Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I found this New York Times story on a chemistry professor heartening

I thought this story about a somewhat different approach to teaching introductory chemistry at the University of Texas in the New York Times Magazine was pretty neat: 
The person at the University of Texas who has been given the responsibility for helping these students succeed is a 56-year-old chemistry professor named David Laude. He is, by all accounts, a very good college professor — he illustrates the Second Law of Thermodynamics with quotations from Trent Reznor and Leonard Cohen and occasionally calls students to the front of the class to ignite balloons filled with hydrogen into giant fireballs. But he was a lousy college student. As a freshman at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn., Laude felt bewildered and out of place, the son of a working-class, Italian-American family from Modesto, Calif., trying to find his way at a college steeped in Southern tradition, where students joined secret societies and wore academic gowns to class. “It was a massive culture shock,” Laude told me. “I was completely at a loss on how to fit in socially. And I was tremendously bad at studying. Everything was just overwhelming.” He spent most of his freshman year on the brink of dropping out. 
But he didn’t drop out. He figured out college, then he figured out chemistry, then he got really good at both, until he wound up, 20 years later, a tenured professor at U.T. teaching Chemistry 301, the same introductory course in which he got a C as a freshman in Sewanee. Perhaps because of his own precarious college experience, Laude paid special attention as a professor to how students were doing in his class. And year after year, he noticed something curious: The distribution of grades in his Chemistry 301 section didn’t follow the nice sweeping bell curve you might expect. Instead, they fell into what he calls a “bimodal distribution.” In each class of 500 students, there would be 400 or so who did quite well, clustered around the A and high-B range. They got it. Then there would be a second cluster of perhaps 100 students whose grades were way down at the bottom — D’s and F’s. They didn’t get it. 
To many professors, this pattern simply represents the natural winnowing process that takes place in higher education. That attitude is especially common in the sciences, where demanding introductory classes have traditionally been seen as a way to weed out weak students. But Laude felt differently. He acknowledged that some of his failing students just weren’t cut out for chemistry, but he suspected that many of them were — that they were smart but confused and a little scared, much as he had been.
I would prefer to see a peer-reviewed study of a randomized controlled trial of Laude's techniques (which involves identifying students likely to do poorly and then giving them a lot of resources, both directed at help with chemistry and help with teaching good study techniques, tc.). But it is neat to see that someone is trying to solve this rather intractable problem.


  1. I have observed that same bi-modal distribution when I teach Assembly Language (chemist gone comp sci here). I call them (privately) the clue-positive and clue-negative populations. Some people have a difficult time breaking down an algorithm into instructions which a computer can actually execute. In a way, the high-level languages are a crutch in the earlier courses.

    Some people get it, others change majors to IT. gr

  2. I am a PhD from UT, and know Laude quite well. I'm happy chemistry is getting attention, but he's really just another blow-hard who loves the sound of his voice, teaches 1 section of intro chemistry/year and spends the rest of his time as one of the many redundant dean positions that UT has.

  3. I took analytical chemistry from Laude at UT about 15 years ago, and he's a pretty good lecturer with a lot of enthusiasm. But that was about it, there was no special attention to students failing or any extraordinary effort to help students. He was just another tenured professor hustling his way up the food chain to score a fatter paycheck to pay for all of his divorces.

  4. Unstable IsotopeMay 20, 2014 at 8:13 PM

    This is pretty interesting, I wonder if it works. I've always gotten the impression that these students having trouble didn't really care but could a certain percentage not know who or how to ask for help? I think this would make a great study.

    1. I have tried everything up to and including Vulcan mind-melding with some of the clue-negative persons in my classes and had little to show for it. It doesn't mean that I stop trying (which is, after all, the definition of insanity), but I've stopped beating myself up for failing. Just rejoice for the ones you reach.