I mentioned in a previous long-winded comment that this past summer I had a less-than-perfect teaching experience with an intro to chemistry class. I’ll likely be repeating that course this summer, so I figured as long as I’m thinking about how I might apply all these theories re: the science and art of teaching, I may as well be looking at a practical example. I’m a teaching assistant, so I don’t have much control over the design of the course, but I’m in charge of the problem solving session, so I can structure that as needed. While I’m at it, I’d love to have your comments and suggestions.

To begin, I need to properly assess the knowledge of the incoming students so that I can teach from what they understand already, and I need to shape the teaching to that. Chemistry is at its core a problem-solving discipline that taps a wide variety of mathematical tools and scientific knowledge. I’m reminded of this conclusion from How People Learn regarding the transfer of learning:

Skills and knowledge must be extended beyond the narrow contexts in which they are initially learned. For example, knowing how to solve a math problem in school may not transfer to solving math problems in other contexts.

They have likely at least seen the algebra necessary to manipulate equations for unit conversions, but they’ve likely never had to custom-build an equation to reach a goal, or if they have, they’ve forgotten. How can I lead them to this tool in their memory in a meaningful and lasting way?

The other challenge last year was motivation. It’s not a stretch to anyone’s imagination that unit conversions *ad nauseum *can be pretty boring and uninspiring. But it’s an essential and basic skill that actual chemists and engineers use pretty regularly. How can I impart an urgency to them to attack these problems without discouraging them or sounding condescending?

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A few years back, I taught a math class for nursing and medical assistants. As you note, conversions in and of themselves are boring, so I looked for math problems involving actual field work where incorrect conversions negatively impacted real patients. They then saw the relevance and their homework completion rate increased dramatically.

Long winded way of saying that tieing assignments to relevant problems from their fields can help with motivation.

How about exploring how others have dealt with the same issues of boredom or lack of relevance to personal learning. Think about approaching the problem as an investigation, detective problem or real word case (perhapse even a game). One approach in Physics, is to use video examples, such as real world consequences like the harmonics which caused the collapse of the Tachoma Narrows Bridge ( http://tinyurl.com/yhsldg9 ). In your case, perhaps the work of Elizabeth Kean , Catherine Hurt Middlecamp and D. L. Scott, Teaching students to use algorithms for solving generic and harder problems in general chemistry, might be helpful. See http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ed065p987

Thanks for your insightful comments. You both make a good suggestion of “camouflaging” the standard problems as applied problems that are more exciting to work on. This is certainly a great idea, and we did this, to an extent, in that these exercises were often in the form of word problems describing your typical “lab emergency” or whatever. Admittedly we could have done better at building the problem solving session around these real-life examples and thereby emphasizing the exciting part.

Bud, your second reference by Kean et al. is a great resource and, I think, hits very close to the underlying problem with this particular group, namely that they had trouble recognizing the type of problem and how unit conversions were being used to solve it. We started out the class giving the motivating word problems, and we (I, at least) were somewhat caught off guard when students were unable to manage the basics of setting up the problem. As a result, I spent more time on that particular topic than expected trying to hash it out, and this probably led to the boredom (three weeks – seriously! – of even the most interesting real-life examples of unit conversions will do that to most anyone). The algorithmic structure given in that paper neatly clarifies the thought process, and would likely help to give that lesson some direction and keep it from getting mired.