Make Your Move: Understanding Strategies for Teaching Chemistry

Remember middle-school dances? I have fond memories of the gym floor transforming into a capacitor of sorts, flanked by rows of pubescent boys and girls pressed as far apart from one another as possible. Although a few daring couples would wander out to the dance floor, generally action would happen only when a sufficiently large clique worked up the collective courage to form an awkward dancing circle. Talking to the opposite sex—aptly called “making one’s move”—was positively painful back then.

My teaching career could aptly be described as a series of moments getting incrementally less awkward.

My teaching career could aptly be described as a series of moments getting incrementally less awkward.

Eventually we all get over our fear of the opposite sex (or the same sex, if that’s your gig) for the most part and move on with our lives. For me, that process of building up a solid conversational repertoire and comfort in my own skin took years. Imagine how a teacher feels, who must use his or her conversational skills and set of “moves” to help a new crop of students learn a complex topic in the matter of a semester! It can be just as painful to watch a teacher barking at a disengaged student as it is to watch middle schoolers blow it at a dance. And yes, it can be just as awkward and gut wrenching when you’re the teacher doing the barking (or the middle-school dancer failing hard with your crush).

How do teachers decide what to say? How can we distinguish good moves from bad? What are the motives behind different types of moves? I was reminded of these questions while reading an excellent J. Chem. Educ. article last week. Warfa and co-workers studied the moves used by teachers in a POGIL classroom—where new norms for teaching and learning can make both students and teachers uneasy. They categorized teachers’ moves according to whether the move occurred in a monologic or dialogic context. Monologic discourse involves a one-way transfer of information from teacher to student, with little to no student input (think Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”). Dialogic discourse, on the other hand, involves a social dimension and sharing of ideas between teacher and student (think Socrates). Both types of discourse are important in the chemistry classroom, but figuring out the proper balance to meet the needs of students in a particular classroom environment is tricky. Continue reading →

Chemical Education Roundup, 10-14-12

What’s new in the world of chemical education this fall? Evidence is mounting that the community is taking something of a breather and re-examining basic assumptions, which is always a good thing. @RethinkChemEd is a new account on Twitter that I would encourage readers to check out. Ten Dichotomies We Live By is a must-read, which examines the dichotomies at the root of most chemical educators’ thinking and how they influence research and teaching. Somewhat off the beaten path, but still fundamental, a recent J. Res. Sci. Teach. article examines the nature of scientific argumentation in the classroom. The authors here recognized the great importance of scientific argumentation in the classroom, but identified several barriers to the application of scientific argumentation by students. Inquiry approaches to the teaching laboratory come to mind, but even these face challenges, as a recent Int. J. Sci. Teach. article suggests.

In recent years, a number of groups have taken up very long-term, mixed-methods studies that use qualitative research approaches to establish a foundation for subsequent quantitative work. The absolute master of this approach is, in my opinion, Bretz, who has notably addressed acid-base reactions and enzyme-substrate interactions using qualitative-then-quantitative work. The primary goal here is to identify alternative conceptions via interviews with students, then to rapidly nip them in the bud in subsequent semesters using survey instruments validated by the initial qualitative work. Bretz and McClary’s recent work on acid-base chemistry is a masterpiece in this field—definitely worth a look!

Educational technology research marches on. I had originally planned on an entire post on social media in education, but instead, I’ll just point you to a nice review of research on microblogging in education published earlier this year in Brit. J. Educ. Technol.—heck, the entire issue is an awesome look at social media in the classroom. Exciting news this month for chemists interested in ed tech: Jmol has been ported to Javascript! Check out the demo of “JSmol” here. Without too much comment I have to say that JSmol is a technological dream for chemical educators, since it opens the door to interactive models on all manner of portable devices.

Other random highlights: oral examinations in the undergraduate organic chemistry curriculum (!?) piloted by Mark Lautens (!?) at the University of Toronto; William Wulf’s Responsible Citizenship in a Technological Democracy course (mentioned in a letter to Science); a closer look at virtual chemistry laboratories in Res. Sci. Educ.; and an article on FoldIt, one of my favorite educational time-wasters.

Chemical Education Roundup, 8-16-11

It’s been a while since I’ve done a roundup! The world of chemical education has been relatively quiet over the last month, although a few interesting things have happened (mostly in education-at-large). A while back, I blogged about Moskovitz and Kellogg’s intriguing idea of “double-blind science writing“—setting up laboratory experiments and reports so that neither students nor graders had an expectation of what their results should be. The aim of the exercise is to rip the bed of procedural and predictive comfort out from under students’ (and graders’) feet. Such a setup, argue the authors, forces students to use well-supported, rational arguments in lieu of the regurgitative, droning garbage that one usually sees in lab reports, and forces graders to evaluate students’ arguments as arguments—just as they would evaluate an academic paper.

On July 29, Science published a brief retort to the Moskovitz paper by Michael Goggin, a physics instructor who argues…

The first priority should be ensuring that the students get the correct result; their ability to articulate that result is secondary. (emphasis mine)

Goggin’s stated objection is that Moskovitz’s approach aims to teach writing more than science. However, in my opinion, a sufficiently open-minded scientist should take issue with Goggin’s assumption that the ideal lab experiment has “the correct result.” On the contrary, conservative experiments with spelled-out “correct results” lead students to believe that a career in science consists of proving what is already known. As any blue-blooded scientist knows, the opposite is true—most scientists spend their careers convincing others that their work is new! The work of undergraduates does not have to be new per se, but it should be new enough to them that constructing a convincing argument requires learning, not just regurgitation. Moskovitz’s approach to scientific writing is thus a step in the right direction. In a response to Goggin, Moskovitz and Kellogg offer this argument and others (among them: lectures give ample opportunity for students to find “correct answers”) in support of their ideas.

A little closer to home for me personally, Neil Selwyn has written an intriguing editorial in the British Journal of Educational Technology about the need for “pessimism” in the field. I put “pessimism” in quotes because what Selwyn argues for is less pessimism and more “healthy skepticism.” Selwyn states (truly) that there is an obsession among educational technologists with the use of technology as representing “progress” in education. Technology use seems to be associated with progress everywhere else in our lives—why should education be any different? Of course, in all aspects of human life, technology has its downsides. Selwyn argues (again, truthfully) that educators that use technology are often blind to the limitations, pitfalls, and “everything old is new again”-ness of what they do. How much in educational technology is actually new, he asks? Less than we think. ETs need a fresh challenge, a kick in the pants, a wake-up call that alerts us to the fact that what we’re doing may not be all it’s cracked up to be—which could be a good thing! Connections to past scholarship (and challenges to move beyond it) will only do good for the field of educational technology in the long run.

Other news and editorials: an interesting study of central nervous system drugs using calculated electrostatic potential energy surfaces, the harsh realities of narcissism and grade inflation, and a piece from the EIC of the Journal of Chemical Education on striking a balance with assessment. If you haven’t already, read about the epic standardized-test cheating scandal in Atlanta referenced in the last article.

Chemical Education Roundup, 6-12-2011

This week has been an interesting one in chemical education. I know I promised interactive concept mapping on the web like two weeks ago, but things have gotten a little crazy as I’ve gotten stuff together for a publication (and realized the massive amount of work I have to do to make the publication complete). I’m going to go ahead and stamp it with a “Coming Soon” label.

At any rate, the Journal of Chemical Education was abuzz this week with a debate about the role of the rate-limiting step assumption in enzyme kinetics. Definitely worth a read if you’re a biology-leaning chemist with an interest in Michaelis-Menten kinetics.

In Science, experimental philosophy in the social sciences came under the gun this week, as Shaun Nichols and David Carmel debate the role of surveys in social-science experiments. In education, the value of triangulation has been recognized for a long time as a means to support survey data. Student performance data, qualitative observations, student interviews, focus groups, and a loooong list of assessment techniques (including, but not limited to, surveys) may all be used to judge the effectiveness of a classroom intervention or change. In fact, when such data are missing, raised eyebrows are the norm. Personally, I learned this lesson the hard way on my first publication… 😛

Speaking of classroom assessment, this JCE paper outlines a qualitative approach to assessing “inquiry-based” teaching methods, which involve open-ended problems that demand application of the scientific method to reach a reasonable solution. The authors argue that most current assessment techniques are inappropriate for inquiry-based activities (IBAs), advancing the “mental models” framework as a theoretical basis for assessment of IBAs. Critically, the goal is to shift the focus of assessment toward the learner and away from content exposure (and other irrelevant measuring sticks).