9 Dec 2015

A Penny for Their Thoughts

Submitted by Elizabeth Jamieson, Smith College

This semester I’m teaching a section of our first semester general chemistry class with 76 students.  Almost every class, I do an in class exercise where students work in groups and report their answers using a free online response system called Socrative that I learned about from one of the participants at our summer IONiC/VIPEr workshops.

Normally, these exercises focus on material we’re covering in class so I can get a sense of how well students understand key concepts.  However, I’ve introduced a different set of questions lately after having a conversation with a colleague of mine who teaches in English and American Studies and is also the director of Smith’s Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning.

He told me about an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Small Changes in Teaching: The Minutes Before Class” where the author describes three small things he’s done that have enhanced student learning in his classroom.  My colleague had implemented one of these activities where an image or a quotation is shown at the start of class and students are asked two simple questions:  What do you notice?  What do you wonder?

As soon as he told me about this, my mind filled with possibilities.  What would my students notice and wonder if I simply put up a molecular orbital diagram or a structure of a coordination compound before discussing it in class?  Wouldn’t this be a great way to get a sense of what’s on their minds and see where they’re starting from before launching into a topic in class?

I’ve now tried this exercise a couple of times.  Who would have guessed that the MO diagram showing the interaction of p orbitals looks like an electric circuit diagram to my students?  Without any prompting from me, it was wonderful to see how many of my students noticed that an octahedral coordination compound with 3 ethylenediamine ligands looked like a pinwheel or a propeller, providing a great opportunity for me to start my discussion of isomers based on their observations.

While I don’t think this is an exercise that I would use in every class meeting, so far it’s been a great tool for me to see what’s on student’s minds, and I definitely plan to do this again in the future.