Choosing Course Resources: A Conversation with Melanie Cooper and Erin Campbell

We wanted to know how professors choose classroom texts and resources. So we asked them. Over the next couple weeks we’ll post a series of those interview conversations. In doing so, we hope to spotlight some of the interesting ways our educators are making innovative choices to help us learn more and spend less.

Today’s interview is with Melanie Cooper, a professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Natural Science, and Experience Architecture major Erin Campbell.

Interview Transcript:

Erin Campbell: Can you tell me about a meaningful text or course resource you encountered as an undergraduate?

Portrait of Melanie Cooper

Melanie Cooper, MSU Chemistry Professor

Melanie Cooper: I took my undergraduate degree in England. I think materials played a different role there. They were more resources. Courses weren’t taught particularly out of textbooks. So I used a lot of library resources. I did buy a couple of textbooks, but not like it is here. 

Is there a particular resource that you still think about or one that influenced your thinking in a major way?

No. Because I think they were terrible. 

Can you tell me about the texts and resources you use in your course, the section of Organic Chemistry that you teach?

Sure. So the resources I use, I developed. Text, web, homework, recitation, workshop materials, and assessments. I developed them as part of a grant from the National Science Foundation. Because my work is about how people learn chemistry, that’s what my research is, I designed these using theories about how people learn, how people learn chemistry, and the experience and research that we’ve been doing in my group about instructional design. 

How integral do you think these resources are to the course’s assessment tasks?

They’re very integral because everything is designed to be integrated. So the assessment tasks are […] not an add-on. They’re not written by somebody else. They’re not from a test bank. They’re part of the course and meant to move student learning forward. They’re designed to do that. 

What are the approximate resource costs for your students?

They’re free.

Was cost a consideration when you were selecting resources?

Like I said, I designed the resources, and I believe textbooks cost too much. I would prefer to keep the costs down to zero.

Do you think student learning would be compromised if it were offered for free?

No. I do offer all of the materials for organic [chemistry] for free.

Where do your students buy or obtain resources for your class?

From the course website.

Will students find the course resources valuable beyond the course itself?

If they’re going to go on and study organic chemistry, yeah. I’ve had students come back and say, “I’m studying for the MCAT and I’m using your materials.” They don’t use them in their everyday life, I’m sure.

Are these resources online or are they physical?

Online. They can print them out if they want to, but I’m not paying for that. 

How do you think the students feel about the course resources?

We’ve had good feedback about them. The price is right, I’m sure. I think some students do think that if they pay $300 for a textbook they might somehow learn more, but I can assure you that is not true. We have plenty of evidence now.

I’m curious, have you always been teaching this way, or did you once use textbooks?

I used to use textbooks.

And you see that in your own teaching, that really, learning hasn’t been compromised just because you’ve taken that [the textbook] away?

No. It’s better now. I mean, the published textbooks are not supported by any evidence that they promote student learning. They’re written like that because they’ve always been written like that. More and more has been added and very little has been taken out and they’re not written with ideas and theories about how people learn. So, I would say they do not promote student learning whereas specifically designed materials, of course, do. 

Where and how do your students voice their perspectives about the resources?

We ask them. You know, certainly, they can fill out the SIRS form, but we also ask for feedback very often after a homework assignment. You know, “Was this clear? What do you think you learned?” So we ask for feedback. 

Do you discuss with students how and why you selected certain resources over others?

Yes, at the beginning of the course I talk about why we have these materials and they’re not published by a publisher. 

Can you tell me a little bit about how that unfolds? I know you said before that some students think that buying a $300 textbook will give them a better learning experience. So do you get much push back or are they mostly just happy?

Mostly they’re happy. Most of them have come through general chemistry where they’re using my materials as well. So they’re used to it and kind of expect it. And if they’ve been in another organic chemistry course before and then switch into mine and they have the $300 text, they will try to keep using it. I try to help them kind of stop that, because it’s difficult to learn out of a textbook that the course was not designed for. 

With regard to the amount of required reading, what’s a reasonable weekly volume or load for your course?

It’s organic chemistry so it’s not exactly reading. The text is actually quite succinct, so within a week we’ll probably get through 15 pages of text and that’s three 50-minute classes. So I assign reading before the class but there’s also homework and recitation as well where students do things, not necessarily read. 

Is there a way you determine the amount that students should be reading per week? 

No, and I don’t think… that question doesn’t really apply to science courses. We learn about different ideas and topics in class and the text is designed to support that but most of the learning is going to take place by them doing homework and recitation and work in class. So, sometimes there won’t be but one or two pages that we cover in a text but there’s a tremendous amount of other things that have to be done to support that idea. 

Do you think that these expectations for how much they are reading are comparable to those that you encountered as a student?

I encountered no expectations at all, like I said. When I learned organic chemistry, I learned straight from the lecture. I did it eventually via textbook because I was a chemistry major but I didn’t use it very much at all. 

In your experience, does the choice between digital or physical text matter to 21st-century students?

I think it depends on the students. I tell the students, if they want to print out the text because it’s free they can print it out, but I’m not paying for it. I think it totally depends on the person. Some people like to have a physical thing that they can write on and highlight. I tell them to throw away their highlighters, but that doesn’t help very much. I’ve read the surveys and I think, if you’re used to reading things online it’s fine, but some things you just have to work with physically I think. So the materials that we do for recitation, I ask students to take notes by hand and to hand-write things. 

Do you think your thoughts on course resources changed over the course of your teaching career?

Yeah.

How so?

Well, when I started teaching, I assumed I had to do what everybody else does which is find some published text and use the text. Over the years, the text got more and more complicated and it got more and more add-ons and visual aids and digital this and that text and test banks and all kinds of things. Over that time, I also began to develop a research program in teaching and learning in chemistry. I eventually decided that the textbooks were basically worthless if we were gonna move forward. So I got funding from the National Science Foundation to develop some new curriculum and that’s what we use now. 

That’s it for my questions. Is there anything you’d like to add?

No…  Well, I will add something. I think that many faculty just teach the way they were taught and they were taught with a textbook. Most of the textbooks that are available are not supported by any efficacy data. And they’re very expensive. 

Yes.

Certainly, before I designed my own materials I realized this. I was in college and I realized how much they cost. So when we had meetings, I would say, “If we’re gonna choose a text, let’s just choose the cheapest one. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make any difference, so just get the cheapest one.” People were astounded and shocked but it’s true.

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