Teaching the Mechanism Means Testing the Mechanism

Exam questions are a primary medium by which students learn what their instructor values most in the course. If we evaluate what we value, questions should test the mechanism and thus emphasize conceptual understanding, utilize real applications, and require deep thinking. And for me, the most important reason to pose mechanistic questions is to see how much students really know and understand.

Questions need not be completely different from more traditional exam questions but they must uncover why and how a reaction occurs, rather than just what occurs. When writing assessment questions for my course, ideas come from a variety of places. I often use the format of a question from Joel’s book or from Smartwork problems assigned for homework, while changing the context enough so that students can demonstrate that they understand the principles of the problem. I use questions students ask during office hours or study sessions as seeds for new assessment questions; if one student’s learning hinges on a given concept then others can probably learn from the question, too. Some exam questions I use are derived from clicker questions for which the majority of the class responded incorrectly, as I use these questions as opportunities to address misconceptions in class. The resulting exam questions allow me to measure student growth.

Here are some examples of questions I would have asked under a traditionally organized course and how they evolved for my mechanistically organized course:

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Spoiler Alert: Reading the Textbook Before Class Does a Student Good

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.

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Snow Day Strategies: How I Made-Up Lost Time

Elon University is located in central North Carolina and we don’t often have severe winter storms. In fact, in my previous 12 years at Elon, not once did we have a cancelled day of classes during our fall or spring semesters. This spring semester, however, four days of classes were lost to winter storms, three of which were on days I teach my Organic 2 class. Based on how I designed my syllabus, I figured I could sacrifice one or two days of class, but certainly not three. I found myself in a position in which I had to make up at least one entire class period worth of material. I decided to accelerate the class somewhat for the next few meetings. To accomplish this, I gave students, ahead of time, several clicker questions that I would normally present for the first time during class. I asked students to solve the problems on their own, after having read assigned sections from the textbook. During class, I didn’t need to use the time they otherwise would use to solve the problem and submit their answers. Furthermore, I cut down on the time spent in class we would typically devote to discussing each of the clicker questions.

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Other Benefits to Mechanistic Organization [Video]


Elon professor Joel Karty discusses how he believes a mechanistic organization allows him to have increased expectations about student involvement in lecture. Prof. Karty talks about his use of clicker questions within lecture, and how his mechanistic organization allows him to present questions that test students’ emergent thinking.

Why mechanisms? What does it mean to be mechanistically organized book? What advantages does a mechanistic organization offer? Watch Joel’s other videos to find out.