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Active Learning

Chemistry lab  (Ben Binhong Lin, Stanford University)
Ben Binhong Lin, Stanford University

Just as chemistry is an experimental science – so too is education. Each year we learn more and more about best ways in which to help students learn and engage with the material. Therefore, you will notice that our courses and the ways in which we teach continue to evolve as well.

While actively engaging in a course lecture or section may feel awkward or difficult at first, give it a chance!  Lots of data out there has shown that students who actively engage with the material during lecture retain far more! (Read more here, from PNAS.) By finding ways to paraphrase, practice with, and ask questions about the material you are learning during course meetings times you will make much more efficient use of your hours both inside and outside the classroom.

What are some of the specific ways in which we might engage you in our courses? Here are just a few of the many opportunities you might have in our department:


Many of our courses will pause several times throughout the lecture to allow students to answer questions through a clicker device. Clickers provide many advantages to both the student and the instructor such as:

  • Providing real time opportunities for students to put material into practice
  • Allowing students to participate in a large lecture while staying anonymous, creating two-way communication in lecture between students and instructors
  • Immediate feedback to both the student and instructor on clarity of material
  • Enables instructor to better adapt to classroom needs

Each question is an opportunity for you to check-in and see whether you are able to apply to current material – come to class prepared and ready to engage so you best take advantage of this time to further your learning!


Group-Individual-Group (GIG) Learning methods emphasize cooperative and collaborative learning, an effective approach throughout the chemistry curriculum.

Read more about the GIG Model

Flipped Classrooms

A “flipped classroom” might mean different things to different people right now, but the general idea is to move more of the passive preparatory work (like reading and practice exercises) that students can do more easily on their own to OUTSIDE of the classroom and moving more active and difficult activities such as discussing applications of more challenging material and in depth problem solving to INSIDE the classroom. You will notice that in many classes, we are gradually implementing more outside of class components in freshman program to allow us to gradually flip classrooms as both instructors and students grow more comfortable with this approach. There are two sequences for the freshman courses, a traditional and an advanced sequence. The traditional sequence covers general chemistry over two quarters. The advanced sequence covers general chemistry using calculus during one quarter. Students continue into organic chemistry after either sequence.

In the traditional course, pre-lecture reading and online homework, including key concept videos and worked examples, are due before each lecture. This pre-lecture assignment presents practice with fundamental topics and concepts in order to allow for a deeper exploration during lecture and section. Clicker questions throughout the lecture allow students to apply their knowledge from the reading and push themselves further in problem solving during the class. In the advanced course, videos are being posted to provide explanations for topics and problems prior to or after lectures. The screencast videos are created using an iPad and the Camtasia software package. The goal of the videos is to reinforce lecture topics or potentially introduce a given topic. The videos are deliberately kept at a 5-8 minute length to maintain engagement.

The underlying teaching goal of both sequences is to gradually move further away from a passive lecture only approach to a more active problem solving and discussion approach. By using reading, pre-lecture homework, and videos to introduce topics ahead of time, we allow for more time during lecture for problem solving activities using the GIG model or similar collaborative learning approaches.