I have a confession to make: I’m a mean teacher. I make my junior chemistry students learn the element names and symbols--all one hundred and eighteen of them.
You might say that’s impossible, a waste of time, or downright unnecessary in today’s age of information at your fingertips. When I was a new teacher, I might have agreed. I started my first year teaching in November following a long term sub who had covered atomic structure and bonding--you know, the fundamentals.I decided we could get right to chemical nomenclature and then writing and balancing chemical equations. You can probably guess how that worked out, since I’m writing this.
I soon realized that asking my students to write and interpret chemical formulas without knowing the symbols for the elements was akin to asking someone to spell words and write sentences without knowing the alphabet. Over the past few years I have tried numerous tactics from making flashcards to having quizzes over progressively larger chunks of elements. Early on I considered choosing only certain elements that needed to be memorized but soon decided that any list I would choose would be arbitrary at best and leave my students unexposed to vast swaths of the periodic table. I certainly didn’t want MY students mistaking dilithium, vibranium or unobtanioum for real elements!
Those first few years, I had significant resistance from students to learning all the elements. However, once I proved that it could be done (I flexed my geeky bravado and recited all the elements from memory) they came around to the idea as a challenge worth accepting. My students still find chemical nomenclature and writing and balancing chemical equations challenging, but at least they know their alphabet first. Here are a few of the methods (in no particular order) I have found useful.
It may sound simple, but one of the assignments I give the first week of school is to make a set of flashcards by hand. Even though there is an "app for that" as at least one student reminds me every year, the physical act of making the cards has immense value. I ask students to bring these cards with them to class regularly and as a filler activity will ask them to pull out their flashcards and quiz their lab partner.
Figure 1 - Element Flash Cards
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Inspired by this old joke, and my theology teacher next door neighbor who had students learn scripture memory verses, I broke the periodic table into chunks of 10-ish elements. Every two weeks, students are quizzed over the next ten elements plus a few elements from earlier on in the year chosen at random. Following this schedule, students know the vast majority of the elements by the first part of second semester in time to write chemical names and formulas. You can find some sample quizzes in the supporting information below. (Note: I have not updated these quizzes to include the most recent four elements since I am using Sporcle to create my quizzes now.)
Figure 2 - Sample Element Quiz
Periodic Table Battleship
Having fun is one of the best ways to learn, and my students actually like playing this game. You can find an explanation of the game here from the Huffington Post. You can use any version of the periodic table you like to make the game--I favor one with just the symbols. This is a great filler activity if you have an awkward 15-20 minutes, say before an assembly or early dismissal. I have included a periodic table for your use in the supporting information below.
Spelling bees are a staple of elementary school, though less commonly in high school. I frequently do an “element bee” with my classes, and while I don’t usually do spelling of the names with this game, of course you could play it that way. Everyone stands up and using my own set of element flash cards I give the first student an element name or symbol. If I give the symbol, they have to give the name, and vice versa. Again, this is a good filler activity, for like 5 minutes at the end of class.
Element Cherry Pie
Working in a PS-12 school (under one roof), I have an unusual opportunity to glean ideas from my colleagues from a variety of subject areas and grade levels. I picked this idea up from my colleague who teaches fifth grade. To play this game (chemistry style) you have the students stand in a circle. The first student is given the name of an element. They have to give the first letter and as the students go around the circle each gives the next letter. If they get the letter wrong they are out of the game and must sit down. The game continues around the circle until the element name is complete. The next person after the last letter says the name of the element, the symbol and “cherry pie.” That student is then out and sits down. The next student in the circle starts the next element. I haven’t given really any thought why it is called Cherry Pie...my best guess is that pies are...circular?
Again, inspired by a colleague, (this time our high school social studies teacher), I decided to experiment with using Sporcle as an alternative to cumulative quizzes this year as my school has gone to a one-to-one chromebooks program. This year instead of doing the cumulative quizzes I chose three different sporcle quizzes: element to symbol match, element by symbol, and element abbreviations and scheduled them in rotation once a month. Each month the bar is raised for how many elements are needed to earn full credit. This has been very successful this year!
Sporcle, Inc. . (2007, January 30). In Sporcle. Retrieved from https://www.sporcle.com/
Touch Press Inc. (2018). In The Elements FlashCards. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-elements-flashcards/id835885718?mt=8
Wanshel, E. (2016, October). In Mom Creates Periodic Table Battleship Game To Teach Her Kids Chemistry. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mom-creates-periodic-table-battleship-game-to-teach-her-kids-chemistry_us_5697f3d4e4b0b4eb759da83b
Mr. Benjamin O'Hearn, JD, Former Teacher of Theology
Mrs. Kaye Sandborn, Teacher of Social Sciences
Mrs. Gayle Thelen, Teacher, 5th Grade