The University Record, October 24, 1994

Coppola strives for learner-centered class environment

By Rebecca A. Doyle

One of the pitfalls of teaching very large lecture courses, says Brian P. Coppola, is the temptation to aim instruction at the top 10 percent of students in that course, because those students “seem to be getting it.”

Instead, he says, “I firmly believe that the people I can affect are those in the great unwashed middle, to try to get them to do the things that I want them to do.”

Coppola, who recently presented his teaching philosophies in one of a series of noon colloquia on teaching large classes, teaches two of the four lecture sessions of Chemistry 210. The introductory course serves 1,200 first-year students in lectures of about 350 students each. He received the Golden Apple Award last year, an award created by students to recognize outstanding teachers.

One of Coppola’s goals—to create learner-centered instruction in the large lecture environment—requires that the teacher think of himself as the learner and “be very attuned to trusting what I say.” As a concrete example, Coppola said that after teaching acid-base chemistry for more than 12 years, it only occurred to him last week that in talking about acid and base strength, students were confusing the definitions of strong, which is used in about four ways.

“We talk about the bonds being strong, so they stay together. We talk about acid being strong, which actually means the opposite. It means that they come apart,” Coppola explained. “The idea of a very strong Western prejudice of strength, building and accumulation probably runs afoul of student’s interpretation of that very word.

“I heard this in a conversation, and sure enough, the thing that kept getting messed up for that group of students in this conversation was that the strong acid, of course, is the one that wins, the one that persists when instead it has to do just the other thing to survive.”

When he brought up the topic, it caused a great deal of conversation both in class and after class.

“Twelve years later,” he said. “It just never occurred to me to listen that carefully and think about something so fundamentally simple as the word and the implications that go along with it.”

When asked what their goals are in a course, most students will say they want to get a good grade—motivation that remains with the student far into the course. Faculty members who are asked the same question give answers that are all tied to subject matter mastery, he notes. Coppola says he doesn’t try to dispel students’ goals of getting a good grade, but he does ask them to tie it to something.

One of the strategies he uses, Coppola says, is to think of himself as having a conversation, whether the class has three or 300 students.

Coppola pointed to a recent anonymous article in the Journal of Chemical Education as an example of professor-centered education rather than learner-centered education. Phrases like “I had told them...” and “it had been introduced ...” and “we had discussed ...” tell where the teacher feels the responsibility for the learning lies. When teacher and student both think of the learning process as a collaboration, they are likely to be more successful, he says.

Coppola said he almost left teaching after a few months because he “couldn’t understand why I was there talking about chemistry to students who simply weren’t ever going to be doing it.”

In the past 20 years, higher education has changed from a vocational orientation to a broad, liberal-arts-values kind of education, he notes, and realizing that he could be teaching beyond the level of the subject material may be why he is still teaching.

“Those values can go beyond, or transcend, the content of the course structure,” Coppola says. The liberal arts values, which include thinking skills rather than rote memorization of tables and formulas, are what he tries to instill in students as part of his course.

Coppola’s presentation was part of a series sponsored by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching this fall about teaching large classes. The series continues Thursday (Oct. 27) with Susan Montgomery, assistant professor of chemical engineering, noon–1:30 p.m. in Room 1706, Willard Henry Dow Laboratory.

Also scheduled:

Nov. 3—Stephen Sumida and Patricia Gurin, who taught UC299: Race, Racism and Ethnicity, noon–1:30 p.m. and Nov. 10—Kent Syverud, Law School, noon–1:30 p.m., all in the same location.