Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Teaching Problem-Solving Skills without Sacrificing Course Content: Marrying Traditional Lecture and Active Learning in an Organic Chemistry Class

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Teaching Problem-Solving Skills without Sacrificing Course Content: Marrying Traditional Lecture and Active Learning in an Organic Chemistry Class

Article excerpt

Promoting problem-solving skills is a challenge faced by all science instructors. Teaching students to integrate information without sacrificing content is critical. When taught with an active problem-centered teaching model, students' mean scores and score distributions on the American Chemical Society standardized exams were significantly improved without students' course content being sacrificed.


Like many new undergraduate organic chemistry instructors, my initial teaching goals were modest. I simply wanted to cover the required course material and promote an integrated understanding of the topics while ensuring topic continuity, emphasizing application, and developing students' critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. I also wanted to teach undergraduate organic chemistry with a focus on mechanism and energetic processes. Of course in an ideal classroom this would be done while fully engaging the above-average students without leaving the average students behind.

Unfortunately, my initial classroom experience, in which I lectured, quizzed, and tested, did not allow me to realize these goals. The majority of students were not able to integrate and apply information. In my lecture, students appeared to understand the material. However, their homework problems, quizzes, and exams showed a general lack of root comprehension. The average student was able to mimic sample problems but did not have the ability to apply the ideas to new problems or situations. The lack of understanding was more pronounced when problems involving integration of more than one topic or chapter were assigned.

In traditional science teaching, we expect the average student to implicitly learn and apply subtle concepts and to connect seemingly disjointed information. We expect them to actively assemble the building blocks of critical thinking, often without example (Meyers 1986). The critical analysis of issues and problems is second nature to educators, and therefore we don't often demonstrate the process to students. We are not creating the framework or perspective for critical thinking.


The problems with the passive learning environment of a classroom lecture have been well documented. Students are neither actively involved in learning nor required to take responsibility for learning. They are not practicing learning (Bloom 1956 and 1971). If an instructor speaks at an average rate of 150 words per minute, students actually hear about 50 words per minute (Silberman 1996). In a lecture format, students are thinking while they are listening. Thus, it is hard to keep up with a rapidly talking instructor. In an average 50-minute lecture, students are inattentive about 40% of the time (Pollio 1984). In the first 10 minutes of a lecture, students retain about 70% of the information presented. Retention falls too less than 20% in the final 10 minutes (McKeachie 1998).

The most common objection to departure from the traditional lecture format is that sacrifices must be made in terms of course content (Crow 1989). Although some experts argue that the departure is not substantial in terms of student learning (Campbell and Smith 1997), many, including me, feel that both the quantity and quality of information is critical in most courses.

Active-learning strategies in organic chemistry classrooms have been previously reported (Katz 1996). Paulson (1999) shared the positive results of active- and cooperative-learning strategies undertaken at California State University, Los Angeles. Paulson showed increased retention and pass-rate data over four years. Katz (1996) reported methods used to promote student-directed learning at St. Louis College of Pharmacy using an alternate approach to teaching organic chemistry using student-directed learning. The system used enhanced student ownership, student-active learning, and student accountability and introduced student control to develop independence and responsibility. …

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