory Physics Courses, Am. J. of Phys, 66 (1997) 64).

How should one engage uninterested students in a fast-paced, densely fact-packed science course such as chemistry or microbiology? [...] For most of the students in these classes, the science courses are required for their major, so they are taking them because they have to, not because they are intrinsically interested in the sciences.

Are these actual examples? Do you actually teach both chem and microbiology? (That would be unusual.) I would think that microbiology would be the easiest thing in the world to sell to students. E.g., if they're premed, they ought to easily be able to appreciate the relevance of learning about viruses and bacteria.

In any case, your subject has intrinsic worth, interest, and beauty. Presumably that's why you got a graduate degree in it. Approach it from this point of view and without apology, and you have every right to expect that at least some of your students will respond. You can't expect every community college student to respond. Look at the parking lot on the first day of the semester. Look at the same parking lot in the last week of instruction. Many, many community college students simply shouldn't be in college.

Re "densely fact-packed" -- you could ask yourself whether your subject could be presented with less emphasis on memorization and more emphasis on concepts. Do you give open-notes tests? If not, why not?

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    "In any case, your subject has intrinsic worth, interest, and beauty. [...] Approach it from this point of view and without apology [...]". Indeed, that is the best way from my experience. It also tends to clearly divide the class into two groups; one truly appreciates the approach and likes it, while the other hates it because it doesn't quite line up with the syllabus... – user21820 Jan 29 '16 at 5:00
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    I'd also emphasize as part of the course why what I teach has worth or beauty, usually both. Too often educators just focus on the content and neglect the reason. – user21820 Jan 29 '16 at 5:02

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