University of Rochester

Organic Chemistry Made Easy -- by Students' Own Peers

December 18, 1997

Organic chemistry -- typically one of the undergraduate curriculum's most intimidating courses -- is looking a lot less daunting to University of Rochester students grappling with finals this week, thanks to pioneering student-led workshops that help budding scientists learn from each other when tackling complex subjects. The program's success has attracted the attention of educators around the nation.

Chemistry Professor Jack Kampmeier says the workshops, funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), have greatly improved students' comprehension and performance on exams; students describe the sessions as comfortable, thought-provoking, and even fun.

Kampmeier's 300 Chemistry 203 students separate into 42 small groups early each week to brainstorm their way through tough problems in organic chemistry, the study of the carbon-based compounds that form the basis of life. These sessions are guided by upper-class students who have aced the course in past years, rather than professors or graduate students who can often seem intimidating to students.

Kampmeier, who has taught organic chemistry at Rochester since 1960, is convinced that workshops have worked wonders for his students. "Nothing else I've done even comes close to the impact I've had on organic chemistry students through workshops," he says.

"Students have always had far more trouble with organic chemistry than they should," he adds. "The 'gas station' model -- where students pull in, a professor or grad student opens up their heads and pours knowledge in, and they drive off, filled up -- just doesn't work. In workshops, students build their own understanding of the material by debating and discussing ideas and chemistry problems with their peers -- a method in tune with theories of how students learn."

For their part, Kampmeier's students agree that workshops are a big help in learning the tricky ways of organic chemistry.

"Everyone participates in workshops to find answers to the problems -- it's an active thinking session," says junior Melissa Glendening. "Recitations are often too large and can be intimidating, but workshops provide a small group of people that you feel comfortable with. It's a structured study group that keeps everyone on track."

Adds sophomore Jamal Mitchell: "Even though the two-hour workshops are very time-consuming, every minute is worth it."

Kampmeier says that the "success rate" for Chemistry 203 -- defined by him as the percentage of students completing the course with a grade of C-minus or better -- has risen 15 percent in the two years he has used workshops to replace traditional recitations, top-down question-and-answer sessions.

The answers on exams are also more sophisticated and thoughtful, Kampmeier says: "Exam questions that have stumped organic chemistry students for 40 years seem to be a piece of cake for this group."

Workshops engage students with the material and with each other, says Kampmeier, boosting student confidence and minimizing competitiveness in the process. "When students study alone, they often build castles in the air," he says. "Many students used to come in to see me after doing poorly on exams, saying, 'I knew this stuff forwards and backwards.' Well, really they didn't -- they just thought they did. The workshops provide a mechanism for frequent reality checks on understanding."

The workshops are a team effort involving Kampmeier and the University's office of Learning Assistance Services, with a healthy dose of input from students and workshop leaders.

"Workshops take advantage of all the University's talent, including undergraduate teaching ability," says Vicki Roth, assistant dean for learning assistance. "Many schools miss out on a big opportunity when they overlook students' skills in teaching each other."

Roth says the student leaders are "professionalized" through a for-credit training course that teaches them about learning theory, group dynamics, and how to guide, rather than teach, their workshops. "It feels like we're growing our own professors here," she says, noting that many students say their experience leading workshops has nudged their career plans toward the academic arena.

The workshops are supported by a grant from the NSF to a consortium of 12 colleges and universities -- public and private, large and small, two-year and four-year. Rochester plans to continue using workshops in Chemistry 203 after the NSF funding expires in 1998, and is considering workshops for other undergraduate science and mathematics courses.

David Gosser, professor of chemistry at City College in New York and principal investigator in the NSF study, says workshops have increased student success rates at all 12 consortium schools. Most of them have focused on workshops for first-year chemistry; Rochester has been a leader in developing the project in organic chemistry.