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New learning tool gets top marks from students

Professor integrates digital platform to help class understand relevance of chemistry in their daily lives
By: Emily Graham
August 14, 2020
Student typing on keyboard.

Blog.ryerson.ca is an online tool that has helped students in Lydia Chen’s chemistry course build communication skills and share their knowledge. Photo credit: Unsplash.

It’s one thing to learn a concept in class. It’s another to understand how a concept can be applied to your everyday life. Lydia Chen, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biology, saw this knowledge gap in her first-year chemistry class and decided to do something about it.  

Chen is a recipient of the 2019-2020 Learning and Teaching Grant (LTG) program, an annual initiative facilitated by the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching that supports projects to improve course delivery and develop inclusive teaching practices. Funded by the Office of the Provost and Vice-President, Academic, the LTG program also fosters projects that apply evidence-informed pedagogical methods to better the undergraduate and graduate student experience at Ryerson. 

Relating to the real world 

With the funding from the LTG program, Chen integrated the use of blog.ryerson.ca (blog) into her students’ coursework in CHY 102. A blog is an online tool used to enhance classroom communication and writing skills. It provides a way for students to share their ideas with each other and collaborate. Chen challenged students to pick a topic over the course of the semester and develop a blog post that provided a comprehensive overview of said topic. Students were asked to include imagery, proper referencing, and provide an example of how their topic was related to their everyday lives. 

“Our number one goal was to integrate the relevance of chemistry into our first-year course. Oftentimes in undergraduate courses everything is so content driven. It leaves very little room to connect what you’re learning with your everyday life,” says Chen. 

For example, one of the topics covered in Chen’s course was understanding different types of chemical reactions. In a blog post, one student wrote about the redox chemistry behind breathalyzers. When alcohol in one’s breath reacts with the chemicals in the breathalyzer gauge, the chemicals change oxidation states and the gauge changes colour. The more alcohol in the breath, the more the gauge changes colour.

The second goal was helping students understand collaboration as a skill. “Collaboration will form the basis of the skill set required for students to be successful in their future careers. Having an online collaborative space that’s really fueled by students sharing information and commenting on each other’s posts is a great alternative to in-class group work,” she says. “The beauty of having an online space is that it’s open and flexible. There’s no restriction for how much they write.” 

Student feedback key to success 

When the semester ended, Chen asked her students for feedback on their experience with the blog and how it helped their learning. To Chen’s delight, the results were positive: 75 per cent of students reported that using the blog as a learning tool was enjoyable, rewarding and interesting. They said that through the real world and industrial application of these topics, they also learned more about their own creative expression. In addition, 73 per cent of students reported that by reading other students’ blogs they gained a new perspective of a particular topic that they found informative, educational and enhanced their understanding of the course material. 

Above all, Chen says that bringing students into the design process of course content was, and continues to be paramount to success in the classroom. “What I’ve learned from pursuing the LTG program is the importance of incorporating student feedback right from the get go,” says Chen. “If I hadn’t read what students wrote in their end of course survey, I wouldn’t have realized that they want to see the relevance of why they’re learning what they are and why they should care.” 

For more information about the Learning and Teaching Grants Program, visit ryerson.ca/learning-teaching/faculty-instructors/grants/.  

Lydia Chen was also a member of the 2019-2020 Blended Learning Lab. This project built on her work with the BLL, allowing for further evaluation of the student experience in a blended course. For more information about the BLL program, visit www.ryerson.ca/elearning/initiatives-and-projects/blended-learning-lab/.

This is one in a series of stories about the new Ryerson Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, the centre is dedicated to big thinking about curriculum, pedagogy and creative ways to develop inclusive teaching practices that enrich the student learning experience.

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