An Ideal World: How We’d Like Things To Be
If we imagine that we had a magic wand that allowed us to solve educational problems beyond our direct area of influence (especially in regards to chemistry), we can see a world where students arrive to post-secondary education well prepared and unafraid of challenging topics.
As it stands now, students arrive at college not only with wildly different levels of preparedness but also with a baked-in set of fears and anxieties about chemistry. These fears can have a number of sources, from messaging that chemistry is incredibly difficult to anxiety around related subjects (such as mathematics).
Students without lab experience can be fearful of making embarrassing mistakes and struggle with a lack of familiarity with the equipment. Dr. James Caras, CEO of Catalyst Education, shares with findings from his student interviews, “Students are very intimidated. They’ll tell me when I interview them how they’re most terrified of their lab classes. They’re afraid of making very public mistakes. They’re afraid of hurting themselves or just breaking expensive equipment or glassware. And they really don’t feel prepared.”
Overcoming the Experience Gap
These same tools can help overcome the challenge stemming from students coming in with such significant differences in chemistry experience — some may have AP-level coursework from high school under their belt, whereas others may not have had a chemistry course since sophomore year. The quality of the chemistry education also varies strongly with each school’s faculty and resources.
The challenge then lies in bringing the less experienced students up to speed without boring your more advanced students. On the flip side, moving too quickly will leave lower-end students behind and with the risk of losing them altogether. As Dr. Donna Bassolino from The College of New Jersey tells us, “It’s so hard to keep them, we don’t want to lose the lower end kids… it would be nice to find some way to equalize [the field] or to bring the kids that are behind up to speed a little bit faster.”
Building adaptable courses around students’ needs and using tools that rely on familiar interfaces, such as mobile devices, can go a long way toward addressing this critical issue. Implementing active learning approaches such as flipping the classroom can create much stronger student engagement and help students come up to speed — when students can work together they can help each other and close those knowledge gaps. Meanwhile, leveraging educational technology helps to provide real-time feedback and guide students along problem-solving pathways.