Nancy Mullins
Nancy Mullins
Professor of Chemistry; B.S., Ph.D., University of Florida

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I'm not going to lie—I teach a tough course. I teach high-content, high-vocabulary courses with word problems—an anxiety-inducing and intimidating blend. And yet, in spite of the difficulties students face with my subject, I usually have 90% retention. I have failing students who, instead of just giving up and disappearing, want to sit through and audit the rest of the class because, in their words, they "...don’t want to miss anything."


My overall pass rate is 65%. Though that number is five points higher than the national average, a sizeable amount of students do not succeed, (achieve a letter grade of a ‘C’ or above). Sometimes I hit above the 65% mark and other times I fall short. I teach in a college with no entry requirements. My students are usually the first members of their families to go to college. Their average age is twenty-eight, and they are commuter students with additional responsibilities uncommon among resident undergrads. So the question becomes: Why do some of my students stay and persist while others drop out? What are the deciding factors in each of these scenarios? You probably have asked similar questions. I don’t consider myself a ‘rock star’ educator, but there are tactics and strategies I use that have made a big difference.


As teachers we know not all topics are riveting—either for me to teach or for my students to learn. So I look for something—anything that will make the topic relevant and exciting. Do you just need a flashy spin on the topic?  Not always, but if you use a few creative strategies to tackle the dry spots you will see a marked difference. I will share a few that I employ.


  • Gamification: I make decks of cards to create a game of "Concentration.” Students have to match a vocabulary term to a particular application or match a word with a formula. Technology enables me to create quiz games. (I use WileyPLUS, Blackboard, StudyMate, or SoftChalk for these.)
    • Typically, the games I create are meant to be team games with sets of students competing against one another. If your tech resources are limited, make print versions of Quiz Bowl-type questions. For prizes, I am not a believer is giving extra points to students. I buy small packs of mints or candy to hand out—and even for such low stakes, students become very competitive. I also award “Get Out of the Hot Seat Cards.” These cards are granted to all the members of the highest scoring team and privileges the winners with one free pass to ‘get out of the hot seat’ if they are unprepared to answer a direct question correctly.
    • Sometimes  I will reward the losing team for their grit and persistence. I praise their tenacity of their attempt. Other times, it is the not the highest performers or the lowest, but the average students who get a perk. The premise being that everybody benefits from the process as long as they remain resolute in their learning. The only groups that never receive a bonus are the teams that fail to stay on task or disappointingly, make little to no effort to learn.
    • These activities are typically ten minutes in length, but equate, in learning time to about an hour of class continuity.


  • Review the Trouble Spots: After having played a learning game, I will focus on a selection of incorrect responses as a means of discussing the ‘muddiest points.' I look specifically for questions consistently answered incorrectly by the teams—an indication of there being ‘muddy’ or unclear concepts persisting within students’ minds. The review of these trouble spots is to clarify the conceptions that were previously murky.


  • If You Were the Teacher, What Would You Ask on a Test? I often use this tactic at the end of a lecture on a complicated process or concept. I ask the students to suggest exam questions. The class gets all of the submissions and I pick one to use. The benefit of this technique is that it puts my students in the mindset of trying to uncover the big picture. Sometimes, the questions the students suggest are WAY harder than what I would have asked. The author of the winning submission gets 10% of the question's point value on the exam.


  • Group Work: My spin on group work facilitates the asking and answering of a variety of questions that immediately become available for review. I usually assign group work near the end of class as the work summarizes the class discussion. Students, placed into groups consisting of no more than three members must complete a task within ten minutes. Once done, the team puts their signatures to their work and post a photo of their signed responses to the class website.


    • Never have I had a team who answered correctly without some assistance. If a group is uncertain, I will check their progress at the midpoint, but I do not helicopter over the teams. Groups must seek help on their initiative, and I make that clear at the outset. I will show them where they went wrong if needed, but they arrive at the end on their own.


    • If I have assigned a group-work question, it is because it’s a difficult concept to master or a multi-step problem. I emphasize that they will have one of such problems on their exam. These questions range from easy to hard.


  • Class Time Is Engagement Time: Because the activities mentioned above take time away from the lecture, I have to trade-off. Class readings are due before class—pre-lecture quizzes keep the students accountable. My focus during class time is on applying the concepts, clarifying complex definitions and de-mystifying trickier topics.


    • My pre-lecture quizzes cover vocabulary and basic concepts from assigned homework questions. The quizzes are multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, or matching and are not meant to be difficult. I also give them a reading outline that guides their pre-class experience. When I started doing these quizzes, I expected push back, but when I queried student opinion, they told me that the quizzes helped their learning a great deal. I make them 2% of their course grade—and I have one hundred percent compliance. I also warn my students that if too many of their classmates (more than three people) don't complete the quizzes, I won’t post my lectures notes for review.


  • Say It and Mean It: Follow through. Make them believe you. Show them that their study efforts are meaningful. Give clear expectations, and then assess them as you said that you would. For example, I reference exam material to specific class dates, examples or group activities. Doing so melts away the "test had nothing to do with the lecture" argument.


At the start of a semester, I ask my students: Why are you taking this class? What is your goal? If it is to get an “A,” you may not like me. If it is to learn, then you will. As educators, we understand that learning is hard and the pursuit of knowledge is, at times, painful. I remind my students of this reality after the first exam when many are disappointed with their grades. I encourage them to push through because learning is not about a GPA--it’s bigger and far more beautiful than shortsighted definitions of academic success. I cannot change the fact that, as a result of the difference between my goals and those of the majority of my students, my overarching purpose as an educator is not held in esteem. I am very open to my students. I say, "If you don't like me, feel free to trash me on Rate my Professor—and your friends probably won't like me either." Some take the advice and unburden themselves in a negative fashion. But something else happens that blunts even the harshest of my critics--my classes fill. Some students stay until the end knowing they will not pass. Why? Because they get it; for some, it may be their first realization of an exhilarating truth—learning has great intrinsic value.


What about those students for whom the epiphany does not come? I sincerely grieve over what amounts to a double failure. The first failure of not passing the course is the less important than the second: failing to see learning as more than a letter grade. The reasons behind the failures vary; for some, there is not enough time to juggle their classes and home-life. Others, however, possess a stubborn unwillingness to change their academic mindset. I can get them to class; I can get them to master the material in the short term, but long-term learning, and lifelong love of learning takes far more than that.


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