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University Teaching Fellow
Goes the Extra Mile for Students
October 25, 1999

Above and beyond. Those words recur often in descriptions of outstanding teachers, the ones who pay the extra attention and go the extra mile for their students. Cecile Hurley, a lecturer in chemistry, is one of those teachers.

Spotlight on Teaching

This year she was named one of the University's Teaching Fellows. It is an honor given to faculty members with exemplary teaching skills.

In nominating her for the award, Harry Frank, a professor of chemistry, cites the "excellent quality of her teaching, the innovative methodologies she has introduced into the chemistry curriculum, and her outstanding dedication to both undergraduate and graduate students in and out of the classroom."

Hurley is the director of Chemistry 127-128, an introductory freshman chemistry course taken by about 850 students each semester. She teaches one section - with about 225 students - herself, and supervises 30 teaching assistants, who oversee the smaller lab and discussion sections, stockroom technicians and undergraduate helpers.

"It's a pretty rigorous course," she says. And it is she who must make sure that there is one standard that prevails in all the sections.

Knowing How to Study
Hurley also deals with another sort of problem: Chemistry 127-28 is often a freshman's first encounter with a university-level science course, and for many it is a shock. Even those who did well in high school chemistry can find themselves with a failing grade on the first test.

"They don't know how to study for a science," she says, "they think it's the same as studying for history, but it isn't." It is not just a matter of going over textbook material and class notes, she says, but of students learning to solve problems themselves.

She believes that students, accustomed to studying on their own, benefit greatly from group interaction. She encourages them to work with three or four others to brainstorm and try out various approaches to problems. "They can learn more from each other than they can from me," she says.

Much of Hurley's effectiveness as a teacher comes from her awareness of students' problems. Her sympathy for them has led to her own struggle to find teaching methods that help students with the course work. She does this in various ways. Besides being available for generous amounts of time to individual students, she also has changed the format of her large lecture courses.

"I no longer lecture non-stop for 50 minutes. I try to stop every 15 minutes or so for an activity, like demonstrating how to solve a problem," she says.

Hurley says that because some students learn best from what they hear and others learn best by seeing, she uses videos with animation to illustrate calculations. She envisions developing a CD-Rom that students can borrow and use as a study aid. It would be a good alternative, she believes, to extensive note-taking in class. "You can lose a lot between the brain and the paper," she says.

Her efforts to find new approaches to teaching chemistry led to her receiving a National Science Foundation Curriculum Development Award in 1993-94.

Concern for Students
Her concern for students is not confined to the lecture hall. Kristen Kern, now a graduate student in physical therapy, took Chemistry 127 as a freshman. She approached the class with some trepidation because, she says, chemistry "was never a subject that came easy to me, but instead one that I struggled through."

She was surprised to find Hurley not only teaching the lecture course but leading the discussion group of which Kern was a member. Lab and discussion groups are usually the purview of teaching assistants, but Hurley likes to take one whenever possible so that she can get to know some of the students personally.

"She was available on multiple occasions outside the class for me," Kern says. "I valued her instruction and did so well with her guidance both inside and outside the classroom that I made sure to sign up in her lecture section for Chemistry 128." She says she even scheduled the other classes she needed around the times of Hurley's classes.

At the end of her freshman year, Kern was forced to take a year's leave of absence because of illness. Throughout that year, Hurley remained in touch with her through cards and phone calls. "I cannot explain to you what those calls and cards meant," says Kern, now healthy again and back on campus, where she still drops in to chat with her old professor.

Beyond the University
Hurley has influenced the teaching of chemistry beyond the University, as co-author with William Masterton, an emeritus professor, of Chemistry: Principles and Reactions, and sole author of the accompanying study guide/workbook.

"Students routinely say that it is an enormously valuable study aid," says Frank, "because it helps them focus their problem-solving efforts." The book, soon to be published in its fourth edition, has been translated into many foreign languages.

Hurley discovered her own interest in chemistry as a student at the College of the Holy Spirit in her native Philippines, and went on to pursue a master's degree at UCLA. Perhaps because of her own experience, Hurley is especially concerned for the foreign students who comprise about half of the graduate students in the department.

She is a member of the graduate admissions committee and has taken on the task of conducting telephone interviews with all overseas applicants to the graduate program. The interviews are designed to determine the applicants' fluency in English. Each interview lasts 15-20 minutes and, because of time differences around the globe, may have to be conducted early in the morning or late at night. "It takes an enormous amount of time," she says.

Much of what makes Hurley such a special teacher takes place behind the scenes, and not every student recognizes her extra efforts on their behalf. Kern is one of those that do. Many students regard Hurley as strict, she says, yet "she only asks so much because she wants to help each student to be their best, reaching their greatest potential."

Diane Cox