Allow me to ask a question or two:
Do you know someone who finishes their homework in order to get it done? In other words, do they do their homework because it was assigned, and they want to get credit for finishing it, so that their grade stays high?
Do you know someone who uses their homework to actively study every day?
In my third year of teaching, I underwent an odd observation, which, for those not fluent in education parlance, is when a teacher is observed conducting a lesson live for the purposes of evaluation. With this observation, the principal of the high school came into my classroom quietly, and shuffled to the back of the room, sitting in a corner table, away from any of the students. In fairness, to be observed at all was an oddity for me at the high school, and to have an observation be in any way meaningful was a rarity. I shrugged off the principal being in the room – either he’ll like what I am doing, or not, in which case if I ever were to get feedback, he would resort to some generic education catchphrase and be on his way. In fairness, he was a Freshman English teacher for a few years before becoming a career administrator, so trying to evaluate STEM education techniques, like a chemistry classroom, is a difficult task, given that each subject has two distinct teaching styles and effective pedagogical techniques. But, this is for a different posting, and for a different time.
My teaching style has evolved to focusing on student-centered learning. With teacher-centered learning, the students are in military style rows, facing forward towards the blackboard, and the teacher would be conducting the lesson, while the students dutifully take notes and occasionally respond to prompts. With current research, we have become acutely aware that student-centered learning is a far more effective technique than teacher-centered learning, for a myriad of reasons (this, too, is for a different posting, for a different time). I embrace student-centered learning, and if someone were to walk into my classroom, you would easily find me sitting in the center of the students, all of us facing the board, where some students could be working on the problem, with lively discussion. Or, the tables are set up into roundtables, with the students deliberating a scientific prompt in front of them, and me floating from group to group, joining the discussion.
What made this particular visit stand out in my mind was that the principal walked in on a lesson that involved very little overt, teacher-centered, teaching. I was addressing the questions that I opened this essay with with the students. They were preparing for their monthly exam, and had put all of the tables together in a large rectangle. Books and notes were sprawled all over, and they were working through problems that they had already done, either in class or homework. From time to time, one of the students would get up, go to the board, and a discussion would ensue. What were they doing, and why was I staying out of it, sitting quietly at the periphery, observing for myself?
They were re-solving the problems that they had already done, in order to understand the steps needed to solve the problem, and the underlying chemistry of what was “going on in the beaker.” The actual answer didn’t matter, and they knew I wouldn’t care, and ask questions about anything about the problem other than the answer.
It’s gratifying to get the right answer in a math or science class. You solve the problem, check the answer key, do a little dance in your mind that the answers agree, and you move on to the next one. Once done, the assignment is filed and maybe, just maybe, looked at again before the exam.
Let me pose another question: What does it matter if you got the right answer when studying? Will that answer appear on the exam, in the lab, or with a project?
I have my students re-solve all of the problems that they do. We redo them for steps. They demonstrate for me, and for one another, exactly what steps they took, why they took each step, and what the relationships are to the underlying science and mathematics.
Consider the power of the technique: It doesn’t matter what problem or what numbers are given on an exam, in the lab, or a problem set. By reworking problems specifically for steps and connections, a student can be shown a new problem, and already have the training to be proficient not only with the science, but also the skills needed to solve the problem, and will start to see common patterns and make connections much more readily.
By extension, do not – let me repeat myself: Do not! – try to treat every single problem as if it is something new, and try to memorize the steps for solving each one like a computer algorithm. You are unlikely to get the same problem twice, unless your teacher is extremely derivative and unoriginal, and are setting yourself to not succeed or, even worse, openly fail. By studying the steps in solving problems, the reasons for each step, and how everything connects to the science and math involved, you’ll be able to easily synthesize a solution to a new problem because you have the habits of mind to do so.
You’ll even start finding out that chemistry, physics, and math is not that difficult. It’s just the same principles being applied repeatedly to various situations.
Oh, if you were wondering, the principal left after about fifteen minutes of watching the group, and me just observing. From his facial expressions, I would opine that he was a bit bored from the experience. And no, alas, I didn’t get back any feedback from him. Just improved grades from the students.
Solomon Berman is the Founder and Lead Teacher of Quantum Prep LLC. He actively teaches chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the high school, college, and post baccalaureate levels, having taught both in public education and at a top tier university. His focus lies in developing the most innovative and effective catalogue of pedagogical techniques for STEM disciplines, and helping students become powerful STEM learners in their classes, competitive in assessments, and successful with projects. He has studied at Bates College, Harvard University, Boston College, and Boston University, and is a native of Boston, Massachusetts.