“Did you eat any beta-glucan in the morning?”
“I don’t think so...”
“Well, did you eat any oats?”
This exchange of words could well be from a chemistry lecture held by Ndegwa Maina. Maina, a prize-winning university lecturer, teaches the applied chemistry and laboratory work to students of the Master’s Programme in Food Sciences and the Bachelor’s Programme in Food Sciences.
By asking about beta-glucan and oats, Maina is hoping that students put the two things together. In simplified terms, oats contain beta-glucan, an important dietary fibre.
“I ask my students a lot of questions and I use a lot of everyday examples. They help me find out about what they know and arouse their curiosity,” Maina says.
On one course, Maina held an examination right at the start to get the students to familiarise themselves with the course topics and review what they had previously learnt about them.
“No one was failed, but the exam exposed the areas they need to review in order to manage in the course as well as helped me know what to focus on in my teaching.”
Small-scale courses and independent work boost the development of expertise
The acquisition of information and organising phenomena into explorable wholes are two skills students should learn at university.
“These skills are best developed through individual courses that are interconnected through active discussions during contact teaching,” Maina believes.
He helps students gain skills by involving them in problem-solving. On Maina’s courses, students look for information and investigate the mechanisms of chemical reactions as independently as possible. For example, they may determine from scratch how acrylamide is formed in food or what rancidification looks like from the perspective of chemistry.
When students look for solutions by themselves, they will remember what they have learnt. Conducting laboratory experiments on top of that makes it really stick.
“Laboratory work gets students going. Experimentation makes many of them curious, and it’s in the nature of people to want to learn more.”
Actively doing something instead of merely listening keeps the atmosphere of the courses relaxed. Students aren’t hesitant to ask questions and chat in between experiments.
“Amusing examples suit the laboratory well. When I’m illustrating the movement of molecules, I compare it to the dance floor: molecules move about like skilled dancers who know which way to go to under shear force.”
Overtaking the teacher
At times, students only come to a course to get it over with as soon as possible. In these cases, it is important in terms of learning for the teacher to explain the benefits of the course content and how it connects to the student’s field.
“I help students make connections and ensure that they understand how phenomena are linked with the background information they already possess.”
For instance, after learning about the link between beta-glucan and oats, students may wonder about the occurance of the former, or how much people should be ingesting it. Getting answers to such questions helps them establish connections between facts. They learn to remember entire subject areas for a long time.
“Sometimes students approach me after a long break, asking for help with a thesis on a topic I’ve taught them at some point. That’s rewarding. I like motivating students, and I guide them to be better than me.”
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