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Posted by on Jul 23, 2013 in Physical Chemistry | 0 comments

Teaching physical chemistry to life science students.

Each year about 150 life science students are required to take my course that covers enough thermodynamics and chemical kinetics to set them up for life (sciences). I do not argue that they are not bright, because they are, and highly motivated. Good at memorizing too.  They hear a song twice and know the words.

But a required course on physical chemistry that deals with entropy and laws, ugh this is not what they want to know and, besides, “How useful will it be?” they naively ask.  The problem is that it is impossible to avoid the use of mathematics, and they are not motivated to work through simple derivations. They get behind and then understand less in class.  Panic strikes as the midterm looms, and eventually most fight their way through the material and do a reasonable job.

They do not like it.

Over the years I have tried various things to motivate them, but I was dismayed to read the following blog recently:

which states that after listening to my lectures, a quick test would reveal that my students retained only 10% of what I wanted to get across.

Early on, with smaller classes, I handed out problem sets (worth 40%), but the person who does the most work is me.  Each year it became progressively more difficult to think up new questions. Moreover they copy each other’s work, so I kept repeatedly grading the same answer. I had to give up and replace the problem sets with assigned problems, optional tutorials, and a midterm exam.

I do not want them to sit there passively like watching Sesame Street, but dynamically think about the material.  I sometimes say, “When you wake up at night and think about physical chemistry, then you are studying properly.”

Back to the above link.  The author, Annie Murphy Paul, suggests that the best way to learn is by arguing.  Let the students turn to each other in class and debate a point. This reminded me of the work at Harvard, by Eric Mazur on peer learning. He states:

Lectures are interspersed with conceptual questions, called ConcepTests, designed to expose common difficulties in understanding the material. The students are given one to two minutes to think about the question and formulate their own answers; they then spend two to three minutes discussing their answers in groups of three to four, attempting to reach consensus on the correct answer.

This term, I am going to try something like that to break up the lectures and hopefully get them to think dynamically rather than passively have my words go in one ear and out the other.


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