Every fall semester at UC Berkeley, the 534 seat auditorium in Pimentel Hall swells to capacity three times daily to welcome the nearly 1,500 freshmen enrolled in Chemistry 1A. Half a dozen large video screens, including one towering 20 feet above the main stage, help bring the lecture experience closer to the student audience. Almost of necessity, there is a vital theatrical element to how my colleagues and I teach in Pimentel Hall. A well planned, high production value, interactive experience is part of a strategy to keep students engaged. Demonstrations are flashy. Explosions are loud.
Nevertheless, it’s been said a college lecture is a process of passing information from an instructor’s notes to the students’ notes without passing through the heads of either. Thus, keeping students focused and engaged in the learning process in such a larger than life, potentially intimidating environment is challenging. Part of our strategy is peer-based and uses flipped classroom learning techniques adapted over years of tinkering to the large lecture hall setting. Students participate in frequent, conceptual, and meticulously designed clicker quizzes, which provide an interactive experience and prompt reflection and discussion with nearby students and graduate student instructors (GSIs) in the auditorium. The result is a practical, relatively personal, and popular introduction to general chemistry.
Then came the pandemic. Like so many institutions, Berkeley was compelled to transition to 100 percent remote learning. On very short notice, we faced the prospect of delivering the same high level of interactive, engaging learning entirely online for the 2020 summer session. A Zoom meeting wasn’t going to cut it.