Chemistry professor to present Herbert Cheever lecture on teaching students to learn

It’s assumed that university-level students can learn — they have high school diplomas to prove it. But Michael Dianovsky, an assistant professor in chemistry, believes there is more to learning than memorizing algorithms and facts.

“Educators need to stop educating for tests of the moment and focus on the test employers want in students — we’re not preparing students well enough,” Dianovsky said. “We as educators need to address students as the whole person and not just a toolkit that can be improved. We should provide tools that are needed and create a habit for critical thinking and creating thinking that will last a lifetime.”

To do that, Dianovsky proposes students must learn how to learn. The process involves reflection and conversation, shifting from a performance-orientated system to learning-orientated.

Dianovsky will present his method of teaching at the fourth annual Herbert Cheever Jr. Liberal Arts Lecture as “Learning How to Learn: The Path Less Traveled in Education.” Dianovsky was the 2017 recipient of the J.P. Hendrickson Liberal Arts Faculty Scholar award.

This focus on learning aligns with the mission of a liberal arts education, said Dennis Papini, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Historically, universities have been focused on this concept of liberal arts — how can we use knowledge of ourselves and the world around us to create a better world,” Papini said. A liberal arts education gives students skillsets such as critical thinking, communication and self-awareness that will be needed in any career field.

Although chemistry is typically associated with memorization, Papini said, Dianovsky focuses his courses on helping incoming students “understand and appreciate the active role they take in the learning process.” It isn’t about a professor “filling students’ heads with information — it’s about helping students learn how to learn.”

“Students are used to coming in and doing the work and want to do the least amount of work for the highest grade,” Dianovsky said. That’s not how his class works.

Students in Dianovsky’s class learn content through journal reflections. Students focus on their progression in class and understand how their learning changes throughout the course. Dianovsky uses these reflections to understand student perspectives as well as help them differentiate between solving problems and learning the material.

It helped students see there’s a difference between solving problems in chemistry and getting the right answer, Dianovsky said, and whether or not that means they have a conceptual understanding of chemistry.

That conceptual understanding is important for students becoming active citizens, Papini said.

“The world of tomorrow is one in which we really don’t know what the opportunities and challenges are going to be,” Papini said. “The value of a liberal arts education is that it doesn’t specifically prepare you for specific vocation, but does prepare you for life. It’s important for students to understand what the goal is.”

The award and lecture are named for two former professors in the College of Arts and Sciences. John Philip Hendrickson was a long-time faculty member and head of the Department of Political Science from 1957 to 1988. Herbert Cheever Jr. was a professor in political science for 32 years until his retirement in 2000. He served as department head for nine years and acting dean of the college in 1985-86 and 1991-92. He was also dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1992 to 2000.

Past recipients of the award and lecturers include Paul Baggett in 2014, Timothy Meyer in 2015 and Greg Peterson in 2016.

Dianovsky hopes his lecture will be a starting point of a conversation for students and faculty at SDSU about what education should be about and what outcomes students want from their education.

The award and lecture will be presented at 7 p.m. on Jan. 17, 2017 in the Volstorff Ballroom.