Burnett's Formula for Great Teaching: Entertain a Little, Educate a Lot and Be Accessible

September 28, 2010 — On a Tuesday morning at the University of Virginia, early into the fall semester, professor Robert Burnett announced a "roll-call pop quiz" to the 61 students in his 8 a.m. organic chemistry class. The odd thing was, he didn't even bother to look at his attendance sheet. Instead, he put an outlandish question on the overhead projector and gave students a minute to think: If you discover a bear with a cold nose, what is your conclusion?

It didn't take more than five seconds for a student to give the answer.

"You're standing too close to the bear," blurted a young woman from the middle of the classroom with a grin on her face.

Burnett smiled and acknowledged her answer but jokingly scolded her outburst.

"I didn't call on you yet!" he laughed. "But, thank you, Annelise."

It's pretty amazing that in such a large class – a mix of undergraduates and post-baccalaureate pre-medical students – at the start of the fall semester, a professor can remember so many faces and names, among them Annelise Bederman, a second-year biochemistry and French major. But Burnett knows the names of all the inquisitive students in this and every class he teaches.

Hands are constantly popping up in the crowd, wanting clarification of complicated principles and answers to example problems. Burnett acknowledges each by its owner's name.

After class, Bederman admitted to being caught off-guard the first time Burnett ever acknowledged her by name. "Now he knows just about everyone," she said.

Burnett is humble about his talent.

"We all have gifts," he said. "It's not hard for me to remember faces."

Burnett is a professor of chemistry in the College of Arts & Sciences and the academic director for the post-baccalaureate pre-medical program in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. So he sees a lot of faces.

In addition to his organic chemistry class, Burnett runs both the College's and Engineering School's introductory chemistry labs, which, when combined, reach a total enrollment of 1,260.

Does he know all these names, too?

"Oh, no, not all of them," he said. "But I do know about 100."

Students appreciate his personality and regard his cordiality as a primary factor in their success as students.

"He's a very approachable teacher," said Elizabeth Rhinesmith, a former post-baccalaureate pre-medical student who is now a teaching assistant to Burnett. "He tries to tailor his focus to what would be relevant and useful to his students."

"There's an expectation of the organic chemistry class being difficult," Burnett said. Getting more comfortable and familiar with the students helps them become more comfortable with the teacher, and, in effect, with the material, he said.

Burnett believes that to educate, it is necessary to entertain a little.

"Most faculty members are wannabe thespians," he quipped. "I think there's a grain of truth in that."

Hence the cold-nosed bear question. His students accept his wholesome humor, and from the numerous accolades and stellar student evaluations he's received as a teacher (which he humbly tries to deflect, saying there are other professors in his department who deserve more recognition than himself), Burnett is Broadway-ready.

Numerous reports, including the time-honored evaluations done by students in his fall organic chemistry class and the unconventional, student-driven evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com, a website dedicated to criticizing college professors, cite Burnett as "the best professor I've had at U.Va."

Anonymous assessments deem him "a professor that truly cares for his students," who maintains "the kind of relationship I was expecting when I enrolled at U.Va.," who is "able to mix a little fun with learning" and "makes students feel comfortable and calm about the course material."

Third-year student Jaron Bushman whittled the man down to one word: "Accessible."

And the recognition extends beyond individual students. Several organizations, including the IMP and Z societies and Inter-Fraternity and Inter-Sorority councils, recognized his teaching last year. The IFC/ISC resolution says, "This professor takes what is normally a feared pre-med requirement – Organic Chemistry – and with his humor makes it both bearable and at times, believe it or not, entertaining. He is known by his students as genuinely caring and approachable, even in larger classes numbering in the hundreds, and takes hours out of his schedule each year to write recommendations for his students."

But it's not the kudos that keep Burnett coming to the classroom. A sincere passion for knowledge and teaching pervade his being.

"I originally wanted to be a priest," Burnett said. "Then I wanted to be a coach."

Finally, the Mississippi native felt called to teach.

After earning a B.S. in chemistry at Boston College and a Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire, Burnett began his teaching career at Franklin Pierce University in 1970. Since then he has taught at Syracuse University, worked in the private sector, and, since 1987, taught at U.Va.

What does he like best about being here?

"I love interacting with students," he said. "They're what keep us young. … I'm constantly being challenged by them because they ask 'Why?' and 'How?' "

Burnett dedicates seven days a week to his teaching and administrative work.

"I love what I do," he said. "What more would you want to do when you have the opportunity to influence folks? … Teaching is just the salary bonus."

In addition to teaching, Burnett serves as a consultant to Fortune 100 corporations and companies emerging in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and information processing fields.

He also makes time for his family, who he said is very supportive of his work.

David Cafiso, chair of the chemistry department, credited Burnett with bringing much expertise to the University, including his "outstanding management skills" – a tool Burnett employs often to remember the hundreds of new faces every year.

However, "it is impossible to memorize everything," he told the 8 a.m. lecture class, empathizing with them over a long list of chemical formulas.

— By Ashley Mathieu