Inside Students’ Heads

There is a definite difference between good teaching and good learning. On the one hand, good learning does not follow logically from good teaching, and on the other, learning can take place without the aid of a teacher per se. The two can, in theory, be completely decoupled. And unfortunately, one’s definition of good teaching does not always overlap with techniques that actually lead to student learning. This problem of being stuck in one’s ways is particularly common in chemical education, where the divide between those interested in the subject (teachers) and those not (let’s face it…students) is extremely wide.

Enter constructivism, a theory of psychology about mental development, the formation of knowledge, and the process of learning. The fundamental constructivist hypothesis is that knowledge is constructed: it is not “out there” on a silver platter ready to be assimilated unchanged. In reality, the learning process mangles what is actually heard into a system of constructs that make sense in the mind of the learner (and these constructs depend on what was there before, which is different for each learner). Applications of constructivism to education at the collegiate level basically assume that “hell, the students are paying for their education, so yeah…student learning should be our ultimate goal.”* So let’s get inside the students’ heads and hire instructors to cross the chasm and coach students to the other side. That’s a whole hell of a lot easier than yelling at students across the canyon (figuratively speaking) and expecting them to listen. To sell the strategy, let’s wrap it all in a fuzzy package and give it a fancy name, like student-centered teaching.

The interesting thing about SCT, to me, is that it seems to force the instructor to take a somewhat passive role in the classroom. The question immediately comes to mind: “how do I center ‘teaching’ on the student without making my job as an instructor just a little less necessary?” The short answer to this question is that for student-centered approaches to work, instructor efforts must be redirected, not replaced. Indeed they can’t be replaced—we still need to get students over the bridge from ignorance. So what should the modern student-centered instructor be doing?

Providing relevant contexts for learning. Without relevant context, students will not see the subject as valuable. But, you’d be surprised what can serve as “relevant context.” I still remember a tangent one of my advanced organic professors made when we talked about aromatic substitution reactions, about the use of p-dichlorobenzene in urinal cakes.

Providing tools that can be applied to problem solving. Many tasks taught in chemistry curricula involve painfully rote activities—nomenclature comes to mind (and for me, all of general chemistry). This fact, coupled with the notion that the relevance of many low-level chemistry topics (e.g. molecular orbitals) is hazy at best for students, suggests the need for tools to automate and simplify necessary tasks with little educational value. Not to downplay physical chemistry, but MO calculators short-circuit the need to get from “this is an atom” to “here’s how to use MOs to predict reactivity, which actually has real-world applications.” Students find the latter discussion much more valuable and from an instructor’s perspective, hey, it’s still chemistry.

Forgetting about covering content. A lifetime is not long enough to cover the entirety of the landscape of organic chemistry. Pressure to cover a great deal of content, in this day and age, comes from the need to demonstrate the relevance of chemistry to students—”see? It’s here, and here, and here, and here, and here, so it’s clearly relevant. And stuff.” But, time is limited and no teacher can have her cake and eat it too. There is a theoretical limit on how much can be covered in one semester, and it’s lower than most of us think (assuming student learning is the goal of all this education business). The good news is that sacrificing the fundamentals a little to cover more real-world applications is OK, provided effective tools are in place (see above).

Handing over the reins. In addition to providing contexts for learning, instructors of higher-level classes should establish means for students to provide contexts of their own. In other words, let your students do the work for you!  Not really, of course, as designing, building, and managing a system for students to contribute to course content is a full-time job in and of itself. It’s worth it, though—trust me.

* Not a given in the physical sciences at large research universities, even now.



  1. Random thoughts provoked by your post – at my former institution they had a 1st year survey course called “World of Chemistry”. Several of the lectures covered illegal drugs – their structures, properties, and isolation (but not their synthesis of course). The lecture hall was *packed*. For instance, there’s a teaching nugget in discussing the differences between crack and cocaine – cocaine (HCl salt) is water soluble and can thus enter the mucous membranes of the nose, whereas crack, being the free base, is not water soluble and must be smoked. The fact that such a “forbidden” subject was discussed engaged attention, and what was taught was relevant to chemistry without explicitly providing training for students to become drug lords (not that all the chemistry isn’t already available on the internet anyway).

    The other day I saw a question posted about someone who wanted to make DDT at home using household chemicals (he had a bedbug infestation). I had to look it up. Pretty simple synthesis, however – chloral hydrate, chlorobenzene and sulfuric acid. Not exactly household chemicals, but very straightforward. There’s another teaching nugget.
    Some students are comfortable with abstract concepts, and they tend to do well in chemistry. Many, many others simply are not, and using these types of concrete examples to meet them halfway is one way to try to reach them.


  2. I happen to be a constructionist in regard to how I have approached teaching and how I have aproached my own lifelong adventure in learning. The role of the teacher is to illustrate ways of thinking about things. This is what is meant by the word “heuristic”. Problem solving is a series of stabs or successive approximations taken by the learner in order to understand the dimensions of a problem and what the circumstances or relationships in the problem tell you about it. Problem solving is learning. It is a form of play. Tweak this, twiddle that, and see what happens.

    I have ushered classes of organic chemistry students through a year of coursework and exposed them to the usual parade of content. In the end, what you want to have the students take away from a course in organic chemistry is a mechanistic understanding of molecules. It is a collection of mechanistic models to which different substrates can applied to afford a particular outcome. A course in organic chemistry should give the student a foundation from which to predict the outcome of an encounter between two or more atoms, ions, or molecules. It should also give the student the tools with which to find the answer if the outcome is unclear.

    The role of the teacher is to help the student filter through all of the confusion and extraneous information to find the heart of the problem. To frame the problem in its simplest and irreducible form. True learning involves struggle and the teacher’s role is to help the student with this struggle.


  3. gaussling—truth. I like the “epic struggle” metaphor you make…the trouble I always have is, as a teacher, it’s hard to avoid accidentally putting myself on the front lines and expecting students to follow suit. How transparent are you when it comes to telling students “hey, the ball’s in your court”? To me, making it clear that you expect students to engage in that struggle on their own (with your help) is key.


    1. Interesting question! Personally, I start from “an understanding of the static and dynamic material properties of carbon-containing compounds” as the ultimate goal of organic chemical education. I think that, despite the initial pain, making students aware of orbitals is a powerful approach that bridges the gap between some of the six pillars. Polar covalent bonding and electronegativity, for instance, are both explained at their root by atomic orbital energies. I also can’t believe the article doesn’t mention stereochemistry?! Absolutely critical, if you ask me! Here are my “six pillars”:

      Frontier molecular orbital theory: HOMO/LUMO interactions and reactivity
      Stability trends of intermediates (thermodynamics) and transition states (kinetics)
      Stereochemistry: recognizing differences in reactivity between stereoisomers
      The relationship between acidity, basicity, reaction conditions, and sensible intermediates
      The curved arrow formalism

      IMO, you really can’t leave stereochemistry out of there. I guess, in a way, it’s encompassed somewhat by “steric effects” (diastereomers experience different steric effects, for example), but I don’t buy that 100%.


  4. I thought that Mullins’ list included some factors that could simply be classified as consequences of electronegativity (e.g. inductive effects, polar covalent bonding). Stereochemistry’s a good pick. It really seems to be the proving ground where concepts from bonding, reactivity, and steric factors intersect.
    Thanks for answering – this is a fun exercise, I’m trying to ask as many people as I can find about this.


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