Dr. Michael Koerner
Dr. Koerner (“Dr. K.”) earned his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He started his industrial research experience as a pharmaceutical process chemist at G.D. Searle (a division of Monsanto, at the time), and then as a product development and formulation scientist at The Clorox Company. Dr. K. moved into the world of business. He was successful as a Associate Partner of technology transfer at Research Corporation Technologies, where he was responsible for creating, market planning, venture funding, directing the research, and managing the intellectual property of many technology start-up companies based upon chemistry research (clean energy, environmental, pharmaceutical, petroleum, medical oncology and imaging, among others). Dr. K. redeployed his efforts into the realm of higher education in 2000, teaching the in the MBA program at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, where he still retains his position as Faculty Fellow of Entrepreneurship. In 2006, Dr. K. transitioned into teaching the subject of college Chemistry as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Arizona and then moved (2013) to Champaign-Urbana as a Lecturer of Organic Chemistry at The University of Illinois.
(1) No Competition
I want students to succeed, and I let them know it. I create a class structure with no competition. For example, I use a flat, point-system as a grading scheme: 900 (or more) points are needed to earn an “A(minus)” grade; 800 for a “B(minus)” grade, etc. So, students who help others won’t “blow the curve” or in any way negatively affect their own grade or the class community. Everyone can succeed. It is possible for everyone to get an “A” grade, because there is no competition.
“Good teachers create the conditions under which learning takes place.”
~Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa
(2) Remove the Fear
Students don’t hate Chemistry. They are afraid of Chemisrty. An experienced instructor can tell when students are fearful. A class driven by fear exhibits “point-seeking behavior.” Fearful students will constantly argue for partial credit and ask, “what questions will be on the exam?” Because of fear, students lose trust, confidence, focus, curiosity and their critical thinking skills. Fearful students will only exert the minimum effort necessary to get the next higher grade.
By contrast, every instructor wants their students to thoroughly explore the subject, test their assumptions, ask for more efficient ways to solve problems, and seek alternate methods to understand difficult concepts. To reduce fear, I …
I promise students that I will test them on the skills and concepts that they are taught. I guide them by prioritizing (or at least identifying) the most important parts of the course material. For example, I tell students, “The Nernst Equation is so important that it will be on our exam in some form (mathematical and/or conceptual),” or “We need proficiency in all eight (8) separate parts, attributes, and skills to be able to master the Diels-Alder reaction,” or “We are going to spend the next two entire lectures describing everything we will ever need to know about the SN2 reaction.” Students are reassured that if they can master these subtopics, they will not be surprised on the exam.
In lecture, I identify the common pitfalls that most plagued past students. Students need to know where the math, or certain exceptions, or difficult language might cause them problems. Students appreciate my effort in coaching them to be more conscious of potential complications. We work exam questions everywhere: in class, in discussions, and several places on-line. Also, my exams are structured so that the easier, straight-forward, single-skill questions are on the first pages, while the more difficult, multiple-tasks come in the later pages. This structure builds student confidence during the beginning of each exam and allows an easier assessment of student’s abilities, since point totals for each exam section are recorded separately.
Teach the Process
Some students need an analytical, methodical, step-by-step (listed) tactical methodology, whereas others need an intuitive, holistic, instinctive approach built on perceptive methods. Therefore, I try to use a range of delivery methods, including: molecular animations, movie clips, in-class demos, discussions of industrial case studies, photos of (my past) industrial work spaces, personal stories, group activities, etc. However, in all of these instances, I thoroughly teach the processes that they can use to obtain knowledge. I teach skills and then layer them in order of difficulty (bond strengths, polarity, formal charges, nucleophile strengths, make-a-bond then break-a-bond, drawing reaction intermediates, full mechanisms, etc.) by hand-drawing my notes and talking them through the process.
(3) Deliver an Abundance of Resources
I provide students with an abundance of resources, including: old exams for practice, summary sheets and flowcharts for key topics, study guides, virtual (on-line) Office Hours on Facebook, hand-outs and PowerPoint slides for chapter summaries (and other static course content), Exam Reviews the evening before tests, online worksheets (difficult, challenging questions), etc. Many of these resources are tailored towards teaching students the process that they will use on exams. For example, within the context of Office Hours, I’ll annotate documents and deliver them electronically to the student’s email account. If a number of students find specific topics particularly troubling, we’ll create an electronic package of information and then post the summary as a podcast or tutorial to our Facebook group.
(4) Advantages (Building) of a Class Community
If teaching a new skill is challenging, then asking a student to change his or her method of preparation or expand their learning style is fundamentally more difficult, but it is necessary in a Chemistry course.
Students show the most (and fastest) academic improvement when they incorporate the help and guidance of others into their learning process. Students typically want to study alone, too late in the process, and only those topics and skills that they already understand and find most comfortable.
Therefore, especially in larger classes, I build a class community, where small, trusted group settings and partnerships form, and then I encourage, promote and reward early study habits. My goal is to create a community where the class can unify as a whole; students can share their individual strengths; and everyone can distribute information freely in a supportive manner. This collaboration propagates in our class Facebook Group, Discussion Sessions, Exam Reviews, Office & Preceptor Hours, online tutorials, study sessions, etc.
(5) Prepare in Group Settings
Most students want to prepare and learn by themselves – alone, isolated, “in a vacuum.” This is the strategy that they know and trust, because it has granted them success in the past. Unfortunately, their study habits are often too linear (i.e., “X” gives “Y”, then stop) and rely too heavily on their memorization skills, which can get easily overwhelmed by exam time in a Chemistry course.
Receiving help from a collective group with our common class goals is difficult for many students. Strong students are particularly resistant to relying on others for help, but they still can benefit. For example, every student has at least some mistakes in their lecture notes. These errors, left undisclosed, will cause frustration and hours of confusion for students when it comes time to study for the exam. If I have a few minutes at the end of a lecture, I ask for a student to volunteer to the class where on campus they will be rewriting their class lecture notes and encourage others to join him or her. The resultant small group setting produces constructive collaborations that they can rely upon to advance their skills. Many past students have told me that because of my class structure they have formed lasting partnerships that have served them well throughout the rest of their college career.
(6) Get Work Done Early
“Cramming” for a Chemistry course the night before the exam is like trying to eat thirty cheeseburgers in one evening. Learning, like digestion, requires time, and is not a scalable process. If I can get students to work problems early, the class community is stronger and actually easier to teach. Getting more practice early in the learning process provides better pattern recognition, which leads to advanced reasoning skills and heightened intuition. Eventually, both concrete skills and abstract learning will solidify. I reinforce and reward this behavior by offering substantial extra credit opportunities for students who get their work done early. Extra Credit is also awarded to everyone if the class as a whole meets certain milestones (e.g., high class averages on exams) and participation goals (e.g., high average attendance in Preceptor Hours and during online “Virtual” Office Hours on Facebook, total number of podcast tutorial downloads), etc.
Distinctions / Awards
- 2009-2010 Five Star Faculty Award Finalist (1 of 5) awarded by The University of Arizona Honors College
- 2010 Outstanding Teacher Award awarded by Sigma Kappa
- 2010-2011 Faculty of the Year Award awarded by Pi Kappa Alpha
- 2011 Accolades Finalist (1 of 4) for Outstanding Faculty of the Year awarded by the Center for Student Involvement & Leadership