August 1, 2023
I’ll never forget the moment when I realized that some of my students hadn’t really understood much of anything in my chemistry class. Students had just completed an open-ended experiential lab-based project at the end of the course, and I decided to interview each student to see what they had learned from the project and the course. When talking with one group, my spirit was crushed. I asked them some rudimentary questions about what we had learned throughout the year, and they didn’t have a clue. It was as if they hadn’t been in the class all year. I felt dejected and didn’t know what to do.
What had no doubt happened was that these students had studied just enough to pass each test by regurgitating facts—but deep down, they didn’t understand the main principles of chemistry. Upon reflection and with an honest look, I realized that their lack of making any meaning from the course was my fault. I had focused on getting students to pass the tests and demonstrate their knowledge—but little work had been done to get them to truly understand the big ideas of chemistry.
Our system of lecture, practice, test, and repeat didn’t foster deeper understanding. This, among other things, was one of the key reasons I began to rethink school. It began a journey from a traditional teacher to flipped classroom teacher and then to a mastery learning teacher. Along the way, I learned better how to help students construct a deeper understanding of what they were learning.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (Lahey, 2015) posits that students learn best when they are emotionally invested in the topic. But I teach a required course (Chemistry), and many students aren’t overtly interested in the intricacies of the atom or the wonder of electrons. Most students, upon entry into my class, only think about explosions and dangerous chemicals. So part of my job is to get them to care about the course, why it is important to understand, and truly engage in their learning.
As I see it, helping students become meaning-makers takes a multi-faceted approach. Below are a few things that I have done that have helped students make meaningful connections to chemistry.
Start the Year Out with a Bang: I have started my chemistry class the same way for over 25 years. On the very first day, I don’t go over the…