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A card-sorting task was used to determine how students identify chemical reactions. Photo: CC, pxphere.

Explicit teaching methods, opportunities to practice best increase comprehension

A U of O study published in Chemistry Education Research and Practice finds organic chemistry students may benefit from explicit direction when identifying mechanistic, or underlying patterns in chemical reactions.

“What motivated a lot of studies in my group is what these changes mean for students’ learning,” said research director and chemistry and biomolecular sciences professor, Alison Flynn. “How are students actually constructing their knowledge?”

The study, titled “Patterns of reactions: a card sort task to investigate students’ organization of organic chemistry reactions,” interviewed participants one-on-one, using cards to determine how students identify and pair chemical reactions.

Asking participants to group 15-25 cards into unlimited categories, Flynn’s team found students were categorizing in four ways.

The first category was unknown—where participants could not identify distinct features. Next, the second category paired chemicals by their properties, such as boiling points, or the structural features.

The third category organized the cards by what the chemicals do, and the final fourth category grouped molecules based on similar mechanisms, like how they transform into other molecules.

Comprehension on the chemical reactions was lowest when students only looked at structural components. The study concluded, “if we want students to develop mechanistic thinking, we think students need to be more explicitly directed to the patterns present in organic reaction mechanisms.”


The study concluded, “if we want students to develop mechanistic thinking, we think students need to be more explicitly directed to the patterns present in organic reaction mechanisms.”

—U of O study: “Patterns of reactions: a card sort task to investigate students’ organization of organic chemistry reactions”

 


Researchers found students had difficulty developing deep conceptual understanding of chemical reactions.

The study is based on a 2012 curriculum change, which switched from analyzing surface features  to identifying mechanistic patterns in how molecules react. However, the curriculum did not have students work to identify such patterns on their own.

I think this is a problem that is all across organic chemistry courses because traditional curricula tends to be organized by surface features,” said Flynn.

“If you’re going to ask people to find similarities between types of trees or different types of food, then it really makes sense to ask them to do that, and to help them practice doing that, and to give them feedback in doing that,” said Flynn.

The goal of the new research will be to help guide students more explicitly, and provide more practice opportunities.

“Some of it can be in-class questions that give two different mechanisms and ask the students to identify the similarities and differences between those two mechanisms,” said Flynn.

Another teaching method would have experts explain similarities, while giving students opportunities to practice.

“It’s not just about identifying what a molecule is anymore,” said Flynn. “It’s how we build new molecules, how we do it more efficiently, how we understand biological processes—so we’re trying to reflect what modern chemists are doing.

Future objectives of the recent research is to continue the study with more participants over longer periods of time. Additionally, Flynn says she hopes more online educational resources will be available that give students open-access and the opportunity to practice.

Currently, the U of O uses orgchem101.com, which Flynn created through Ontario Online Initiatives.