Helping Students Learn How to Learn

I had been going through Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do with a new faculty member this semester. The overarching theme of Bain’s book is that the best college teachers are student-centered. These “best teachers” are constantly trying to get into students’ heads to help them learn how to learn. It is not about the material or the test; it is about helping the students grow synapses to make them better problem solvers, no matter the content or subject.

Of course, I think of myself as attempting to do that but I never thought the textbook really had much to do with it. After reading Bain’s book, I thought about Joel’s book in the context of this idea and I realized a textbook can be a real asset or a real impediment to this approach. Joel’s text is the former. It is focused on the core of what organic chemistry is all about.  Someone recently asked for my impression of the text and I thought to myself “It’s no Streitwieser.” That’s when it hit me. No, it’s not Streitwieser, and that is a really good thing.

Joel explains organic chemistry so logically and clearly (the students love this text). His approach allows for continual reinforcement instead of “piling on” detail after esoteric detail. Unlike other texts I’ve used, students find this book eminently readable and even enjoyable. Take, for example, his treatment of synthesis. He introduces synthetic strategy early and often, slowly building up the students’ confidence, directing them to think retrosynthetically, and tuning them in to awareness of potential pitfalls. As a result, he introduces new, useful synthetic reactions in a context that makes sense: we use these reactions to make new and important molecules of value. Other texts so often just bombard the student with “every reaction that alkenes undergo” because they use the functional group approach. As a consequence, the point of it all (and motivation to learn) is absent—it is just another reaction to memorize. Joel’s approach gives the student the needed motivation for learning and, because it isn’t based on the functional group approach, the reinforcement of recognizing the power of mechanism. Including diazomethane just after the substitution/elimination discussion makes perfect sense because it is a substitution mechanism (not “yet another reaction to memorize”). Including double dehydrohalogenation in the same chapter is logical because it reinforces the elimination mechanism in the same way.

Joel’s book is not written for fellow chemists, it is written for students of chemistry. Those who teach the process—how to learn (not just the material)—will find Joel’s book wonderful, in that the kind of gruesome detail that obfuscates the beauty of organic chemistry is absent. The clarity of Joel’s focus results in us being able to teach, and students learn, so much better. While my students still struggled with challenging synthesis problems, they approached them with absolutely the right strategy and sometimes (often!) even enjoyed it!

Until recently, I had not realized that past texts were working against my objective of helping students learn how to learn. I had just gotten used to dealing with it.

-Nancy Carpenter, University of Minnesota-Morris

Click here to learn more about Prof. Carpenter.

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