Teaching
Development
Report

UniServe Science News Volume 12 March 1999










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"ChARM-ing Mechanisms" - an integrated approach to improve student learning in organic chemistry

Jackie Rummey
School of Natural Sciences, Edith Cowan University

I faced a challenge in my organic chemistry unit: However hard I tried to woo the students into appreciating the value and use of organic mechanisms, they remained unengaged. Unit evaluations consistently cited mechanisms as the least liked part of the unit. This was in spite of the lectures being delivered with enthusiasm and multicoloured PowerPoint presentations. Clearly I needed a different strategy.

I decided to use a two-pronged approach to enhance student learning. Firstly I reduced the content to allow me time in which to promote peer learning (Ramsden, 1992, Fuller, 1997). Secondly I introduced an additional learning resource, an interactive multimedia package, ChARMs (Capon, 1997, Crisp and Pike, 1998), to complement the text.

During the course I did not introduce mechanisms by giving a traditional lecture. Instead I divided the class of 24 into five groups and set them each a task. Each group had to use the available resources, texts, ChARMs CD-ROM, (and me), to answer a given question. Typically they had 30-45 minutes to prepare an answer which they presented to the class. They had access to a whiteboard, overhead projector and the facility to project the ChARMs screen.

The effect on the class was electric. Instead of a quiet, attentive audience I now had a roomful of active students. The demonstrator who took them for the practical session afterwards summed it up by saying "What have you done with them today, they are TALKING ABOUT CHEMISTRY". For me that simple statement encompasses a huge shift in the students' attitudes. Chemistry no longer washed over them in the lecture; they were in there grappling with it.

The short introductory session, group work and subsequent presentations fitted into the 90 minute lecture slot. This enabled me to reinforce the material with a summary in the following lecture.

The particular value of the ChARMs CD-ROM was that it enhanced the students' visualisation of mechanisms at the submicroscopic level (Johnstone, 1991, Garnett, 1998). Now, in addition to the traditional representation of mechanisms in the plane of a page and with electron movements represented by arrows, they could watch a three-dimensional representation of the reaction occurring. This was especially valuable where a change of configuration between stereoisomers occurred.

In summary, the changes to this unit involved a sacrifice of content material (ca. 10%), I also found that more preparation time was required. However, I am satisfied the changes were worthwhile, both in terms of greater student engagement and the "lectures" were more enjoyable for both myself and the students.

ChARMs was run on a Sharp laptop, Pentium 133 MHz, Windows 95, 32Mb RAM linked to an Epson projector. The students also had access to the CD-ROM outside lecture time for their own study.

At the end of the unit I evaluated the introduction of group work and ChARMs with a simple questionnaire. The feedback was very encouraging with 73% of students agreeing that "after completing the exercises and having a summary lecture, do you now feel confident that you could answer questions on this topic".

ChARMs CD-ROM was very well received with 86% agreeing with the statement "after viewing the simulations do you now think you have a clearer understanding of how reaction mechanisms occur".

References

Capon, R. J. (1997) ChARMs CD-ROM, Milton, Queensland, Jacaranda Wiley.

Crisp, G. and Pike, S. (1998) "Organic Chemistry Animated Reaction Mechanisms (ChARMs) Volume 1", UniServe Science News, Vol. 10, 16.

Fuller, R. (1997) "Improving Student Learning, Teaching and Learning Forum", Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology, Edith Cowan University.

Garnett, P., Hackling, M. and Oliver, R. (1998) "An interactive multimedia package designed to improve beginning students' understanding of chemical equations". UniServe Science News, Vol. 8, 18-21.

Johnstone, A. H. (1991) "Why is science difficult to learn?" Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 7, 75-83.

Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to teach in higher education. New York, Wiley.


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UniServe Science News Volume 12 March 1999

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