Organic chemistry professor Abha Verma, PhD, shares evidence-based strategies that help students succeed in her 5-week summer course.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry,Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans
PhD in Medicinal and Organic Chemistry, MS and BS in Chemistry
Summer classes pack a lot of content into a compressed time frame, making them fast-paced and demanding. The pressure is magnified when the subject matter itself is dense and difficult, as in Dr. Abha Verma’s Organic Chemistry class at Xavier University of Louisiana. If students fall behind by even a day, they risk staying behind for the rest of the course. Case in point: In summer, students must take three department-standardized exams instead of one, along with at least 10 drill tests. This can make even the most confident of students feel a little wary.
“A lot of information will be bombarded on them,” says Verma. “While I love organic chemistry, I know it’s not easy.”
To help set students up for success, Verma decided it was time for her to challenge the status quo and research some new strategies to help students stay on track. She certainly had the chops for it: She has worked on numerous research projects in India and the United States in both the private sector and university settings, with published articles in such respected journals as Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry and presentation credits at annual meetings of the American Chemical Society on Problems of Drug Dependence.
After exploring several pedagogical journals, consulting with seasoned colleagues, and tapping nonacademic resources, Verma came up with the following “formula” for encouraging practice, positivity, and persistence in any course.
“Chemistry involves a lot of practice, and if you practice it enough times, you will master it…. I got it eventually, and so will you.”
-Abha Verma, PhD
Course description: Students are introduced to the structural theories, physical and chemical behavior, simple synthesis, basics of reaction mechanisms, and identification of compounds composed primarily of carbon and hydrogen. Students learn and develop critical thinking skills needed to apply this information to a wide variety of problems, both professional and societal.
Verma’s tips for successful fast-paced instruction
At the Chemistry Department of Xavier University of Louisiana, organic chemistry courses (taught at the sophomore level) are coordinated courses, says Verma. This means that they are mapped out ahead of time, with every instructor teaching the same topics on an assigned day, so that each student has a similar experience. Large lecture courses are also divided into drill sections, in which students gather in a smaller group to take drill tests. Students are additionally graded on pop quizzes, two exams during the semester, and a comprehensive final exam. In summer, Verma must follow the same procedure to provide a similar experience for those students. However, the class covers much more ground each day and each week. To help summer students learn efficiently during this compressed time frame, she practices the following strategies:
1. Focus on need-to-know (not nice-to-know) concepts
When Verma first started teaching summer classes, she turned to seasoned colleagues for guidance on how to effectively teach during the crunched time period of five weeks. Their advice? Stick to the basics. “[They told me to] convey the main concepts without overloading or overwhelming the students,” Verma says.
While she understands that educators (including her) must cover certain topics in order to set up students for future courses, she has pared down her summer content to focus on the need-to-know, not nice-to-know, information. For Verma, this means focusing mainly on information that is pertinent to the rest of the course.
“Even if I tell my students about a specific concept or information, I think about how it will be used in an upcoming problem set and later in the course,” she says. “I think about how that particular information is going to help them. If it’s not going to be as helpful, it goes out.”
2. Identify historically tough topics—and break them down
Over the years, Verma has identified topics that are more challenging for students. She broke these heavier topics into smaller chunks for the summer semester.
She has compiled one-page documents, called Sequence Sheets, that outline, step-by-step, how to figure out the solutions to chemistry problems used throughout most of the lessons in the class.
“I go over examples from that sheet, and I give multiple examples on the board during the lecture,” she says. “That had a great impact … and I didn’t have to keep repeating myself [throughout the semester].” Students look at these concise sheets and solve for chemical problems.
3. Use pre-lecture assignments to prep students for class
Verma posts exercises she calls PLAs (pre-lecture assignments) on the school’s learning management system for students to complete before each class meeting. “These are exercises that relate a previously covered concept to the upcoming lecture,” she says. “For example, on the day of the Alkene Additions lecture, I want students to remember nucleophile, electrophile, etc., from the previously covered Alkyl Halides chapter; and the concept of acidity from the Acid-Bases chapter. So, the PLA due on the day of the Alkene Additions lecture will have questions from these chapters for students to look at before class.”
Also, instead of waiting to share PowerPoint slides during the lecture, Verma now uploads these to the learning management system for students to review as they read the homework chapters. Each slide includes a key concept, some examples, and some the fill-in-the-blank sections, which ensure students will read the material carefully.
4. Teach about the value of taking notes by hand (in blue)
During the lectures themselves, rather than simply projecting her PowerPoint slides on the whiteboard, Verma writes out all of the information by hand. She also encourages her students to do the same, as studies have found that writing notes by hand helps commit information to memory.
“I write out the concept on one part of the board and solve problems on another part of the board,” she explains. “When I write on the board, it gives students time to write their notes. And, while writing, most of them come up with questions, and I can see that they are making connections between new concepts and ones they previously studied.”
Another tip from Verma: Use blue ink, which makes this process even more effective, according to researchers. “Writing with blue pen is something that my teachers used to tell me to do when I was in middle school at India,” she says. “I started mentioning this to my students a few years ago, and recently I came across this information in an article.”
Although this approach takes more time than zipping through prepared slides, Verma says the practice is worth it because it seems to keep the students more focused and engaged. “There is absolutely no substitute for practicing by hand-writing and hand-drawing the structures and reactions mechanism,” she says.
5. Provide ample practice—and the rationale behind it
Research has proven that practice encourages permanence of a concept, so Verma encourages consistent practice. “Chemistry involves a lot of practice, and if you practice it enough times, you will master it,” she tells students. One simple strategy she uses is common among science and math classes: She has students work through many, many problem sets. However, she gives this her own spin, trying to have most of that happen during class and in groups. “Doing it as a group is especially important, because students can learn from each other,” she says. “They speak each other’s language, so to speak, and might learn the material in a new way, other than how I explained it.”
She also tells students that memorizing chemistry reactions and formulas is like learning how to read. At first you struggle to put the letters together, but after you see the same concepts many times, you don’t actually read it anymore, you just “know” it. “Chemistry is the same way,” says Verma. “I want them to look at and solve the problems so many times that it becomes second nature.”
6. Counteract negative reactions with empathy
One of the broadest of Verma’s strategies is rooted in psychology, not pedagogy per se: Accentuate the positive. “I always tell students how much I love organic chemistry,” she says. This is especially helpful when introducing a concept that she knows will be challenging. “I preface it with how much I love it and how it’s one of my favorite concepts,” she says.
Sometimes, she adds, topics are not boring—they are terrifying. When she sees stricken expressions on students’ faces, she offers a little empathy, saying, “I completely understand that this is your first time seeing this. When I saw it for the first time during my undergraduate class, I felt the same way. But I got it eventually, and so will you.” Then Verma shares the strategies she used to learn those tough topics.