There are many books that I wish I had read earlier in my career. At the top of the list is Make it Stick. The book is filled with research-based recommendations to improve the effectiveness of learning. I would like to share with you some ideas about how these recommendations might apply specifically to the teaching of chemistry.
To have new learning “stick” one must try to recall it from memory. This act of recalling the information builds a path to finding the information when it is needed. An easy way to do this is to give students low stakes quizzes. I found that 5-10 question multiple choice quizzes with my students did not even have to count for a grade to be effective. If done in conjunction with “clickers” you get the extra benefit of measuring how well your instruction is going. I would give 3-4 of these during an 80-minute block, using about 10 minutes for instruction, and then follow with a quiz. This fits with a recommendation from John Medina, who suggests no more than one major idea for a ten-minute block.
Learning is retained more when it is spaced out over time as opposed to cramming at the last minute. One of the challenges for the classroom teacher facing a cumulative exam at the end of the year is how to do this. I think building review questions into chapter exams is one way. To send students a signal that this will be happening, review questions could be included in the low stakes quizzes. The most effective use would be to build those review questions around the items most frequently missed on the chapter exams.
The authors of "Make it Stick" call Mnemonics one of the “cognitive multipliers” meaning a large benefit associated with using it. Another upside is that the students seem to like using them. Examples include GER, LEO and ROYGBIV. Having students invent their own might work. The reason it works is that students are associating a familiar idea, “what does LEO the lion say” with new ideas: LEO Loss of Electrons is Oxidation and GER, Gain of Electrons is Reduction.
Having students explain their answers to you and to each other is a way for them to tie the new learning to what they already know. Explaining in their own words makes that connection to prior knowledge. It also gives you an opportunity to make sure that an answer was not a lucky guess.
Mixing questions that appear similar is called interleaving. For example, in teaching how to solve gas law problems, one could begin by simply mixing all the types together and guiding the students to figure out which law applies when. This is opposed to the “massed” or “blocked” practice that would have the student practice with one type of problem, say Boyle’s law before moving on to the next type. Research shows that the learning is slower with the interleaved approach but is retained better.
Another approach that may be less painful for your students (and you!) might be to begin with blocked practice and then transition to interleaving. In the blocked practice you might show all the ways that a question that uses Boyle’s law could be asked, showing students that sometimes varying the question does not lead to using a different formula.
Another application of interleaving shows up from an analysis of student responses to the cumulative exams. Students seem to be using a strategy of looking for a formula that uses the same units as the unknown. For example, if a problem asks students to find the molarity, students would search for formulas that had molarity in them. As there are usually multiple formulas that have the same units, this strategy is often unsuccessful.
Interleaving would help. Mixing all the problems that called for an answer in molarity, say titration and calculating molarity questions, would help them determine which formula would be the correct one to use. Problems that call for an answer in joules would be another example mixing the different formulas for calculating energy gained or lost during a heating curve.
Besides mixing questions that require the same units for an answer, there are other questions that have similar superficial forms. For example, chemistry is filled with graphs, like potential energy diagrams, heating and cooling curves, gas law relationships, etc. Why not mix them together to see if students truly understand the difference between them?
General categories can be mixed like types of chemical reactions, types of chemical compounds, or elements. The reason that this will help your students is because this is the way these topics will appear on a cumulative exam. There will not be labeled sections that indicate the type of problem to be solved. Instead, they will all be mixed, and the student must learn the cues that differentiate a particular problem from others that appear similar.
Beginning this interleaving process early in the year is probably best so that the students get used to this practice, which will be more difficult in the long run.
As I said in the beginning, I wish I had read this book much earlier in my career. Read the book, apply the ideas, and give your students the benefit of these ideas now.
Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L.& McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it Stick. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) (Available on Amazon and other bookstores)
Medina, J. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School.(Seattle; Pear Press)