Supplemental Instruction for Introductory Chemistry Courses: A

Traditionally, introductory chemistry courses are taught in a large lecture format in conjunction with smaller recitations and laboratories. In this s...
1 downloads 8 Views 81KB Size
Research: Science & Education

Supplemental Instruction for Introductory Chemistry Courses A Preliminary Investigation Thomas J. Webster* Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 7049 Jonsson Engineering Center, Troy, NY 12180 Linda Hooper University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260

Traditionally, introductory chemistry courses are taught in a large lecture format in conjunction with smaller recitations and laboratories. In this setting, topics are presented in lecture and reinforced through exam and homework algorithmicstyle problems. The recitation serves as a review period in which students critique homework problems and complete a weekly quiz. The laboratory summarizes key lecture topics through routine chemistry experiments. Studies have illustrated that this school of thought, although properly instructing students on how to solve problems algorithmically, does not empower them with conceptual chemistry knowledge (1–5). It has also been hypothesized that the learning atmosphere mentioned above is the key reason for the continuous decline of fundamental chemical knowledge noticed in recent college graduates (3). “Covering the syllabus” and lecturing do not provide a supportive framework to encourage critical thinking skills (5). Owing to the nature of exam questions and assigned textbook homework problems, students are immediately trained into an algorithmic thinking routine, looking for laws and formulas to “plug and chug” blindly to obtain the correct numerical answer. Thus, students do not concentrate on the fundamental ideas of equation derivations and exceptions; they simply accept the validity of laws, theories, and equations as absolute (5). This learning routine results in many college freshmen steering away from upper-level chemistry courses because they falsely assume chemistry is a “boring and uninteresting” science. Tobias’s research indicates that many capable students are driven from science by this inability to tolerate the traditional learning approach (6). Consequently, statistics illustrate that approximately 35% of students originally enrolled in introductory chemistry courses withdraw or receive a final D or F grade (Martin, D. C. Supplemental Instruction Training Manual, unpublished results). Large lecture classes may also play a role in the declining success in chemistry education (i.e., the high percentage of withdrawal and D or F grades). One reason for this is that large lecture classes create an atmosphere that leaves students and the professor with a sense of being disconnected from each other (7). Creative faculty members have attempted to enhance communication through such devices as the “OneMinute Paper” (8), but this technique requires a faculty response days after the question was posed, at a time when the students’ curiosity and intrigue may have dissipated. One might think that the smaller recitations and laboratories would eliminate this problem and create an active learning arena with more immediate personal attention, but owing to course structure, this may not be the case. Recitation and *Corresponding author.


laboratory time is so limited through the weekly repetitive activities of homework, quizzes, and experiments that little time is allocated for the active learning process. Simply stated, the traditional lecture, recitation, and laboratory format (owing to size and algorithmic approach) do not provide sufficient interaction or feedback avenues to ensure conceptual mastery of chemistry concepts and consequent reduction of student attrition. Our Approach: Supplemental Instruction The lack of conceptual understanding of chemistry principles mentioned above has been vastly researched, yielding positive results when direct team learning methods were introduced into the chemistry lecture (2–5, 9, 10). Our approach was to utilize the same team learning methods but not to disrupt the lecture format. In this study, the lecture, recitation, and laboratory structure were maintained, but one additional review opportunity was offered to the students: Supplemental Instruction (SI). SI is an interactive program developed in 1979 by Deanna Martin at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, with the goal of helping students achieve mastery of course content while they develop and integrate effective learning and study skill strategies (Martin, D. C. Supplemental Instruction Training Manual, unpublished results). Here, SI was utilized as an interactive learning approach to combat the features of traditional algorithmic chemistry teaching techniques, with the hope of increasing the conceptual knowledge and retention rate of introductory chemistry students. By increasing students’ conceptual knowledge and thus interest in the class, a reduction in attrition should follow. The limited available literature on this topic illustrates that SI has been successfully implemented into university general chemistry courses (10, 11).

The Players Past implementation success has been due to the involvement of three key persons: the SI leader, the SI supervisor, and the course instructor. The SI leader is typically an undergraduate student who has successfully mastered course subject matter, completed SI training, and been deemed acceptable by both the SI supervisor and the course instructor. The SI leader is responsible for attending all lectures and conducting two to three one-hour interactive sessions per week, which students attend voluntarily. The SI leader is to be viewed by the students as an ideal student who is approachable, knowledgeable, and available for questions, but is not to be viewed as a teaching assistant or as a premier “authority figure” on the subject matter. The main goal of the SI leader in the program is to facilitate questions and answers from the SI group

Journal of Chemical Education • Vol. 75 No. 3 March 1998 •

Research: Science & Education

and, therefore, allow students to assist each other in problem solving. The SI supervisor, usually a learning skills academic support team specialist, is responsible for orienting the SI leader to the SI program and continually training him/her as the semester progresses. SI training emphasizes effective group learning techniques and ways to integrate various study skills (test taking, lecture note-taking, textbook reading, stress management, memory enhancement, and time management) into each session. The initial training involves “mock” SI sessions that simulate ineffective or unproductive SI sessions (sessions ranging from uncooperative students to students wanting a large amount of individual attention from the SI leader). Thus the initial training allows the SI leader to identify a group dynamic problem, adapt to each situation, and incorporate techniques necessary to create a favorable group learning situation. Continual SI training includes direct periodic monitoring of the SI sessions by the SI supervisor. After each monitored session, the SI supervisor offers constructive criticism on ways to keep the learning process both informative and fun while combining necessary study skills. An additional portion of the semester-long training process involves weekly or biweekly meetings between all participating SI leaders to discuss common session problems and to brainstorm on possible future session activities that will enhance the learning process. Lastly, the course instructor is responsible for encouraging class SI attendance and allowing the SI leader to make periodic announcements concerning SI session meeting times, the benefits of SI participation, and anonymous post-exam SI versus non-SI grade evaluations. Meetings between the SI leader, SI supervisor, and course instructor may be conducted intermittently throughout the semester, detailing SI attendance and concerns students may be having with course material. In this manner, the SI leader serves as an excellent feedback mechanism for the course instructor.

The Sessions The SI sessions integrate facilitative measures to encourage an atmosphere that emphasizes “no question is a dumb question”, thereby encouraging science majors to ask the dreaded question “Why?” (2). Students arrange their desks in a circle to promote an interactive atmosphere. Each session usually begins with the group, facilitated by the SI leader, constructing a class review sheet composed of previous lecture material. Since most SI sessions are held within 48 hours of the lecture, the SI sessions represent an immediate recall of course information. If questions arise during this process, the group, not the SI leader, answers them. This forces students to speak and learn chemistry vocabulary and consequently reinforces pertinent information. After the class review sheet has been compiled, a prepared collection of questions stressing broad conceptual concepts (i.e., the “informal quiz”) is assigned by the SI leader. In the beginning of the semester the informal quiz may be composed solely by the SI leader, but as the semester progresses, students may be asked to contribute questions. In this manner, students are learning to predict possible exam topics and/or questions. Not surprisingly, during past successful SI implementations, actual exam questions have been predicted by students during SI sessions. The questions are then completed by smaller groups of SI participants, one member being responsible for writing the “answer” on the blackboard while the entire gathering dis-

cusses its validity. Examples of informal quiz questions are If you lived on the North Pole, which of the following natural gases would you keep in an outdoor storage tank and why: methane, propane, butane. Explain why a helium balloon expands as it rises in the air (assume constant temperature). What does the Maxwell speed distribution curve tell us?

Session activities will vary throughout the semester according to SI leader and attendees’ needs. For example, students may compose their own possible exams and quiz each other, play “Jeopardy”-style games, or take sample exams prepared by the SI leader to simulate the anxiety present during a test situation. As previously mentioned, the SI leader frequently incorporates study-skill techniques into each session. This can be accomplished through a variety of exercises. For example, one week before an exam the SI leader may lead the group in outlining an exam study plan. This allows students to effectively manage and maximize their study time, avoiding the ineffective “cramming” the night before an exam that is all too familiar among first-year college students. In an exercise to stress the importance of textbook reading, the SI leader may compose an “informal quiz” with sample problems written verbatim from textbook examples previously assigned in lecture. If a student cannot complete the problem(s), the SI leader can stress the importance of keeping up with reading assignments as the semester progresses and of thoroughly understanding all example problems presented in the text. This proactive method of stressing study skills is the basis of SI and is much more effective than simply telling students to study well in advance of an exam or to read the textbook.

Results Because of its study-skills base, SI was piloted through the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Skills Center for two semesters in General Chemistry I and for one semester in Organic Chemistry I. As previously mentioned, one-hour sessions were routinely held twice a week, and additional sessions were offered before an exam. The sessions were well attended throughout the semester (see Table 1). The percent-

Table 1. SI Summary Data Variable

General Chemistry I

Organic Chemistry I

Spring '95

Fall '95

Fall '95

Course enrollment




No. of SI sessions offered




No. (%) of students 72 (37%) attending SI

106 (43%)

69 (45%)

Mean no. of sessions attended by SI participants




Mean attendance at SI sessions




Highest no. of SI sessions attended by one student




Mean helpfulness of SI sessions a



a On


a scale of 1 (not helpful) to 5 (helpful). • Vol. 75 No. 3 March 1998 • Journal of Chemical Education


Research: Science & Education

age of the total enrollment that attended at least one Table 2. Comparison of Final Grades, SI and Non-SI SI session was 37% (N = 194) for General ChemisGeneral Chemistry I Organic Chemistry I try I (Spring 1995), 43% (N = 246) for General Variable Spring '95 Fall '95 Fall '95 Chemistry I (Fall 1995), and 45% (N = 153) for SI Non-SI SI Non-SI SI Non-SI Organic Chemistry I (Fall 1995). The mean size of A or B final grade an SI session was 14 students for General Chemis39 30 43 33 54 33 (% of students) try I (Spring 1995), 10 for General Chemistry I (Fall Withdrawals, D, 1995), and 9 for Organic Chemistry I (Fall 1995). and F final grade 10 34 15 31 6 26 The highest number of SI sessions attended by one (% of students) student was 23 for General Chemistry I (Spring Mean final grade 2.34 1.95 2.46 2.19 2.59 2.17 1995), 15 for General Chemistry I (Fall 1995), and Note: All comparisons between SI and non-SI for a given course session are 14 for Organic Chemistry I (Fall 1995). More im- significant at the p < .01 level except for the mean final grade for General Chemisportantly, SI attendees have embraced the sessions, try I, Fall 1995, which is significant at p < .05. giving them high marks on SI end-of-the-term evaluations. On a scale of 1 (not helpful) to 5 (very helperence, they may be more comprehensible than textbook or ful), the SI sessions for General Chemistry I (Spring 1995) instructor explanations. and Organic Chemistry I (Fall 1995) both received a mean Conceptual and theoretical chemistry fundamentals are score of 4.5, while General Chemistry I (Fall 1995) received also emphasized in the SI sessions. Study-skill strategies are a 4.1. heavily applied toward helping students memorize or underTo investigate the impact of SI on students’ comprehenstand basic chemical facts. For example, in the introductory sion of subject material, the final grades of students who atreview period of one session, a cognitive map was utilized tended SI were compared with grades of those who did not, for the mastery of naming organic compounds. In another as is indicated in Table 2. To evaluate the effectiveness of SI session, note cards were constructed by groups to help them in reducing the attrition rate, the percentages of students who become more proficient in the naming of common chemical withdrew or received a final grade of D or F were compared formulas. Occasionally, the Cornell note-taking method was from both groups. Standard statistical methods were used in discussed so that students might absorb the most informaanalysis of the data: independent t-tests were employed for tion from each lecture attendance. In one particular General comparing final course grades and chi square tests for comChemistry I SI session, pH and acid and base reaction rules paring the percentage of A and B final course grades and the were summarized and presented to the group in an easy-topercentage of withdrawals, D, and F final course grades. follow review sheet composed in students’ own words. Although the grades were significantly different for SI and non-SI participants, further investigation is necessary Some have argued that teaching students to speak the before any conclusions can be formulated concerning SI and language of chemistry should be the first priority in any inits role in increasing students’ chemistry comprehension and troductory chemistry course (13). SI encourages students to decreasing the attrition rate of General Chemistry I and Orcommunicate using the terms of this language, since they are ganic Chemistry I students. For this preliminary investigaforced to assist each other without direct help from the SI tion, it is difficult to distinguish between highly motivated leader. Frequently during the sessions, students ask the SI students and the helpfulness of the SI program. Perhaps the leader if he/she has pronounced or defined a term correctly, students who participated in the SI sessions represent “highbut instead of supplying an answer the SI leader poses the question to the group, facilitating until the correct answer is achievers” who would have excelled without the SI program. reached. In this fashion, the students compile an extensive Unfortunately, a control group (a General Chemistry I or Organic Chemistry I section in which SI was not offered) chemistry vocabulary that will aid them first in problem understanding and subsequently in problem solving. would not have been useful for the preliminary investigation owing to large variations in teaching and examination style. Student Perception Nevertheless, it is apparent that the sessions were well utiAs previously mentioned, SI attendees have embraced lized by students as an additional avenue to review course the sessions, giving them high marks on SI end-of-the-term material, and therefore must have been a useful learning tool. evaluations. Students indicated on the evaluations that inEvaluation of Technique formal quizzes were most beneficial for their final understandThe successful implementation of Supplemental Instrucing of a particular topic. They also liked the fact that the SI tion in General Chemistry I and Organic Chemistry I could sessions correlated well with what was currently being covbe attributed to its aid in several difficult areas: mathematics, ered in class, so that if they were confused about a topic covproblem solving, conceptualization, theoretical, and familered, they knew they could attend SI that week for further iarization with the chemical language (12). SI stresses mathexplanation. Students also suggested that study skills were inematical concepts and problem-solving skills through infortegrated into course material in a fun and effective manner, mal weekly quizzes that SI attendees complete and discuss. and many students applied the learned study skills not only Since a student must explain to the remainder of the group to chemistry but to their other courses as well. A major comhow a solution was obtained, understanding of content is replaint concerning SI was the time limit. Most attendees would inforced. Students are encouraged to write specific steps, in have appreciated more SI time, possibly a one-and-a-half-hour English sentences rather than in mathematical symbols, for session twice a week or a one-hour session three times a week. each problem presented to the group. Because the explanaAmong the students who did not attend SI, a large pertions are formatted by a student with a similar frame of refcentage wanted to, but had time conflicts with other obliga330

Journal of Chemical Education • Vol. 75 No. 3 March 1998 •

Research: Science & Education

tions. Care was taken to accommodate students’ schedules by distributing a survey at the beginning of the semester asking them to choose convenient SI times. Regardless, some of the nonattending students still benefited from the program by obtaining copies of SI handouts from the SI leader during lecture or from friends who had attended the sessions. Course Instructor Perception The SI program was also well received by the course instructor. As one instructor explained in a formal letter of support (Straub, D. K., U. Pittsburgh, personal communication, 1995 ): Chemistry is generally considered a difficult subject, and students too easily fall into the dangerous habit of postponing studying until just before an exam. One of the important aspects of the SI program are the weekly sessions offered, during which student attendees are given ideas on how to study for important topics covered in lecture that week.

Course instructors were also pleased with the feedback nature of the SI program. The SI leader communicated periodically with the course instructor when the class did not fully comprehend a lecture topic. This allowed the instructor to allocate time in the next lecture for further review of the subject. The Learning Skills Center at the University of Pittsburgh has yet to find an instructor who does not openly support the SI program. SI Leader Perception The SI program, in addition to offering monetary or credit rewards for upper-class involvement, aids the SI leader in preparation for GRE, MCAT, EIT, or other standard exams. Leaders discovered that although they were confident of the subject matter before starting the program, they developed a deeper appreciation for the applicability of certain subjects. Leaders continued to develop their communication, teaching, and leadership skills through the extensive training portion of the program. When asked what was the most rewarding aspect of becoming an SI leader, one responded (Hooper, L. SI Leaders End of the Term Evaluation—Term 95-2, unpublished results): Helping and teaching others chemistry and giving them another view that the professor didn’t have time to present.

Although a great time commitment must be made by the SI leader before the start of the program (approximately 8 to 10 hours a week), most, if not all leaders, were extremely pleased with the outcome. Conclusions As universities across the country consider reforming chemistry education, SI implementation should be seriously contemplated. It can be easily implemented in chemistry courses through the active participation of university chemistry departments and equivalent academic support teams. It is imperative to incorporate an academic support team member in this endeavor so that proper study skill techniques can be stressed in each SI session. Because SI has a national base at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, much literature and assistance exists concerning its implementation. Moreover, the program is easily adapted to the specific needs of individual

colleges or universities. At the University of Pittsburgh, the program has been adapted to accommodate the large-lecture format of introductory courses and consequent specific needs of our students. As indicated by high student attendance and end-of-theterm surveys, this preliminary study illustrates that SI is well received by participating students and faculty. This suggests that team learning methods in conjunction with study skill lessons can serve as a beneficial avenue for students to review course material. The knowledge gained from study skill incorporation not only aids in learning immediate course content, but can also be utilized by students in other subjects throughout their collegiate career. SI accomplished these goals by offering a voluntarily attended one-hour session twice a week throughout the semester. The sessions incorporated active learning, problem solving, and critical thinking skills through weekly activities such as “informal quizzes”, study skill enhancement exercises, and class review sheets. SI’s exact effect on increasing student comprehension and decreasing attrition rate is a complicated issue and requires carefully designed assessment measures. Although this study illustrates an increase in final grade point average and a decrease in attrition rate for students who attended SI, it is unclear at this point whether this reflects the consequences of SI or simply shows that highly motivated students participated in the program and would have excelled without it. Additional studies are being conducted to make this distinction. Either way, the SI program is a popular and valuable resource for additional student review and will be continued and extended into a variety of chemistry classes at the University of Pittsburgh. Acknowledgments We wish to thank the SI leaders Gregg Rothstein and Matthew Schell for their outstanding work. Gratitude also goes to the Chemistry Department at the University of Pittsburgh for their support of the SI program, specifically to Darel Straub, James Vaux, Dennis Curran, and George Bandik. Lastly, we are indebted to Georgine Materniak from the Learning Skills Center for her dedication, which brought the SI program to the University of Pittsburgh. Literature Cited 1. Zoller, U.; Lubezky, A.; Nakhleh, M. B.; Tessier, B.; Dori, Y. J. J. Chem. Educ. 1995, 72, 987–989. 2. Phelps, A. J. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 301–304. 3. De Jesus, K. J. Chem. Educ. 1995, 72, 224–226. 4. Dinan, F. J. J. Chem. Educ. 1995, 72, 419–421. 5. Kogut, L. S. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 218–221. 6. Tobias, S. They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different; Research Corporation: Tucson, AZ, 1990. 7. Harwood, W. S. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 229–230. 8. Angelo, T. A.; Cross, K. P. Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd ed.; Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1993; pp 148–153. 9. Dougherty, R. C.; Bowen, C. W.; Berger, T.; Rees, W.; Mellon, E. K.; Pulliam, E. J. Chem. Educ. 1995, 72, 793–797. 10. Lockie, N. M.; Van Lanen, R. J. In New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 60; Martin, D. C.; Arendal, D. R.. Eds.; JosseyBass: San Francisco, 1994; pp 63–74. 11. Lundeberg, M. J. Res. Sci. Teach. 1990; 27(2), 145–155. 12. Van Beek, K.; Louters, L. J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 389–391. 13. Markow, A. J. Chem. Educ. 1988, 65, 346–347. • Vol. 75 No. 3 March 1998 • Journal of Chemical Education