Materials Girl: ACS: Misconstruing misconceptions

Like Comment

[This post was written on Wednesday morning by Materials Girl]

Today, I deviated from the myriad of technical talks and attended some on education (while sadly sacrificing those regarding nanotechnology and food). Teaching — as with food and chocolate — also seems to be a topic with a majority of female attendees. Hmm.

We were there to consider “Students’ misconceptions about periodic table properties and its implications to learning chemistry.” Professor Salame used a classic example of memorization without understanding: atomic radius, where students commonly “learn” by memorizing the up-down/left-right trends. But we all knew that – a probing exam will require, say, a short explanation as to why chlorine or fluorine is bigger. The speaker said as much, showing statistics from his classes and giving various quotes of students’ incorrect answers. It’s reminiscent of the DON’T PUT FIVE BONDS ON CARBON days from o-chem. Hilarious, although terribly tragic.

At the end of the talk, several audience members ardently discussed how to mark a particular answer; having painfully graded many exams, I know the difficulties of evaluating a student’s understanding based on an incorrect response. However, none of the audience members addressed the issue that THEY might be part of the problem. If these concepts are so simple, why haven’t they been able to communicate them? Or is it a question of students’ innate [in]ability to understand chemistry? Maybe this student didn’t care about the subject, or that one happened to miss some details in his notes, or another was sick during the exam. Or maybe their professors failed to effectively teach their students.

This brings up an issue I had as an undergrad, studying at a large, well-respected research university. My professors were brilliant researchers, but they were often mediocre educators. Most of the best teachers I had were not tenured professors; I suspect that deep down, many of those with tenure only cared about their research. The topics they taught were “simple” or “easy”, so skipping details and skimming over new material once was sufficient teaching – for them. Those brilliant professors didn’t understand why the wretched undergrads (and even grad students!) had such low test scores…

Ultimately, who is to blame for a student’s failure to comprehend concepts or to perform well on exams? Teaching is difficult, we get it. (I’m currently on both ends of the student-teacher spectrum, and each position comes with its own challenges and rewards.) Still, passion for any subject can shine through teaching, promoting curiosity in those who hear it. Success boils down to effort. If professors care more to teach properly, then students might also invest more time in learning properly.

Back to the talk. Bottom line: don’t just require simple answers to exam questions. Ask for some reasoning – but only after you’ve taught your students well enough.