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Published September 23, 2012 | Chemistry

Information Technology and Active Learning – Good Chemistry

Retaining Learning

I started teaching using the lecturing style and blackboard, eventually graduating to PowerPoints. I could actually gauge how my students were doing compared to other teachers in Chemistry against the average on our common departmental exam. My students did quite well, but when I saw them in subsequent courses, often less than three months later, that original material had disappeared. The exam was like a data dump after which students discarded most “taught” content. I needed students to retain course content so that it could be used subsequently.

Excerpt from presentation by Murray Bronet : Who are my students?

Teaching full-time and close to being tenured, I thought it odd that I had never taken a teaching course. So I enrolled in the Universite de Sherbrooke’s Performa Master Teacher Program where I discovered active learning as well as different instructional strategies, curriculum development, course outlines and course structures. As well, I took psychology courses on emerging adults, and became more aware of students’ experiences.The topic of my Master’s thesis was based on cooperative learning perceptions in Science education. I had been assigned two sections of the same course and thought this would be near ideal to understand how cooperative learning techniques would be perceived. In one section, which became my control, I would just lecture and use the blackboard in the “traditional” manner. In the other section, which became my experimental group, I would create student teams and give them problems to solve cooperatively. In this experimental group, I’d also present tables, figures and pictures to enable students to construct their own knowledge using questions based on information they had received. The same content was delivered very differently to the two groups, and then at the end, besides the regular exams, I gave both of them a survey and conducted focus groups and interviews to know what students thought about the experience.

Excerpt from presentation by Murray Bronet : Facebook blue on their faces

The active learners in the experimental group absolutely loved it. They loved coming to class. They had to talk and participate. I didn't disengage. I made sure that I went to every group and that everybody had to be accountable and participate. If anybody got stuck, I would help with leading or reflective questions but avoid giving direct answers. The idea was to foster peer interaction and not have me intervene too much. Although there was no great difference in grades between the two groups, there was a statistically significant difference, and the active learners liked their course more.In my control group, I gave PowerPoint presentations. In my cooperative learning group, there was little technology. I provided information on paper giving students a graph or projecting it for them to construct the knowledge.As an example of one of my cooperative learning activities, I allowed students to construct the reasoning behind the trends in periodic properties. The periodic table, based, in part, on valence electrons and nuclear structure, has certain properties that can be deduced from its design. As you go down a column from say fluorine to chlorine to bromine, these elements actually become larger. We can understand many trends in atomic properties besides size, such as ionization energy, electron affinities, reactivities and metallic character. We look at all these properties that are implicit in the periodic table’s design. Once you understand the logic, you don’t have to memorize numbers or even specific trends. In this experimental group, I didn’t do any of the detailed explanations that I did in the control group. In the experimental group, all I gave them was the periodic table, the size of the radius of each atom, and I asked them what trends they saw. They had to construct that knowledge!

Excerpt from presentation by Murray Bronet : Are they learning?

Blending Information Technology into the Equation

Two years ago the chemistry department purchased 22 laptops which are now in a cabinet on wheels. When required, students can use the laptops which all have WiFi to answer questions. I don't even need to present graphs on paper anymore, and I now can be incredibly flexible in my group assignments.For example I have given student groups the names of famous scientists like Chadwick, Bohr, Rutherford, Thomson and Milligan. I ask them to find out how they're all connected and make a concept map showing the links. They’ve never heard of those names and have to do research on the web. I gave each group a transparency with pens to draw the concept map. I showed them examples of concept maps on the board and referred students to Google for more information if required. After about forty minutes of research and group work, groups were asked to elect one person to explain their concept map, using an overhead projector.This mix of technology really got students involved. It’s a vehicle for them to integrate knowledge and be active in constructing a logical sequence. Often you'll see the same mistake appear in several concept maps because they haven't made a key connection. You may then ask group representatives to adjust their “map” to reflect new or modified information. You have to balance between how active you are going to make the classroom and still “cover” the material.Certainly, in my experience, active learning started independently of information technology. I am discovering, however, that the combination of these two instructional strategies makes for an extremely powerful blend.

How does technology figure into your active learning activities?

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