A quantum leap forward in teaching

How the 2019 Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year improved a difficult course

When Donna Chen first taught physical chemistry at the University of South Carolina, the mood among students could only be described as bleak. Quantum mechanics — the specific focus of the course — has a reputation for being extraordinarily difficult to understand, and the students steeled themselves from day one.

Chen recalls that first day of class in 2001 like it was yesterday.

“It was very clear they were all completely terrified, they knew they were going to fail all of the exams, and the best they could hope for was that somehow they would get a C in the end,” says Chen, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “They knew they wouldn’t understand anything, but that was normal because no one understood anything [in quantum mechanics] — they were just there to survive.”

Changing those cynical attitudes was going to take a lot more than a pep talk, but Chen was up to the task. Now the university’s 2019 Michael J. Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year can look with satisfaction on how she helped change the culture of her department’s most difficult undergraduate course.

“The biggest hurdle for the average student was to get over the math hump, so we did a lot of things to make them feel more comfortable with the math,” Chen says. “They have to use all of their analytical skills, including previous knowledge of chemistry, physics and math to be able to solve these kinds of problems.

“It’s become a course on teaching students how to approach problems and think about them in an analytical way.”

To help her students get a better handle on that that higher-level approach to problem solving, Chen created a weekly recitation section for the class devoted purely to word problems.

“I might give them time to work on them in groups, or I might solve the problems at the board myself,” she says. “The thing to do is to get them thinking about problems so we can discuss them as a group, as opposed to they go home, look at the problems by themselves and say, ‘I have no idea what she’s talking about. I have no idea how even to start it.’”

I love research ... but I also found out that I cared just as much about my teaching.

Donna Chen, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Chen also added student representatives to the mix — a half dozen students who regularly provide feedback on how their classmates are doing in understanding the course content. Several students who nominated Chen for the Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year award mentioned the student representatives as proof of her concern for their success.

“She listens to student feedback and uses it to make the most of our experience,” wrote one student. “Dr. Chen is always clear in her explanations, which is important in such a difficult and confusing class as quantum chemistry.” Another student wrote: “I have her for CHEM 542, arguably one of the most difficult chemistry classes, and I have never felt so knowledgeable or comfortable about chemistry material.”

Like many other recipients of the university’s teaching awards, Chen takes time to learn the names of her students — all of them in physical chemistry and even a sizeable chunk in Chemistry 112, the auditorium-sized second semester chemistry course she teaches for freshmen. But there’s much more to her teaching philosophy than getting to know her students.

Her approach includes laying out expectations on the first day of class. “That way no one is surprised by what happens in the future,” she says. “Nothing is more upsetting to a student than thinking one thing is going to happen and then something else happens in the end.”

She also tries to write exams that will have a passing median score. “I don’t want to give an exam that everyone is going to fail and then just curve the scores up. I want to give an exam that is able to distinguish who knew things on what level.”

Finally, Chen makes it clear that her students are responsible for their own success. “They don’t have to wonder if they’re going to fail the course or not because it’s like, ‘Look at your grade. Is it a passing grade or is it not a passing grade? If it’s not, you need to do something about it,’” she says. “I’ll do anything that I can to help them, but they actually have to take responsibility for learning the material.”

Chen’s first love was research, but her passion for excellent teaching came soon after.

“I love research. That is the reason why I came to the University of South Carolina — but I also found out that I cared just as much about my teaching,” Chen says. “I can’t imagine shortchanging any of it.”

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