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Accommodating learning styles: new ways of teaching and learning chemistry.

An experiment at the University of Victoria in Victoria, BC demonstrates that retention of information is drastically improved when students become active participants in their learning environment.

In the face of fiscal restraint, universities struggle to meet the increasing demand for higher education resulting in larger class sizes. Unfortunately as teaching environments across Canada's campuses are changing, teaching methods are remaining the same. Consequently most introductory chemistry lectures are given in a traditional lecture style format in classrooms with hundreds of students. These educational experiences leave many undergraduates feeling anonymous and uninvolved in the learning process. Today's universities are being held increasingly accountable for the quality of education they provide. Therefore, many departments are beginning to question their ability, to teach effectively.

For this reason, new teaching methods are being developed. Table 11 (and experience) clearly demonstrates retention of information is drastically improved when students become active participants in their learning environment. Consequently, the traditional lecture format of delivering material is often recognised as inadequate and new ways of incorporating student participation into the classroom are being sought. Active learning not only promotes enhanced material retention, it also permits students to explore concepts in a manner which best suits their respective learning styles.

It is known that not all people process and evaluate information in the same way. There are four main "ways of knowing": which are best summarised in Figure 1.[1] Within a classroom of over 100 students there is undoubtedly a variety of learning styles present, yet the traditional lecture format only addresses one. It is likely that in an introductory classroom there are many potential chemists who believe they are unable to major in chemistry simply because they are unable to learn chemistry the way it is being presently taught. Therefore, designing active educational situations to enhance learning and accommodate a variety of learning styles significantly improves the quality of education. [2] Of course the real challenge is then using these improved teaching techniques in the large classroom setting.

We decided to take on this challenge as part of an education course offered to graduate students of all disciplines at the University of Victoria. In particular we chose to address a key concept in introductory organic chemistry: [S.sub.N]1 and [S.sub.N]2 nucleophilic substitution mechanisms. [3] The teaching episode was designed to accommodate approximately 100 learners in small group work using models for visual learners, posters for those who process information best with lists and role playing for students who learn best through participation. Some other teaching techniques used to enhance the active learning environment were "think-pair-share" activities (students think for one minute then pair up to discuss the topic for one to two minutes) and peer teaching. We also ensured that repetition of key concepts was built into the class to improve material retention.

The 50 minute time allotment was divided into four different stages of learning. The class began with a 20 minute lecture covering the two mechanisms in detail. The students were given the opportunity to prepare a set of clear notes from overheads and blackboard presentations. The following 10 minutes were used for small group work on either the [S.sub.N]1 or [S.sub.N]2 mechanism. This time for working with the mechanism was guided with the use of questions listed on an overhead. We circulated throughout the room during the group work to facilitate discussion and answer questions. Time was allowed for peer teaching and challenging higher order questions addressing important points such as solvent effects and stereochemistry. In this manner the students were encouraged to reach a level of understanding beyond the presentation of mechanistic details. Finally, the lesson's important points were reviewed carefully and slowly to ensure that all students would leave the classroom with a complete and accurate set of notes from which to study.
Table 1. Learning Outcomes: Teaching Format and Retention

Teaching Format Retention

Lecture 5%
Reading 10%
Audio-Visual 15%
Demonstration 30%
Discussion Groups 50%
Practice by Doing 75%
Teaching Others 90%

The class was followed tip with a student evaluation of the learning process. These results were very helpful and encouraging with 96 percent of the students requesting a repeat of this type of learning environment. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of students felt that they learned more than in a traditional lecture, thereby promoting learner confidence. Most importantly, in a "blind" retention quiz one week later 87 percent of the students had adequate recall of each of the mechanisms addressed in the class. Furthermore, the usual instructor commented that this teaching episode covered the material of one and a half regular lectures.

The results of our "learning experiment" were exciting and rewarding. We decided to share our experience with others at last year's CSC conference in Windsor, ON. The presentation was well received and the interest has not stopped there; indicating the trend toward innovation in teaching. We have since presented our teaching and learning material at a teaching assistant's workshop, a faculty development workshop and a chemistry departmental seminar here at the University of Victoria. In each of these presentations an active learning environment was incorporated into the hour long seminar. The fantastic and creative ideas which have come from these experiences have been most impressive. In the Department of Chemistry a brainstorming session provided exciting and interactive ways of teaching stereochemistry and catalysis. Incorporation of just a few of these innovative ideas into the large introductory classroom will undoubtedly have a positive impact on undergraduate education.

In recognizing the synergy between teaching and learning, effective instructors consistently learn from their students. Likewise many of the best learning environments are created when students assume the role of teacher. As university education continues to evolve this important interaction needs to be actively supported. The University of Victoria has recognised these new demands on future faculty and have responded with a graduate course accessible to all disciplines. Likewise, faculty are encouraged to participate in ongoing workshops available through the Learning and Teaching Centre on campus.(2) In these times of fiscal restraint it becomes increasingly important to take advantage of these opportunities for ongoing professional development. As chemists become better versed in the fundamentals of educational theory our ability to meet the demands of diverse learning styles will be improved.

Figure 1. Learning Styles: Ways of Knowing.



* discovery of order and structure in experience

* interact with what actually happens or exists without deciding whether it is right or wrong



* aimed at systematically producing theories which explain the whys and wherefores of experience



* perception via unconscious process

* integrates information received subliminally



* arranges the world and everything in it according to evaluations based on acceptance or rejection


The authors wish to thank Fred Fischer, FCIC for the classroom experience, Cornelia Bohne, MCIC and David Berry, MCIC for helpful discussions, Andy Farquharson and Barbara Judson for inspiration and the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the University of Victoria for financial support.


1 Data Compiled by A. Farquharson (Learning and Teaching Centre at the University of Victoria).

2 For more information: A. Farquharson, Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Victoria,


1. a) Unpublished Monograph, Artz, S. Ways of Knowing Workshop, University of Victoria, 1995.

b) Gregorc, A., An Adult's Guide to Style, Maynard, MA: Gabriel Systems Inc, 1982.

2. Brennan, M.B., Chemical and Engineering News, 39:Sept. 29, 1997.

3. Clouston, L.L., and Kleinman, M.H. J. Chem. Educ, in press, 1998.

Mark Kleinman, MCIC received his BSc from Concordia University and is currently finishing his PhD at the University of Victoria. He has accepted an innovative Postdoctoral Fellowship at Columbia University that combines chemical research and education. Laurel Clouston, MCIC received her BSc from the University of Guelph and is also finishing her PhD at the University of Victoria. She is seeking a Postdoctoral opportunity or employment. Mark and Laurel are both planning a fixture career in academia.
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Author:Clouston, Laurel L.; Kleinman, Mark H.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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