Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bad Vs Good Chemistry Education

When I enrolled in college, I was pretty sure I wanted to major in biology and absolutely sure that I didn't want to go into a medical profession. In fact, I selected my college partly based on the number of biology classes offered that were not pre-medical in nature. Thus, I found it particularly ironic (and painful) when I was required to jump through a variety of hoops designed to eliminate individuals on the pre-med track who were not serious enough to actually be accepted to medical school. The most significant of these hurdles was chemistry. While I didn't learn much chemistry as an undergraduate I did learn a lot about education (and how it shouldn't work). The flaws in my undergraduate chemistry education became all the more apparent when I took many truly fabulous and truly educational chemistry classes in graduate school (courtesy of Professor Pam Mills, at Hunter College).

As an undergraduate biology major, I was required to take 18 credits of chemistry (8 credits of inorganic chemistry and 10 credits of organic chemistry). This is a good and reasonable requirement for a biology major since a solid understanding of chemistry is undoubtedly helpful for understanding the biological world. Sadly, the chemistry classes weren't designed to be educational. In fact, on the first day of class, the chemistry professor stood up in front of the lecture hall and told all 600 students that the primary goal of the class was to weed out people who couldn't get into medical school. Thus, the university would consider the class a success if it caused everyone who couldn't hack the medical school admissions process to change majors, transfer to a different school, or even drop out of college altogether. The professor seemed like a nice guy; I suspect that he wasn't comfortable being involved with a chemistry class that was designed to be an ordeal in the medieval sense of the word and the one thing he felt he could do about it was to describe the situation openly.

By the standards that the university set for the class, it was a success. When I began my second year of chemistry, there were only 200 students left. By any other measure, I'm afraid that the class was a failure. One semester my average was 55%, but, thanks to the curve, I received a B+. Obviously, most people were learning even less than I was. (This is something I try very hard not to dwell on when I need to see a doctor.)

But what made these classes so bad? As an educator, this is a question that I have spent a lot of time considering.

On the surface, the chemistry classes appeared to be run in a professional and reasonable manner. If the designer of the chemistry sequence was asked to explain the pedagogy, undoubtedly there would have been three or four learning tools mentioned. Information was supposed to enter the students' brains during the lecture periods and from reading the textbook. That information was supposed to be consolidated by completing problem sets for homework. Finally, there were the chemistry exams, which were intended to measure learning. Unfortunately, at no point was there any opportunity discuss ideas, ask questions, or get real-time feedback. This lack of opportunity to talk things through and have questions answered was, I believe, the single biggest problem.

There have been many, many research studies that demonstrate that learning must be active in order to be effective. It is absolutely essential for students to be able to take in information, manipulate it in their minds, put it out in a new format, and receive feedback to ensure that their understanding is accurate. Exams are not particularly useful feedback; by the time a test is given and graded, it is rather late to be telling a student for the first time that his or her ideas aren't quite right. Instead, the real function of exams in chemistry, or any other subject, are to motivate students to study and to provide a relatively objective method of certifying that learning has taken place.

Fortunately, chemistry tutoring is almost the exact opposite of the classes I endured as an undergraduate. In a tutoring session there is nearly constant discussion, questioning, and feedback. This allows students to explore ideas and create understanding. It is a very effective way of developing a real understanding of challenging content and learning how to solve problems.

It's true that private tutoring is generally one-on-one and is therefore very difficult to compare to large college classes. However, there is evidence that a properly structured large class can be quite effective. Indeed, there is a great deal of exciting research being done to discover more effective ways of teaching chemistry. Of course, that research is utterly useless if chemistry classes are mis-used as filtering devices. I do hope that my experience in undergraduate chemistry was the exception to the rule.

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