Academic journal article
By Phillips, Karen E. S.; Grose-Fifer, Jillian
Journal of College Science Teaching , Vol. 40, No. 3
Organic chemistry is considered a "gatekeeper" course that students must complete before progressing toward advanced degrees or their chosen careers in fields such as chemistry, biochemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, or pharmacy. The subject demands a high level of abstract and analytical thinking as well as the visualization of spatial and electronic relationships in three dimensions. To a greater degree than in most other undergraduate science courses, organic chemistry is also inherently cumulative. Organic chemistry concepts cannot be neatly divided into discrete topics in the same way as they might in an undergraduate physics class, where subjects such as optics and magnetism share little conceptual overlap. Instead, fundamental ideas about spatial orientation, delocalization of charge, and electron flow are equally significant to all areas of organic chemistry, and students must continually reinforce these concepts in order to think about the subject in an expert way (Taagepera and Noori 2000). Consequently, those unaccustomed to this level and type of thinking often embark on an organic chemistry course with the mindset that it will be extremely difficult in comparison to other undergraduate classes (Carpenter and McMillan 2003).
Historically, many students have passed organic chemistry examinations using rote memorization of materials, often with minimal comprehension (Katz 1996). This strategy is characteristic of surface versus deep learning, and although it may be sufficient for retaining enough information over short periods in order to pass an examination, it does little to foster long-term retention of information or to allow transfer of knowledge within and across disciplines. Depth of learning is promoted when students are encouraged to explore concepts extensively and when emphasis is placed on critical analysis, the application of basic principles to novel situations, and active construction of knowledge through making new associations between concepts (Biggs 1987, 1993). A solid grasp of information and fluidity with concepts are probably markers of deep learning for many disciplines. However, because of the hierarchical structure of organic chemistry, it is particularly crucial to have a strong facility with its underlying fundamental principles.
One strategy that has proven effective in increasing the depth of student learning and retention of concepts involves the use of group learning workshops. Small-group learning activities have been shown to have positive effects on student performance, persistence, and attitudes in college-level science courses (Bowen 2000; Springer, Stanne, and Donovan 1999). The amount of time spent participating in group learning activities is significantly correlated with their efficacy (Lewis and Lewis 2005). However, theoretical interpretations vary about why these methods work. Many emphasize the importance of social constructivist approaches to learning (Eberlein et al. 2008). For example, some very structured cooperative learning models such as Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) place great emphasis on defining the specific roles students play during the small-group interaction. Students are encouraged to practice these roles as they participate in the group's social structure. Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) also places considerable importance on the social interactions that occur during small-group exercises, as students from different backgrounds contribute different perspectives and an active learning environment is created.
In contrast, other large-scale studies suggest that collaborative learning improves students' problem-solving ability merely by having them articulate metacognitive problem-solving strategies to others (Cooper et al. 2008). PLTL has been shown to have a significant positive impact on the depth of learning and attitudes of organic chemistry students and their peer leaders (Tien, Roth, and Kampmeier 2002) as well as on student achievement and retention (Lyle and Robinson 2003). …