Summary of a Research Report by Kristen Murphy, John Picione, and Thomas Holme on the Effectiveness of Small Group Constructivist Learning in Preparatory Chemistry

Background

Murphy, Picione, and Holme (2010) employed action research to test small group constructivist learning in preparatory chemistry classes using Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). The POGIL method presents each small group of four students a model that describes or illustrates the concepts of a topic. The model is followed by a series of critical thinking questions designed help students examine the model’s text or illustrations and construct their own understanding of the concepts. Once the concepts are identified, the exercise continues with application problems using the concepts. Students are encouraged to work together and are often assigned roles of manager, recorder, and spokesperson. Instructors may assign groups or allow students to self‑select. POGIL sessions are about twenty minutes in duration and are often followed by a full class discussion or informal assessment. More information about POGIL is available at pogil.org.

Method

The authors tested POGIL’s effectiveness in three sections of preparatory chemistry classes of approximately 80 to 120 students. One section used POGIL activities for all of the semester’s content, a second section used POGIL for about one-third of the content, and the third section was the control group taught through traditional lecture. At the beginning of the each semester, all students were tested for competency in mathematics and the authors discovered statistically significant differences among the three sections. Since mathematics ability is recognized as a determining factor in success, these results were used to normalize the chemistry exam scores across sections as the semester progressed.

Results

The results of the first two chemistry examinations were surprising and indicated that the control section outperformed the two POGIL sections. The authors modified the POGIL implementation for the remainder of the semester by giving minilectures before each exercise thereby eliminating the need for students to read the POGIL materials. This modification improved the POGIL sections exam performance over the remainder of the semester. In the spring semester, the authors continued the  minilecture modification for the POGIL sections and this time the full POGIL section scored higher than the other two sections. Surprisingly, the partial POGIL section had the lowest performance, which the authors attributed to excessive student absences.

Conclusion

The authors conclude that POGIL, modified with mini-lectures, provides an incremental improvement of student learning in preparatory chemistry when compared with traditional lecture classes.

Commentary

I also use POGIL activities for teaching introductory and general chemistry and my experience is similar to the findings in this paper. I believe that POGIL can be an effective method for helping students construct their own understanding of the concepts. The most interesting point in this paper was the necessity of eliminating the reading component of the exercises suggesting that many students in preparatory classes lack sufficient literacy skills to succeed in science or perhaps in college. In place of the reading, the authors implemented minilectures and simplified the exercises by incorporating smaller steps with partial solutions. Here again, I can confirm the authors findings that there are students who either cannot, or will not read and study the models carefully. Since the authors’ objective was to measure the effectiveness of POGIL for learning chemistry rather than assessing literacy, they modified the exercises to eliminate reading. As educators, we should also ask how we can help students improve their literacy skills so that they are better prepared for any subject.

Murphy, K. L., Picione, J., & Holme, T. A. (2010). Data-Driven Implementation and Adaptation of New Teaching Methodologies. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40(2), 80–86. doi:Article

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