I recently participated on a committee charged with selecting a textbook for a two-semester general chemistry course. We carefully weighed the merits of the current text versus those of a strong new contending text. We discussed categories such as pretty pictures and illustrations, available PowerPoint slides, concise chapter outlines, equation summaries at the ends of chapters, software packages for online practice and for homework, software to provide algebra review as needed to work specific problems, and so on.
As I viewed the two texts with their accompanying software, I was overwhelmed by how much is being done to assist students in passing general chemistry. It occurred to me that many of the attempts to help the students simply absolve them of responsibility for their own education and thus hurt them as learners.
This experience made me remember how I learned as an undergraduate student, not just in chemistry but in all courses. I did a cursory reading of material in the text before the instructor lectured on that material. I then started answering questions and working problems at the end of the chapter, which drove me to read appropriate sections of the text to gain insight into how to approach each question or problem. This second reading was more intense and purposeful than was the original prelecture reading.
At some time before the exam over a block of material, I read and outlined the chapters, merging my class notes with the outline. The outline included making a list of pertinent equations and the conditions under which they were applicable. A lot of thought and decision making went into this learning regimen. Whatever success I had as a student and learner came from this regimen. On the eve of exams, I simply read over my outline and equation summary a few times.
Now I realize that we do all of this for the students. They are provided with outlines, equation summaries, enjoyable software packages, and other crutches. We have relieved them of the responsibility, thus the ability, to think. We even write our freshman textbooks at a 10th-grade level or lower since most of the students cannot read at the 12th-grade level. We use terms like “critical thinking” when we should be concerned about them thinking at all. I believe that these new super texts with all their accoutrements will enable a higher percentage of students to obtain passing grades in general chemistry but will not promote mastery of the material. This outcome will make academic administrators and book publishers happy but do nothing to curtail the demise of science education in the U.S.
By Fred Watson