Bridging Ancient Wisdom and Modern Teaching Methods

By Jie Zhang, OSU College of Science

Resilient Teaching Voices Series

Collage of icons symbolizing learning, growth and teaching

Resilient teaching involves instructors adapting and thriving in the face of challenges, disruptions, and uncertainties. It encourages flexibility, innovation, and the ability to navigate various obstacles in the educational landscape. Resilient teaching involves two aspects to me: being resilient on the instructor side, but also helping students to form a growing mindset during the learning process. Many technologies were emerging in the past a few years – sometimes, too many to pick from – providing countless opportunities to end the traditional “One-fit-all” teaching styles. While I am stumbling around to explore new approaches each term, an ancient Chinese saying ”生于忧患死于安乐” keeps popping in my head. The phrase came from an essay we learned in middle school, and it means, “One thrives in worries and hardships and withers in ease and comfort.” The essay emphasized that those who achieved success viewed obstacles and difficulties as opportunities for improvement, and facing and overcoming the difficulties is always a necessary step to success. On the contrary, individuals confined to their comfort zones and content with the status are destined to harbor regrets.

In the context of teaching, this philosophy aligns with the idea that embracing difficulties becomes a pathway to growth as each challenge is a chance to improve rather than an obstacle. From a thermodynamics (the course I teach) aspect of the view: a system is stable at its lowest energy state. In other words, nothing will change if there is no external energy to disturb the system. The most stable status in teaching is to reuse a familiar teaching style every year. We might not want to embrace a new pedagogy or best practices since we are comfortable with the current situation and don’t want to or do not have capacity to make efforts to change. However, the temptation to cling to familiar teaching methods can hinder students’ learning progress. It is alarming to think that if a teaching method/technique worked in the past, it will also benefit the current or future students. The external force needed to break the stable system is to think proactively and be prepared to adapt when the situation changes, which is the mindset of resilient teaching. Teaching is like sports; we need to keep training ourselves and aiming for a higher goal.

On the other hand, resilient teaching does not advocate for the indiscriminate use of all available tech tools to pamper students. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of creating a trusting and warm environment that supports students while simultaneously encouraging self-reliance. There are so many great well-established platforms such as Top Hat, Perusall and MasteringChemistry that can facilitate students’ active learning. All technologies and those learning platforms need time to get used to, not only for the instructor, but also for students. With the quarter system, more platforms sometimes mean more pressure to students, including getting familiar with the new tool in time as well as financial burdens. My goal is to find a balance between the benefit and the burden in choosing the proper tools to bring to the class to engage students and stimulate deep thinking.

In teaching physical chemistry, from the very first lecture, I consistently emphasize that homework is not graded for accuracy but for the effort invested. Detailed solutions are provided after the deadline, with the belief that the most valuable learning experiences occur during students’ reflections and self-evaluations. Incorporating challenging problems into the homework assignments has been a deliberate choice. This approach encourages students to engage in discussions with each other and TAs to explore solutions collaboratively. However, students accustomed to straightforward, plug-and-chug questions or those with perfectionist tendencies may find these challenges frustrating, leading to complaints. With a very small percentage of points allocated to homework completion and an additional assignment of homework reflection, we have shifted our focus in grading homework to assess understanding and promote self-reflection. Despite this adjustment, based on the complaints from the students, the purpose and expectations of each learning activity have not been fully accepted. This made me reflect on my own that clearer guidance and open dialogue about the objectives of each learning activity is essential and I cannot rely on students to gasp my intention without clear communications. Such communication is necessary to cultivate a positive approach in students, helping them face challenges with resilience and a growth mindset. The input from students serves as a source of inspiration, prompting me to consider a redesign of the homework structure. My aim is to transform the conventional approach of submitting solutions on papers into an engaging and interactive puzzle-solving experience, similar to the online room escape games. Although this concept is currently in its initial stages with preliminary sketches, I hope this will eventually turn out to be in a well-structured format.

Eleanor Roosevelt also talked about embracing difficulties states: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do” ( In both Mrs. Roosevelt’s quote and the Chinese saying, the idea can be adapted into teaching that adversity, struggle, and challenges are not only inevitable but also essential for growth, resilience, and the realization of one’s full potential. This applies to the realm of teaching as an instructor or as a learner. It is the perseverance and adaptability that makes us better.

Jie Zhang, Ph.D., is a chemistry instructor at Oregon State University. She teaches physical chemistry as well as the integrated laboratory program. Her goal is to make her courses more equitable and enjoyable. 

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of guest posts about resilience and teaching strategies by members of the Winter ’24 Resilient Teaching Faculty Learning Community facilitated by the Center for Teaching and Learning. The opinions expressed in guest posts are solely those of the authors.

OSU Faculty: See the Call for Participation for the Spring ’24 Resilient Teaching Faculty Learning Community. Applications are due March 1.

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