Lectures are over

Students who are tired of sitting through lectures at UAA may opt out of the doldrums by taking chemistry.

One hundred-level chemistry courses this spring will not be taught by lectures anymore. Most professors in the department have transitioned into a group-learning format called Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, or POGIL.

The POGIL program, implemented this fall, involves small groups of students asked to solve science problems using a workbook and provided information. The students work autonomously to solve the problems, with an instructor making rounds to ensure they are working in the right direction.

David Freistroffer, assistant professor of chemistry, said he chose to use POGIL because the chemistry program has generally had high attrition rates in the past and routinely finds he is reviewing concepts, which should have been learned at the high school level.

“In a lecture class, the teacher lectures, sometimes quite rapidly, then you go home and you try to put together the lecture notes and text to study,” he said. “In this, we have students sitting together, learning as a group. It’s not independent study; it’s a very guided method.”

Freistroffer said in the beginning of the semester he sat down individually with each of his 75 students to make sure they were prepared for the general chemistry course, and to describe the POGIL concept.

He is confident the program will be a valuable tool for teaching chemistry, although results from the first semester’s progress have yet to be evaluated.

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“It’s way too early to say anything either way,” Freistroffer said.

The department has started a tutoring program this semester to help students who may need assistance beyond the instructor’s guidance during class.

“We try to push students to get the right answers, and we make them think,” he said. “We don’t just tell them the right answer.”

However, Freistroffer said he assigns only odd-numbered problems for homework, which are problems with answers in the back of the book.

Sophomore Dan Clark, in the engineering program, thinks POGIL needs some serious adjustment before it is used on more students.

“I think out of respect, when you’re starting a program this revolutionary, it would be good for students to be forewarned,” he said.

Clark began the course this semester with Beverly Barker, assistant professor of chemistry, and is not happy with the class.

“We all acted on good faith [that the university had researched the program], and it wasn’t until a few class periods had passed that we realized it wasn’t what we expected,” he said. “She would not provide an answer, but she would ask another question. There was never any validation.”

Clark thinks POGIL instructors do not provide enough guidance, and by the time exams come around students can be completely lost.

“You like to think that the midterm you’re going to take is actually representative of the course work that you’ve taken until then,” he said. “It was difficult that we did study in groups and that we did work in groups, and there was the availability of feedback, yet when the tests came it was an independent action.”

Clark did not know he was enrolling in a POGIL class during registration, and once he did know what the POGIL method entailed, he was not allowed switch to a non-POGIL class due to the add/drop period elapsing.

Junior Brian Pifer, attending a POGIL course this semester, thinks the program has the potential to help students improve their performance, but he said it’s not at the level it needs to be.

“It has advantages, but it certainly needs a lot of tweaking,” he said.

Students won’t know which classes are POGIL based because the description is not listed in the course catalogue. When instruction begins Jan. 17, students will have to withdraw by Jan. 23 to receive a full refund.

Beverly Barker said in the future students might not be able to take chemistry courses taught by lecture.

“I can’t say for sure,” she said, “but it looks like all chemistry courses will be using this approach.”

Barker questioned the practicality of listing POGIL courses as such in the course catalogue.

“If we make this distinction in the catalogue I don’t think students would understand the difference,” she said. “It’s a bit of a conundrum as to how to help students distinguish between the different teaching methods.”

Barker said the chemistry department chair, Eric Holmberg, had directed her not to discuss the trend grades have taken in the POGIL courses until the semester is complete.

In past trials elsewhere POGIL has outperformed the lecture method and Barker thinks it will also do the same at UAA.

“Lecture is no longer sanctioned as the best approach for academic science,” she said. “One of the reasons I chose this approach is that it has 30 years of research indicating students perform better with it.”

The one general chemistry professor not using POGIL this semester, Derek Bascom, could not be reached for comment.