When I was an undergraduate student, I hated reading my chemistry textbooks. Like many science faculty, my professors would assign sections of the textbook to read before class with little to no explanation or guidance. As a first-year college student who took my coursework seriously, I tried to do as I was told. Unfortunately, the reading often left me frustrated, confused, and stressed. By sophomore year I had given up on reading the textbook before class and had convinced myself that I was “bad at learning by reading” (see that fixed-mindset thinking?). But sometimes, I would go back to the textbook just before an exam and try to glean additional insights beyond my notes. When I could put the textbook reading into the framework of understanding that I had built through class and homework, it suddenly made a lot more sense.

Fast forward to 2017 when I was beginning my career at Lesley University. I tried to make the textbook optional since textbooks are expensive, I wasn’t planning to test the students on anything that we didn’t cover in class, and I figured that most students wouldn’t read it anyway. To my surprise, the students then complained that they didn’t have a textbook resource. Hmm, I thought. How do I make the textbook investment worthwhile? How do I teach my students how to learn from a textbook? How do I demonstrate that learning from a textbook is a skill to be developed (modeling growth-mindset thinking)?

I ultimately landed on a modified version of a strategy known as Previewing. Previewing was popularized by Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire, a PhD chemist and the Director Emerita for the Louisiana State University Center for Academic Success, in her book, Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. This is how I describe my Previewing assignment in my own syllabi:

Step 1: Begin by previewing the assigned section of the textbook. To do so, read the section headings, bolded and italicized text, and any charts or graphs. This step helps the brain get a sense of the big picture.

Step 2: Based on the previewing exercise, write down (at minimum) three questions that the reading can answer. This practice gives you a reason and motivation to read (that is, to answer your own questions!) Ideally, these questions will span the entirety of the reading.

Step 3: Complete the reading and try to answer the questions you’ve asked in your own words. This should be done by paraphrasing the text (and not copying it from the textbook or another source) because this process will help you to identify how well you understood what you read. This is known as metacognition (awareness or understanding of one’s own thought process).

Step 4: Once you’ve finished reading, write out your “muddiest point” – the most difficult or confusing part of what you’ve just read.

Here is an example from one student from when they “Previewed” sections 1.9 – 1.12 of the 3e text. You can see the questions they proposed (1-3) and their muddiest point (4).

1. What is a formal charge?

A formal charge describes the charge of an atom with covalent bonds. Formal charges can either be 0, negative, or positive. If the formal charge of an atom is 0, that means that the atom has the same number of electrons as protons. If the formal charge of an atom is negative, then it has more electrons than protons. On the other hand, if the formal charge of an atom is positive, then it has less electrons than protons. 

2. What is a resonance structure? Why are resonance hybrids better than resonance structures?

A resonance structure is one of multiple ways to draw a Lewis structure by moving around the valence electrons. Resonance hybrids, which are the combination (average) of all the resonance structures of the species, are better representations of Lewis structures because they have the least amount of energy and are therefore the most stable. 

3. What are condensed formulas and how are they helpful when drawing Lewis structures?

Condensed formulas are a way to show how molecules would be drawn, but without using bond lines. They are helpful when drawing Lewis structures because they are written similarly to how you would draw them, meaning you don’t have to figure out what the central atom is and which atoms connect to one another. 

4. Muddiest Point

My “muddiest point” is the features that indicate the existence of another resonance structure (Figure 1-32). I was able to follow along with how to make resonance structures of more simple molecules (like we did in general chemistry), but as soon as we got to the complex molecules and the features were introduced, I was confused. I might just need more practice with the 5 features, but as of right now, I am lost. Furthermore, drawing molecules as line structures was also confusing to me. 

Finally, I’ll offer a few tips to make the most of these assignments:

  • On the first day of class, I typically introduce the idea of Previewing through an exercise where I ask students to interpret a nonsensical paragraph of text (Introduction to Previewing). I use this to open the conversation about how it can feel to read a science textbook and then offer the Previewing strategy as a solution. In this way, I sell the strategy to the students from the very beginning of the course – since its success depends upon having their buy-in.  
  • Since my organic chemistry students were introduced to Previewing with me in General Chemistry the previous year, I incorporate an alternate Previewing exercise for them on the first day of class. In this activity, I ask the students to analyze three mock student submissions for a Previewing assignment for sections 1.1. – 1.8 of Karty’s 3e text (worksheet linked here). By doing this, the students gain better awareness about how to get the most out of this assignment (such as quality of questions, length and detail of answers, etc.)  I was astonished at the improved quality of the reading journals (compared to their submissions the previous year) after the students completed this activity.
  • I include the “muddiest point” question for the sake of the students and myself. The students are prompted to reflect on what they’re most confused about at the end of the reading — another chance to hone their metacognitive skills. Meanwhile, I benefit from knowing what their muddiest points are because I know what to emphasize in class to clear up confusion. That’s an example of Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT). 

How do you structure reading assignments in your organic chemistry courses? Do you require reading at all? I’d love to hear about how other chemistry professors approach textbook reading assignments in their courses. And, as always, I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about how I utilize the Previewing strategy to help students make the most of their reading.

-Grace Ferris, Lesley University

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