Monday, October 15, 2012

Educational Psychology for Organic Chemistry

Of all the sciences, there are some known to be far more challenging than others. Courses in general chemistry require an adept knowledge of algebra and mathematics along with the ability to apply such knowledge to physical systems. General physics takes this one step further, requiring a working knowledge of differential and integral calculus. Engineering raises the bar, demanding knowledge of deductive reasoning and higher order mathematics including differential equations and topology.

Even though courses in such subjects are challenging, there is one fundamental common denominator amongst them - mathematics. Bright students fair well because they've been learning the language of mathematics since first grade.

Organic Chemistry is different. It requires the learning of an "alien" language, which I often compare to Russian, along with fast-paced deductive reasoning in that language. Imagine taking Russian for the first time, studying for an exam, and learning in class that the midterm is a test of deductive reasoning requiring thought in Russian. Sounds like it would never happen, yes? Well, this is Organic Chemistry.

This course of logic based in visual-spatial learning with the intent of such learning to be applications to unknown problems requiring fast-paced deductive reasoning is taken by over one million students in the United States every year. It's not atypical for a class average grade to hover between 30-50%. Very bright students enroll in this course, and most of them receive an average grade of 38%. This is an immense shock to students accustomed to scoring at the high end of every other class they've taken.

Part of the problem is time management skills never having been developed, resulting in what I refer to as the "Drama of the Alarms." This is the series of "emergencies" that arise when the first three weeks of the quarter/semester are spent "coasting". When the first midterm arises, the student becomes serious and focuses exclusively upon the first midterm, ignoring everything else. Just before the first midterm, another "alarm" goes off, and the student realizes there is another impending exam. As soon as exam one is out of the way, the student "crams" for exam two. Just before exam two, the student "learns" (the syllabus never made it to the calendar) of another impending exam, takes exam two, and then crams for exam three.

Once the vicious cycle of the Drama of the Alarms is in motion, it's like a runaway freight train having acquired far too much momentum to stop. The drama continues until the end of the term, and costs the student one or more A-grades. Instead of learning time management skills, the student repeats the same pattern of behavior over and again until graduation.

Primary etiology of the "problem" in Organic Chemistry particularly is the comfortable habit of memorization used successfully to plan for examinations in virtually every other subject. This strategy fails in Organic Chemistry. Another factor is the deceptively simple nature of Organic Chemistry wherein one might look through notes, convince himself he knows the material only to learn days before a midterm that he's unable to work any of the problems successfully. The primary challenge is learning, and being expected to immediately rationalize in, this highly rigorous scientific visual-spatial language. There are no other university level courses like it, and Organic Chemistry routinely becomes a life-altering event.

The best teachers of Organic Chemistry are willing to do just about anything to get students to learn the subject. On one section of the blackboard, they write everything needed for student mastery of course objectives. They indicate memorization will be their demise, and that the only successful strategy is to develop skills in critical analysis and deductive reasoning, the very skills needed to excel in the MCAT. Exceptional teachers also take the time with each chapter of the textbook to apply principles learned to real-life problems of interest to the students. Finally, these amazing Organic Chemistry teachers make themselves available for review sessions either before a midterm or even on a weekly basis.

As teachers of Organic Chemistry, we cannot change the nature of the course and still maintain its integrity. This will never happen - it's a choice. We can, however, seek the advice of educational psychologists to learn how to get students to want to depart from the comfortable habit of memorization toward that of deductive reasoning, knowing the latter is what is expected on the MCAT. We can tell the students they have the choice of learning MCAT skills now with plenty of time to hone them, or they can obtain a C-grade in the course and hope that learning MCAT skills later might get them into some medical school.

Scare tactics are undesirable, however sadly they appear to work better than any method of positive reinforcement. There are many articles available on how to succeed in Organic Chemistry. Some are read whilst most are not. What little is read is hardly ever rendered to practice. Finally, nearly endless resources are available to promote student success in Organic Chemistry, however most are seldom utilized.

Educational psychology is a science, and this teacher of Organic Chemistry is appealing to educational psychologists for a viral strategy on how to effect permanent change in the outcome of undergraduate Organic Chemistry. Such change will necessitate addressing critical time-management issues. Also required will be introducing value to students so they choose to do what is harder (deductive reasoning) vs. what is comfortable (memorization). Indicating such skills will become immensely valuable on the MCAT appears like a logical approach, however the adversary here is the tendency toward procrastination. How many of us wait until April 10th to do our taxes?

This article is open ended. I am seeking the input of western educational psychologists, and am open to any suggestions that will empower students to pursue the study of Organic Chemistry with the intent of mastery rather than simply obtaining a passing grade. The time for bringing educational psychology into the university classroom with regards to this subject is long overdue.

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