Often, when we think of STEM education, we think of innovative courses that look toward the future. The subject of chemistry, especially organic chemistry, is somewhat of a stalwart with the way it has been taught — remaining relatively unchanged through the decades. As a foundational course for chemistry majors and pre-meds, students walk through the physical (now mostly virtual) doors of this course with many preconceived notions, due to its long-standing reputation as a difficult course filled with memorization and low pass rates.
However, over the past several years, accelerated in part to the coronavirus pandemic, we have started to see changes and new methodologies in how organic chemistry is taught.
What makes organic chemistry such a challenging subject to teach?
First, understanding what makes organic chemistry so different from other subjects, even from other chemistry courses, helps us more deeply understand what changes will be the most effective.
From the student perspective, the challenges are present in multiple forms. Very few other science courses prepare incoming organic chemistry students for the concepts they will tackle. General Chemistry is heavily math-based and, while challenging in its own right, can appeal to STEM students who excel in mathematics. Organic Chemistry, however, is much more visual and conceptual — in fact, very little, if any math is used at all. Students spend their time understanding structures and interactive relationships between chemical compounds, while simultaneously learning how to draw various representations of these compounds and reactions.
Instructors are thus faced with a poorly prepared student body, who not only need to learn the material, but must also learn how to learn the material. Organic Chemistry is typically a second-year, sophomore course, so students are somewhat seasoned at the college level but are still developing strategies for effective learning. Instructors often find themselves torn between teaching the material and teaching learning strategies associated with the course materials and methods. Additionally, instructors must now face teaching within entirely new constructs, as courses move from in-person to online or hybrid models. Suddenly, the many holes in the old “lecture in class, solve problems for homework” model that has been used for decades become incredibly apparent.
How does an active learning approach help resolve these issues?
As we dissect these challenges and adapt to shifting course modalities, we need to take a fresh look at what methods are most effective in engaging students across all models. Active learning and flipped classroom approaches are at the top of the list. Active learning can be especially effective when combined with appropriate technology, as it does not require a change in curriculum, but a change in approach. Even small changes can have a big impact here, if they effectively increase student engagement with the content. Overall, the goal is to shift away from the traditional lecture and more towards knowledge transmission as students interact and engage with what they are learning and, ultimately, become better able to master it.
The flipped classroom model especially fosters active learning by creating this shift in approach and supports multiple course formats simultaneously. As such, it has been shown to effectively increase students’ grades. The “flip” is found in pushing the lecture portion outside of class, with preparatory lecture videos for students to watch prior to class, which replaces the traditional reading prior to lecture. These video lectures prepare the context for class while allowing class time to be dedicated to interactive learning through problem solving, peer-to-peer interaction, and exercises that provide direct feedback for both students and instructors. This direct feedback can help students get the immediate instructional support they need while instructors are easily able to identify gaps in student understanding and provide additional information or context.
Looking deeper at active learning, the tools needed to be effective for teaching and learning organic chemistry need to be specific to the discipline. One-size-fits-all tools fall short of student needs, and tools borrowed from or targeted for experienced professionals do not translate well for beginners. Many existing tools have high learning curves and thus create additional barriers for students. Student-focused platforms like Aktiv Chemistry help lower this bar.
What is the best technology for teaching organic chemistry?
The best tools for supporting effective teaching of organic chemistry are modern, mobile-first, and beginner friendly. Additionally, they need to be in-depth and support the mastery of chemical drawing across the various models, nomenclature, and support reinforcement of foundational knowledge from General Chemistry.
While more than one tool exists that attempts to solve these challenges, the Aktiv Chemistry Organic platform aims to create effective engagement for instructors and students alike, while keeping barriers low. With extensive integrations into existing Learning Management Systems (like Canvas or Blackboard), instructors can easily generate quizzes, assessments, and activities for students while being able to easily track their progress and address pain points or learning gaps. With access to thousands of problems and learning activities, instructors can spend their time and resources on engaging with students rather than manually creating course content and grading (while also having the option to create custom exercises). Students benefit from these activities with immediate feedback, helpful nudges, and the “gamification” of material that can allow practice of material that reduces time to solve and increases in response correctness¹.
¹Ágnes Peragovics* and Erika Biró, “Structure Drawing at the Heart of Teaching Chemistry” Future of Chemical Education Chimia 75 (2021) 54–57
Educational technology directly focused on chemistry as a discipline, and tools that directly support drawing for organic chemistry, squarely hit upon the many pain points that plague the teaching of this subject. By being an integral part of an active learning and flipped classroom approach, both students and instructors are able to engage with the course material in new, student-centered ways that allow for immediate feedback, collaboration and interactivity in learning and knowledge sharing. Instructors can focus their bandwidth on supporting students in new and innovative ways, while students can deepen their understanding of the material through practice and concept mastery, instead of rote memorization. Students can focus on the material through modern approaches that speak to them, and meet them where they are at, while utilizing a powerful tool that is already in their pocket.
Instructors and students alike benefit from a flexible, yet powerful tool that gives students room to deeply explore organic chemistry concepts while creating mastery through consistent practice and real-time feedback. Aktiv Chemistry Organic provides all of these benefits on a platform that is device-agnostic (meaning students can utilize the tool from any computer or mobile device), further reducing barriers to entry alongside being beginner-friendly.
Are you ready to engage your Organic Chemistry students and reshape their active learning?
Schedule your Aktiv Chemistry Organic demo today!