POGIL and Mechanisms are Natural Allies

Choosing a textbook is always an important part of class preparation, but when using Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) with a group of students of mixed academic and reading abilities, the choice is perhaps even more important. POGIL is an evidence-based teaching/learning method used across the country. Students work in structured groups to complete Guided Inquiry (GI) activities to explore key concepts—addressing prior misconceptions while building new knowledge. The instructor becomes the guide through the process rather than the giver of knowledge. Students do not end up with a perfect set of lecture notes from the class and must rely on the text for the narrative to guide them through the course. Thus, the students must be able to read the text independently and it must be organized for students to succeed.

GI activities focus on core principles, and for organic reactivity, the overarching principle is mechanism. The most effective GI activities for organic chemistry help students focus on ideas all organic chemists automatically use—electrophiles and nucleophiles; using electrostatics and curved arrows to predict reaction outcome; interpreting experimental evidence such as reaction rate and stereochemical outcome to support a given mechanism. Joel’s mechanistically organized book supports this perspective.

The separate nomenclature chapters, with a significant number of embedded problems, facilitate outside assignments. The text’s emphasis on using curved arrows early and often, as well as reaction energetics, aligns well with GI activities students complete in class. Textbook presentation and problems emphasize the basics of mechanisms, including by teaching “An Overview of the Most Common Elementary Steps” (Chapter 7). This chapter’s unique approach for learning mechanisms motivated my developing new GI activities to help students master mechanism fundamentals. Joel’s text works well for students of a variety of reading levels, as on our own campus, breaking main ideas into digestible chunks while using accessible vocabulary. The “Your Turn” activities throughout further engage students used to practicing what they are learning, and SmartWork assignment mastery assures them that they are on track in this less structured environment.

I’ve heard POGIL referred to as the original “flipped classroom,” with students reading the textbook outside class (instead of watching video lectures) and actively developing concepts during class. But using class time to help students learn deeply, without accompanying lecture (video or in-person) does reduce what one can “cover.” An effective text and outside assignments can offset some of the loss of content. In my classroom, as in others, I ask students to learn functional groups, practice multiple ways to communicate organic structure, and master most of the nomenclature on their own time.

After some initial student resistance, most students have seen the light. The quarter results are in, and despite no lecture time, my students are doing at least as well overall, and better in some conceptual areas than in prior years. For example, on exam questions most of the students were able to: communicate that no one resonance structure is an adequate representation for a compound; apply structural concepts to large molecules; and use curved arrows to predict the outcome of single step transformations. Questions that combine multiple ideas, like “Draw a structure for a five carbon secondary alcohol that is chiral,” which would have stymied the majority of students in the past, were attempted by all with a high degree of success. In other words, my students are already thinking deeply about problems in organic chemistry.

I’ve taught using a lecture/POGIL hybrid classroom, saving some time for GI activities as an add-on to lecture, for nearly twelve years and using several different organic chemistry texts. This year, with the help of Joel’s book and a mechanistically organized course, I’ve taken the plunge, immersing my students in a truly learner-centered classroom with POGIL activities and with problem solving the focus of every class. And I’m seeing results that surpass my expectations.

-Kimberley Cousins, California State University-San Bernardino

Click here to learn more about Prof. Cousins.

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