Organic Chemistry & the Science of Learning

Active learning in Chem 52
Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash.

Walk into most chemistry classes on the first day of term and you likely won’t hear about Hattie’s Barometer. Though it sounds conceivably like a lab instrument one might use to monitor the reactions of chemical compounds, it actually does nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s unrelated to the periodic table, to molecules, bonds, atoms, or ions, and pretty much everything else related to chemistry. So one might wonder (and her students do) what Hattie’s Barometer is doing in Dr. Cathy Welder’s first day of Organic Chemistry 2.

The answer, says Welder, is metacognition. Developed by University of Melbourne Professor of Education John Hattie in 2009, Hattie’s Barometer measures the effects of different interventions on student learning and achievement. Included on the barometer are various things, both intentional and unintentional, that affect how students learn. Television and summer vacation? Slightly negative effects. Gender and class size? Slightly positive. Instructors who understand and employ active and team-based learning? Statistically significant in boosting achievement. It is awareness of these learning processes and strategies—or metacognitive understanding—that Welder aims to promote on day one. For many students, this is the first time they’ve been asked to think explicitly about how they learn.

“At Dartmouth, we tend to assume that because our students have been so successful thus far, they know how to learn,” says Welder. Indeed, the study strategies and learning approaches they’ve used up to this point have served them rather well. Their grades have been high enough and test scores strong enough to gain them admission to Dartmouth. But the strategies that have gotten them this far, says Welder, may not measure up to the demands of higher-level courses.

“Organic chemistry is a whole new ballgame,” she says. “At this stage, chemistry becomes more conceptual than calculative, and it builds on itself in ways that require students to retain and utilize vast quantities of information at once.” This is a fundamental skill for succeeding in medical school and in health professions, a goal that Welder says many of her students have in common. Furthermore, Organic Chemistry is widely known across academia for being demanding and unforgiving, and has a reputation for dividing the students who will be successful in pre-health majors and go on to medical school from those who ultimately take a different path. Welder sees this as a pivotal moment to equip her students with the tools they need to succeed.

On day one, Welder spends much of the session talking through the rationale for her teaching approach and sharing the research to back it up. In particular, she shares with students the findings of a seminal study published in the June 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which shows that students in active learning science classes perform better (half a standard deviation better) on exams, and are 1.5 times less likely to fail than students in lecture-based classes. This evidence, paired with teaching philosophies from books like Understanding by DesignMake It StickTeach Students How to Learn, and Reaching Students form the basis for Welder’s methods. She emphasizes her goal of helping students learn how to use the knowledge they acquire in new situations, not simply to acquire information. As a result, her lectures are recorded for viewing outside of class, students work throughout the term in carefully designed teams, class time is reserved for practicing with developing skills and asking questions about the content, and students are invited to consider their own learning strategies through a metacognitive lens.

Erin DeSilva, the Instructional Designer who worked closely with Dr. Welder on developing the course, says that implementing strategies like these is a dramatically different approach for many faculty, and requires a significant investment of effort. When asked why she took on the challenge, Welder responds matter-of-factly, “If research shows that lecture doesn’t work best, why would I do it?” Welder also credits the collaborative community of Organic Chemistry instructors that she’s been involved with since 2013, and her participation with DeSilva in Dartmouth’s Gateway initiative, which helped push the small, incremental changes she’d been making to her courses to a full-fledged redesign. DeSilva adds, “The Gateway Initiative offers faculty members the opportunity to innovate in their classes, and to bring more active learning approaches like these.”

A few weeks into the term, Welder returns students’ first midterm exams and takes the opportunity to invite them to consider their learning progress. “Did you do as well as you’d hoped?” she asks. “And what strategies did you employ to get here?” If students are disappointed in their grades, Welder reminds them to opt for more effective, evidence-based study strategies—quizzing yourself on the material, spacing out your practice, and translating main points into your own words—over less effective but commonly used techniques like rereading the text book and pouring over class notes. Students heed the reminder, and a few weeks later, the proof is in the proverbial pudding. On the second midterm, which tests more difficult material and is taken by all the same students, the median exam grade for the class is 10 percentage points higher.

The gains from Welder’s perspective are even more significant. Compared with the median grade on the second exam in Welder’s 2014 class—prior to her course redesign—students this term are performing significantly better. Not only is the median grade 13 percentage points higher, but the classroom community is less competitive, and more collaborative. Welder is seeing students helping and supporting each other more often. At the end of term, course evaluations reflect students’ appreciation for Welder’s obvious commitment to her teaching, and to them. Student comments, along with student performance data, provide affirmation that Welder’s approach to the science of learning is working:

“I truly feel that this course enabled me to evaluate my study habits and change them for the better. These new habits will affect my experiences in other courses and in a professional environment.”

“The structure of the class was very useful for facilitating learning.”

“Dr. Welder clearly cared immensely about our learning and wants us to succeed.”

“Welder is a seriously dedicated professor who is passionate about teaching.”


This post first appeared on the website of the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning.

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