Oftentimes in class, professors are asked,  “What can I do to do better in class? Could you offer more practice?” To help answer this question, I was given some great advice by my senior colleague: if you aren’t putting your pen to paper, then you likely aren’t studying organic chemistry sufficiently. 

During my current semester of teaching one out of two sections of organic chemistry at Columbus State University (CSU), I received the following email from a student: “After taking my exam, I realized I needed to study in a different way. Are there any practice exams, quizzes, or previous exam material that you could send me? Preferably with an answer sheet so that we can go back and check our work. Any other suggestions would also be appreciated. I have the answer book with explanations for the course, so I will use that more often as well.”

This email partly inspired me to write this post so I could support and commend my colleagues, as we are all likely doing all we can do to help our students succeed. I would love to spend my time creating an endless supply of practice material. However, our students already have so much at their disposal.

My reply to this student was, “My previous exams are out there, so ask your peers and study in groups. As such, I don’t do practice tests. There are worksheets assigned throughout the semester and their answer keys are posted following the deadline. In our class, I even do bonus quizzes and chapter-specific worksheets as additional review. If you can clearly tell me what the issue is, then I can more clearly send anything I find your way. I already send any resources that I find on Google, etc. to all my students as I locate them. Honestly, I would google the topics that you want to practice. (I myself google some topics as I prep for class!) Some other resources include the end-of-chapter problems in the Karty textbook, which are a great source of practice. Plus, we can always discuss anything you need more clarification on during office hours.”

My senior colleague followed my response with, “I have little to add to Dr. Taylor’s excellent response. It is more often that the problem with studying is the way that students use the resources available to them rather than the quantity or type of resource. This is particularly true with this subject, where the coverage of topics and problem sets are numerous.” 

This made me think that it’s not the quantity of what students study but the quality. Organic chemistry is a problem-based class. Teaching this course in a mechanistic way provides a clear advantage to students and hopefully helps them successfully mediate the course. But the bottom line here is that students have to work on the problems. Karty’s text is meant to do exactly that. Students are given ample time and opportunity to work through the various problems (Your Turns, In-Text Problems,  End-of-Chapter Problems, Solved Problems, etc.). But I am unsure why more students aren’t taking advantage of these opportunities.

Perhaps this is because students appear to be cautious about making mistakes, don’t feel confident, or have a phobia of organic chemistry. On top of these anxieties, a lack of pen-and-paper practice inhibits the material from “clicking for them.” I want them to work through the material on their own rather than for their practice to be directed by me, which tends to happen during a majority of our class interactions. Prior to COVID, my office used to be packed with students doing a series of problems on the whiteboard. I would merely facilitate the sessions to help students actively work through the mechanics of the organic problem sets. Sadly, these experiences have been lost due to an online teaching format.

At times, I think back to when I was a student and I did an endless amount of practice problems to learn the ins and outs of organic chemistry. However, I have to realize that I love this subject, so it was never a chore for me. But our average student is using this course as a gateway to other electives and vocational plans. Circling back to my colleague’s statement—“It is more often that the problem with studying is the way that students use the resources available to them rather than the quantity or type of resource”—I understand that we need to remind our students that they need to know how to maximize their opportunities to practice problem-solving.

I was also motivated to write this post after a conversation between myself and my other organic chemistry colleague, one in which we talked about the value of Perusall and why its annotations help students work through the content. I personally love Perusall and its ability to help students annotate and explain what they know and differentiate it from what they potentially don’t. One flaw I see with this method, however, is that students cannot know what they don’t understand. In other words, I think about moments in class when I’m discussing material and I try to anticipate my students’ questions. I wish I could see what my students are doing to study and how they read the ebook, but because we teach remotely, we can’t see them or physically walk through the screen. We haven’t hit the era of The Jetsons yet! 

This sadly means that it’s likely that students are not sufficiently learning. If they truly put their pens to paper, that is when they will actively learn the mechanistic routes of organic chemistry. Unfortunately, this pen-and-paper learning is often missed and overlooked due to online learning. Thus, it is important for professors to supplement their students with additional practice problems to help them feel encouraged to solve problems by hand, which sounds old-school but is so incredibly valuable.

This situation reminds me of the old tale—”give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If we teach our students how to solve problems on paper, then we supply them with vital tools for success that will continue to benefit them later on in their educations and careers. All we can really do, as instructors, is show them the way and hope that they will use all the opportunities presented to them to their full advantage.

-Kerri Taylor, Columbus State University

Feel free to share what you’re doing with your online classes this fall in the “Comments” section below!

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2 thoughts on “Success Means That You Put Your Pen to Paper

  1. Well said! I had started to come around to the problem that if I give them a bunch of practice sheets and tests, they only ever study and work those examples and have a hard time thinking for themselves what to do. Definitely gives me done things to think about doing better.

  2. Spot on, Kerri! Thanks for articulating so nicely.

    One of the things I do to get through to students is to impress upon them the need to diagnose weaknesses and fix them…regularly and repeatedly, from the beginning of the semester to the very end. A million times I now find myself telling students that the best way to diagnose weaknesses is to work problems, both the ones that I assign (Smartwork and written problem sets) and the ones that I don’t (end-of-chapter problems). For that to work, students need to give each problem their best effort (pen to paper!) on their own before seeking help; otherwise, they don’t have a true diagnosis. And when they diagnose a weakness (they get stuck, get the wrong answer, don’t know how to start…), I urge them to do what it takes to strengthen that weakness—either ask questions in office hours, ask a friend/classmate/TA, or go back over the section in the book.

    This analogy of diagnose/fix seems to work well. In part, I think it’s because it resonates with a lot of students who have their sights set on a career in the health field. When a patient has a problem, the goal is to fix the problem, but the problem has to be diagnosed before it can be fixed.

    The idea of a student figuring out their weaknesses and strengthening those weaknesses also resonates with anyone who has played competitive sports. A soccer player, for example, might be great with their right foot but weak with their left foot. To improve at soccer, the soccer player must work on that left foot, not ignore it. Similarly, a student who wants to improve at organic chemistry must continually work on strengthening their weaknesses.

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