For students to succeed in organic chemistry, they should begin the semester on the right foot and stay on the ball throughout the entire semester. A huge component of that involves coming prepared for class each day, having already read and processed material from the textbook that will be covered. When I began teaching 14 years ago, I included in my syllabus a section describing to students the importance of this kind of preparation. But I didn’t enforce it by holding students accountable, and it showed. During class, students struggled to answer even simple questions, which compelled me to take additional time to cover the basics. After the final exam of Organic 2, one of my students boasted that when he opened his textbook, he could still hear the cracking sound of the spine! This was an eye opener; something had to change.

A few years ago, I began using clicker questions to hold students accountable for the reading assignments from the textbook; clicker performance became worth a small percentage of their grades (but not enough to affect a grade substantially). We begin class with a clicker question based on the reading, where students must apply what they were asked to read toward solving a particular problem. Once students have answered, we spend a few minutes discussing the material related to the problem, and we repeat the process about half a dozen times throughout the class period.

I’ve been using clickers this way for a few years now, motivated by my gut feeling that it forces students into good habits. I recently wondered, however, how I might better convince myself that requiring students to spend time with the textbook prior to class actually is to their benefit. To satisfy my curiosity, I compared each student’s course grade from this past year against his or her clicker score. Here’s what I found:

The correlation is far from perfect, but there does appear to be a decent correlation. In general, it seems the better that a student comes prepared for class, the better that his or her grade tends to be. I believe the earlier processing of the material gives students something significant on which to build their long-term understanding.

I admit, there’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg argument here. Does this kind of preparation for class lead to a better performance for a given student, or do the better students simply prepare more for class? Regardless of the answer, I now feel more confident than ever about using clickers to enforce reading from the textbook prior to class. Without a doubt, students now are much more engaged in class and do a great job answering questions. And by the end of Organic 2, that cracking noise from the spine of the book is a distant memory.

-Joel Karty