Chemistry: The ‘Other’ Foreign Language

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Joel Thornton, Chemistry

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2000

How is it that a student can come to my office hours, explain the complicated concepts that a problem set question is based on, even go as far as to intuit the right approach for solving the problem, and yet, is not able to derive the right answer? I am sure many GSIs of general chemistry, or of any introductory physical science class for that matter, have asked themselves this question numerous times throughout a semester. One of the biggest problems facing students in general chemistry classes is their inability to communicate what they actually know about the concepts on an exam or a problem set. The inability to communicate what they know and receiving a low test score on material they actually understood will undoubtedly frustrate students to the point of giving up. The reason for the students’ lack of chemical communication skills is simple: they spend very little time learning, practicing and speaking the language of chemistry. The problem is further exacerbated when GSIs use discussion sections as just another lecture session or review session, and spend the majority of time talking to the students instead of having the students do the majority of the “talking.”

My solution to this problem was to treat the discussion section as though it was a foreign language drill section. The most important task in discussion was to make the students practice communicating what they had learned. In chemistry, students must communicate through problem solving. I began each discussion, therefore, with the students working individually on example problems I had chosen which were representative of the material and concepts covered in lecture that week. They would then break into groups to discuss their approach and answers. Finally, I would send a student from each group to the board to communicate their approach to the problem. The students at the board were expected to defend their approach and answer questions raised by other students. During this process, I would remain very quiet, interjecting a comment only when the students were at a standstill or off on a tangent.

After the problem solving session, I would lead the students in language drills. Problem solving requires a vocabulary of the necessary equations and conceptual approaches, and I would drill the students on the equations and concepts discussed in lecture that week. My drills were in the form of quiz-show games, relay races, student vs. student competitions, anything to avoid the inherent boredom that comes with performing rote tasks. The redundant, rapid-fire practice with the equations and concepts helped the students become more fluent with the material, and therefore more easily commit the information to long-term rather than short-term memory.

I believe my approach to these discussion sections was successful based primarily on student reviews as well as the students’ progress on quizzes and exams throughout the semester. I regularly polled the students as a group and individually as to whether they found the discussion section helpful. Two times during the semester, I ask the students to review, confidentially, the discussion section and to give advice on what I should and shouldn’t continue. An overwhelming number of students responded that the problem solving sessions and drills were very helpful, and wanted more time devoted to those exercises. Furthermore, my section as a whole improved continually on exams throughout the semester. The section went from being one of the lower scoring sections (i.e., below the class mean) on the first exam, to being the highest scoring section on the final exam by an entire standard deviation.