This post is written by Matt Taylor
As the fourth week of classes comes to a close, students are preparing for their first biology test (which in this case is mostly about chemistry). Some seek help from tutors, like me. What are their questions and concerns as exam one approaches?
Last Thursday was my first day of tutoring at a local university. When I arrived, I met a fellow tutor and she showed me how to find the tutoring room. It has a dry erase board across the front and about thirty desks. Students filled four of them yesterday. The first two came in together but sat far apart. I approached one of them, we introduced ourselves (I’ll call him Jacob here, since that is not his name), and I asked him, “What are you having trouble with?”
Jacob told me, “I’d just like to go through this study guide.” I asked Jacob to come up with any specific question about it and I’d be glad to help him answer it. I wanted for him to think for a moment about what he does and does not understand.
Jacob read through the study guide and soon said “Valence electrons. What are they?” And so I sat down and we talked about them. I defined them verbally and visually, and that seemed to satisfy him. Still, I pushed on until he was truly engaged. “What do you know about chemical bonding?” Not much. But that was OK. I used the illustrations of methane and water in the textbook to explain why carbon forms four bonds but oxygen forms two. Then I gave him a new example, “how many bonds do you think nitrogen might form with hydrogen?” and he said “3?” When I confirmed his answer, he smiled and said “I learned something today.”
At that time two other students came in and sat down, looking expectantly at the board. So the other tutor got up and started writing questions. (She had been working with these students for the last couple of weeks. This seemed to be the routine.)
“How many fatty acids does a phospholipid have?” “What organelle digests toxic substances?” The students excelled at this type of question. Then they asked the tutor similar ones. One student asked, “What is molecular weight?” Another asked, “How can you tell how many neurons [neutrons] are in an atom?” In spite of the word slip-up, this question impressed me. It required applied learning rather than recall, and the students engaged in some problems using the periodic table.
The session had at least one more learning triumph. The students learned how to look at an electronegativity scale and determine which type of bond two atoms would form. After a couple minutes, we could give them any two atoms and they could correctly say whether they’d form ionic, nonpolar covalent, or polar covalent bonds. At that point one of the students shut her book and said, “That’s enough learning for me today.” The others followed suit, and the tutoring session was over.
Many students are most comfortable with passively learning definitions and facts. With this approach, it is not surprising to me that “I don’t like science” is sometimes used as an explanation for a low test score. There is hope though. When gently pushed to apply concepts and to make their own connections, students might struggle for a couple of moments but eventually do “get it.” And then they smile.