Detangling Quantum Problems

Categories: Teaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Oxana Andriuc, Chemistry

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2022

Learning about quantum chemistry for the first time can be intimidating—all of a sudden, you find out that everything you know about classical physics is not always true: an electron does not simply behave like a tiny, tiny marble, but instead it can follow a completely different set of laws. It is therefore understandable that introductory quantum mechanics classes can be difficult for students and might require specialized teaching approaches to promote student learning.

As we, the instructors, reflected upon how the first midterm exam of the undergraduate quantum chemistry course we were teaching in Spring 2021 went, we decided to offer an additional discussion session in the form of a guided midterm walkthrough that I would be leading. I must admit that initially I was a bit skeptical of how well attended this session would be—the solutions to the midterm problems, as well as a document compiling and explaining common mistakes observed in the student solutions were already published and available to the students. What would motivate students to attend this session and how could it provide them with something new that was not already available?

As I started to prepare for the walkthrough, one thing became clear: what the written solutions and common mistakes document could not provide was guidance on the thinking process involved in solving quantum chemistry problems. How can you get from reading the problem and the provided formulae to the solution? And how do you use the information you have available to avoid erroneous thinking paths? To answer these questions, I decided to use a 3-part approach: 

  1.  Reading the text of the problem and highlighting important pieces of information, followed by identifying what is asked, and rephrasing it in my own words. 
  2. Writing down the general concepts or formulae used when solving the problem in a dedicated space to the right of the solution area. If available, these would be direct screenshots from the equation sheet provided in advance to students for the exam.
  3. Solving the problem step-by-step, by linking back to the information given in the problem, the equation sheet, or during lectures. This also involved exploring multiple avenues in attempting to solve the problem and explaining how to identify the correct one.

Admittedly, these steps might appear to be an obvious approach to solving problems during a discussion section—as instructors, we often try to use methods such as rephrasing information or making connections to class material. However, through the midterm walkthrough, I hoped to demystify the process of solving problems by explicitly highlighting the various approaches I was using. In that sense, I made sure to use visual cues for the different components (such as color-coding what was written or highlighted, and having a delimited board section always on the right of the solution area for general formulae and concepts used), as well as explicitly telling students what I was doing at every step and why.

Despite its simplicity, this approach was met with an encouraging level of attendance and number of subsequent recording viewings (135 in a class of 179 students), as well as positive feedback from the students. Quotes from my course evaluations included, “wouldn’t have understood midterm material without her videos!” and, “her exam walkthroughs were amazing and her explanation on how to solve problems was on point.” Due to the success of this walkthrough, I led a similar session for the second midterm exam and started using this approach in my other discussion sections as well, in an attempt to further support students in learning how to “detangle” quantum chemistry problems.