6 – Finding Time For A First Day Activity

In Post #1 we asked:

 On your first day with a section, if you were free of pressure to cover content, what demonstration/discussion/inquiry would you recommend — or like to try?  What would your “first-day dream lesson” be?

In this post, we’d like to suggest a way to find time for an activity of your choosing on Day One without falling behind in a tight schedule for covering content.

“Exponential Notation” and “The Metric System” are covered near the beginning of most courses. Our recommendation would be: ask students to complete online tutorials that cover those two topics as homework. To do this, the following procedure has been used with success in a variety of first-year settings.

  1. Review the tutorials posted for free student use at http://www.chemreview.net/ChemFreeCh1and2.pdf . Decide which topics you would like students to complete during single or multiple assignments.

If access to computer printers is an issue for some of your students, you may want to print and hand out a packet of the small number of “printed pages” that are needed for topics you assign.

  1. A key to encouraging completion of the homework is a short, announced “closed notes quiz.” Quiz options on this assignment are posted at www.ChemReview.Net/Mods1and2Quiz.docx in a format that allows you to select, add, and edit questions.

One or two “online homework” questions due each class may also encourage students to work at the steady pace that promotes long-term retention of learning in memory.  However, online homework is inherently “open notes.”  In our experience, a “closed notes” quiz on content is also necessary to convey that the goal is quick recall from memory of  fundamentals (see Post #2).

  1. Try your favorite Day One activity. On the day before the quiz on the homework tutorials, you might put up a problem or two covering the topics for the class to do and discuss. Or you might hand out one of the 3 quiz versions as a practice quiz to then go over, with opportunity for questions.

The intent of the tutorials is not to replace discussing a topic in class, but to permit coverage more quickly as a review of homework, freeing time in lecture for additional higher-level activities.

Review copies of additional tutorials for preparatory and general chemistry are available to instructors (see the Resources tab above). Editable quizzes on all of the tutorials are provided to instructors using the lessons with classes.

(Additional “First Week” activities were posted 8/2015, see WeekOneFiles ).

In the Comments, we’d like to hear:

 If you tried the above experiment, what were student outcomes?  Next time, what would you do differently?

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5 – Discussion of Our Flipping Paper

During May 2014, the ACS DivChEd Committee on Computers in Chemical Education (CCCE) is hosting an online conference (a “ConfChem”) on flipping chemistry:  the moving a part of traditional lecture content to student study time, to allow more time in class for demonstrations, discussions, and problem solving.

In the ConfChem format, authors submit papers and for a one week period, readers submit questions online which the authors answer (other readers may contribute as well). The Q&A period moves to new papers each week, but each paper and its week-long discussion remain online for future reference.

The Hartman/Dahm/Nelson group was invited to discuss the results of our experiments in shifting lecture content to homework in first-year chemistry — without videotaping lectures.  Our paper with comments and discussion is posted at

http://confchem.ccce.divched.org/2014SpringConfChemP2 .

The period for CCCE comment is closed, but if you wish to submit further questions or comments on the paper or its discussion, please submit a Comment for this blog post.

 All of the conference abstracts and papers are posted at http://confchem.ccce.divched.org/2014SpringConfChem.  Readers interested in exploring flipped instruction will find quite a few innovative ideas in the papers and their discussion.

We wish to thank Jennifer Muzyka, Chris Luker, Bob Belford and all of the CCCE volunteers for their many weeks of work to promote discussion of these issues.

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4 – Comprehension and Cognition

 … much of the information needed to understand a text is not provided in the information expressed in the text itself but must be drawn from the language user’s knowledge…..

— Van Dijk and Kintsch, Strategies of Discourse Comprehension

The previous post included 4 short experiments. If you have not yet tried those, please do so and return here.

In this post, interpretations of the results of the experiments in post #3 will be proposed. In the Comments, you will be invited to agree or disagree with those views.

The model in cognitive science that explains comprehension includes the following:

  • We talk and write in code. Often subconsciously, whether speaking or writing, we leave out detail and assume that the background knowledge of our audience will be able to fluently fill in gaps. When reading a science text, comprehension is heavily dependent on the reader’s ability to fluently recall domain fundamentals.
  • To gain background knowledge, an individual must construct long-term memory: a slow process involving physiological changes in the brain. For most topics, persuading the brain to build initial memory requires substantial effort and practice.
  • Experts can fluently construct “mental models” of problem scenarios because they can fluently recall linkages among the facts and rules of their field: just a few words can cue linked memories that allow technical text to be understood (see Experiment 4), but expertise across a scientific domain takes years of study to achieve.
  • Scientific reading and problems that experts find easy, non-experts often find nearly impossible, even if they have good reasoning skills, because they lack fluent recall of assumed background knowledge.
  • Standard general chemistry texts are an incredible resource for interesting problems, 4-color diagrams, fascinating sidebars, and “refreshing the memory” when content is later needed. However, those reference texts generally proceed at the fast pace appropriate to refresh prior memory, rather than the slower pace required to construct initial memory.

To find more time in lecture for activities that build both interest and conceptual understanding, we will need to find ways to explain the “code” of chemistry during study time – using materials designed to promote initial building of memory.

In upcoming posts, we’ll talk about how that challenge might be met – without massive demands on limited instructor time.


At the “Read Recs” tab at the top, for more on memory, see the short Clark article. On oral and reading comprehension, The Knowledge Gap by E. D. Hirsch (who suggested the sports scenarios in Post #3 and epigraph above) is superb.

For Comment:

  • Is the analysis above consistent with your experience as an instructor?
  • What are the best ways to help students learn new content from general chemistry reference texts?   Are “study guides” useful?  Is an “introduction to the topic in lecture” enough so that most students can read their text with the comprehension needed to gain additional learning?

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