Teaching Tough Course Led Chemistry Professor to Push Peer-Learning Approach

U. of Rochester

Jack A. Kampmeier
April 24, 2011

Jack A. Kampmeier was one of the most recognized and beloved teachers at the University of Rochester, but each semester he lost a significant share of the students in his notoriously difficult organic-chemistry class.

So when he heard about a fledgling method in which teams of students, guided by trained peer leaders, meet to tackle problems posed by their professors, he was intrigued.

Mr. Kampmeier, who died in Rochester, N.Y., in March at the age of 75 from complications of pneumonia, became a national leader in the "peer-led team-learning" movement.

He introduced the technique to the University of Rochester's chemistry department in 1995, and, over the next 15 years, helped spread it to other departments and other universities. Today, an estimated 2,000 peer leaders are facilitating workshops at more than 150 colleges and universities for more than 20,000 students a year, according to David K. Gosser Jr., a professor of chemistry at the City University of New York who was also a pioneer in the effort.

Vicki Roth, dean of sophomores at Rochester, was organizing study groups at the university when Mr. Kampmeier approached her in the mid-1990s seeking a new way to reach students.

She says he was frustrated that a third of the students in his organic-chemistry classes, which had 200 to 300 students, were dropping out or doing poorly. "He had exhausted what the lecture model could do and was looking for other ways for students to get their arms around the material," she says.

Together, they offered a pilot program that was similar to a peer-led workshop concept that was being developed by Mr. Gosser at CUNY's City College.

The researchers at CUNY and Rochester teamed up with a third person who was doing similar research—Pratibha Varma-Nelson, who was then teaching chemistry at Saint Xavier University. (She is now a professor of chemistry at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.)

"Jack brought a lot of wisdom and an open mind to the project," Mr. Gosser says. "He had been a dean and helped us address the question of how you make this approach a part of the institution."

In a peer-led workshop, which supplements the traditional lecture, students who have done well in the course are invited to become team leaders. They are trained to guide groups of six to eight students in weekly workshop sessions that are held in addition to regular lecture classes.

The peer leaders aren't there to answer questions, but to encourage and support students as they work out the problems themselves.

"He was coaching and modeling and encouraging people to give it a try, and it kept growing," Ms. Roth says. The concept spread, first to other chemistry courses, and then to other disciplines, including biology, economics, computer science, and physics.

Lydia Tien, who also helped train undergraduate students for their roles as peer leaders at Rochester, says students were the best ambassadors. "Students coming out of his organic-chemistry class saw how effective the approach was and asked their other professors why they couldn't have it in those classes, too," says Ms. Tien, who now teaches chemistry and geosciences at Monroe Community College.

Mr. Kampmeier would show faculty members at Rochester a PowerPoint slide of a clock, with the team-learning concept being introduced at the university at 12:00. Hour by hour, he showed which disciplines were coming on board. "Everyone could see how passionate he was about it," Ms. Tien says.

Mr. Kampmeier spoke frequently about peer-led teaching at academic conferences, and he co-wrote books and manuals about the topic. Awista Ayub, a 2001 graduate, took organic chemistry from Mr. Kampmeier during her sophomore year. She credits his mentorship, and the team-learning approach, with lifting her from a C to an A by the end of the semester.

"This wasn't just a case of meeting with a TA during office hours to ask questions," says Ms. Ayub, who was a team leader for both her junior and senior years. "When you entered the classroom to work with your group, you knew you were going to be challenged for the next three hours, and you'd have to tough through it. We were in the trenches together, and we helped each other get through it."

Born in 1935 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Mr. Kampmeier grew up in Wyncote, Pa., and graduated from Amherst College. He received a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and became an instructor in chemistry at the University of Rochester in 1960 and a full professor in 1971. His research focused on organic reaction and free-radical chemistry.

Mr. Kampmeier's career at Rochester spanned nearly 50 years, including stints as chairman of the chemistry department, associate dean for graduate studies, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He received numerous teaching awards and was named professor emeritus in 2005.

Ms. Varma-Nelson, his collaborator for 15 years, called him a "scientist, teacher, mentor, and cheerleader." She added: "He believed in empowering students and supporting their education in a way that produced lifelong learners."