When designing a course, many of us focus on content, with questions like ‘How do I cover the text in 30 weeks?’. This year, however, my course design started with a different question: ‘What do I really want students to get out of the organic chemistry sequence?’ and more immediately, ‘What do I want my students to be able to do and understand by the end of the first quarter?’ My answer: ‘By the end of the quarter I want my students to begin to think like an organic chemist.’

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) consisting of faculty in the College of Natural Sciences and resource faculty in education theory. We have studied and discussed evidence-based practices to help students learn in our classes. One of the principal concepts that we have examined is how instructors can help students learn to think like scientists. Armed with new insight from the FLC, I began to redesign my course for the yearlong organic chemistry sequence taken by chemistry and biochemistry majors.

A key reference to the FLC has been How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom (National Research Council: National Academies Press). It explores a strategy of identifying student misconceptions, showing them what it means to “do science”, and encouraging reflection on learning (metacognition). Although the case studies in the book highlighted learning in K-12 settings, the findings have shown to be relevant for higher education, as well. Particularly, that deep learning and real understanding arises from challenging the learner’s misconceptions, allows learners to create their own knowledge, and provides opportunities for metacognition. My course redesign incorporates these learning components.

I deduced that to think like an organic chemist, and be ready for the second and third quarters of the sequence, a student should be able to use the tools of organic chemistry to communicate (using, for example, different structural representations, nomenclature, curved arrows, etc.) and have a nascent understanding of the basic theories of organic chemistry (including molecular orbital theory, isomerism, and mechanism). Any student who is reasonably fluent in these areas should be well equipped to approach the reactions, synthesis, and applications that make up the remainder of the course sequence.

I have found that Joel’s book works well for the redesigned course. In particular, this text is more “modular” than most, allowing a number of different possible approaches to and sequencing of topics. The nomenclature units stand alone, and will be used primarily for assignments outside of class. The biochemical applications are easily postponed to the spring quarter (see Rick Blunt’s post for an alternative approach), which will provide time to more thoroughly explore the tools and theory this fall. The optional Interchapter, “Molecular Orbital Theory and Organic Reactions,” aligns well with a course objective to provide theoretical underpinnings for organic reactions.

One theme from How Students Learn that rings true for most organic chemistry students I’ve met is that successful students think about and provide context for their own learning; hence good metacognitive skills support good learning. Though all major organic textbooks include in-chapter problems to test student understanding while reading, the “Your Turn” activities in Joel’s book are unique in asking students to review and interpret figures, build and manipulate molecule models, and review solved problems. In other words, these questions explicitly ask students to reflect on what they’ve been reading and viewing. I plan to stress the importance of these activities by referring to them directly in class and asking a pop quiz question about them; thus, the “Your Turn” activities will be used to build students’ metacognitive skills. Other metacognitive methods, including reflecting on active learning activities, classroom assessments like minute papers, and weekly reflection assignments will augment the more traditional student opportunities for reflection, including completing homework and preparing for exams.

The mechanistic approach and organization from Joel’s book also align well with the overarching course goal of learning to ‘think like an organic chemist.’ After all, organic mechanisms are the primary theory that brings order to organic reactivity, and the tools of the mechanism are well treated in the early chapters, (particularly in Chapter 7, “An Overview of the Most Common Elementary Steps”). At the end of the year we still have to “cover” the content of the organic chemistry sequence. But with the strong foundation from the redesigned first quarter, students will be primed for success in mastering subsequent content in mechanisms, reactions, and applications.

-Kimberley Cousins, California State University-San Bernardino

Click here to learn more about Prof. Cousins.

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