Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Teaching Students about the Mole- Made Easy!!

Ahhh, the mole.  Ask students, "Which weighs more: a dozen pizzas or a dozen skyscrapers?" They will easily answer.  Ask students, "Which contains more items: a dozen pizzas or a dozen skyscrapers?" They will still answer easily.  Then you ask a question about the mole, and chemistry students are baffled.

The Goal

The goal in teaching the mole in a first year general chemistry course is two-fold:

First, students need enough of an understanding of what the mole is to be able to answer questions about the concept of the mole (similar to the ease with which they answer questions about the concept of a dozen).

Second, students need to be able to easily and efficiently use dimensional analysis to convert between grams, moles, and particles.  Setting the foundation well here will allow for a seamless, and much less painful, introduction to stoichiometry later in the course.

The Problems

In many years of teaching chemistry, I have noticed two main problems when teaching this unit.

First, while many students pick up on the pattern of dimensional analysis quite quickly and easily, others are completely confused by the idea of conversion factors.  I cannot count the number of times I have seen very creative, and very made up, conversion factors, like "1 atom = 58.44 mol" or "1 g = 6.02 x 1023 atoms."  When you have spent days in class practicing, and pointing out that there are only 2 conversion factors, and that these conversion factors mean something, seeing these random conversion factors pop up on tests and quizzes can be so frustrating.

The second problem with this unit is that some students will focus all their time and energy on solving math problems, without really having any true visual about the relationship between a mole, a particle, and mass.  When I ask a simple relational question, they spend too much time trying to set up a math problem instead of using common sense.  If I ask which has greater mass: 1 atom of carbon or 1 mole of carbon, the answer should be obvious.  But too many students feel overwhelmed by the unfamiliar vocabulary and are unable to simply think logically.

The Solution

Students stay engaged and eager 
to practice when you
add competition to the lesson!
This year, I decided to try something new with this unit.  Although I teach at an international private school and have a lot of very strong students, I also have quite a few weaker students, especially in their math skills.

Every student in 10th grade takes Chemistry, no matter what math class they are in, which can lead to lots of anxiety and stress when we get to topics that are heavily math focused.
Mole concept game --
thinking through relationships 
without a calculator

I decided to make this a self-guided lesson.  I wanted students to first recognize the relationship between mass, number of items, and a quantity that is familiar to them -- the dozen.  I then wanted them to see how you can use dimensional analysis to perform conversions using those relationships.  Then, students could use those same skills to tackle the concept of the mole.

Even lower level students 
are excited to practice!

I had several worksheets available -- covering both the mole concept and mole conversion calculations.  I never collect homework - I want students to feel free to try, make mistakes, and learn from them without the stress of a failing grade - so I have the answer keys available for them to check as they go and to learn from their mistakes.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Giving Students Ownership in their Learning

As a teacher, I have some absolute least favorite, (NAILS ON CHALKBOARD!!), phrases, and among the top are:

"I did your homework."

"I studied for your test."

I always respond, "Oh thanks, but I don't have a test today."

One thing that I have worked really hard to build in my classroom is an environment in which students are required to take responsibility for their OWN learning.  The purpose for everything we do in a classroom is to allow students to learn.  But too often, students think they are doing the work "for us" instead of for themselves.

Here are some easy ways to immediately start turning your classroom into one in which the students have ownership in their learning.

Student-Owned Notes

I do this differently depending on the topic.  For topics that are very math-heavy, I have students directly copy down the examples as I write them on the board.  I generally show one example and then give students the opportunity to try other problems on their own.  (Until they wrestle with the math for themselves, they won't figure out what they will struggle with.)  But for other notes, students are not allowed to hold their pens/pencils while I talk

I have learned that most students do. not. listen. when they write.  I have had students write notes for 45 minutes while I talk, and at the end, they really have no comprehension of what they wrote.

So while I'm teaching, writing utensils are down.

For some topics, I give guided notes.  These go along with my PowerPoints and have questions after every few slides.
Students listen while I teach a particular concept, they answer a few Check for Understanding questions out loud, they ask questions of their own, we discuss what they're learning, and then they pick up their pencils to answer the question on their notes.

We then move on to the next topic, pencils down again.  The full PowerPoints are available on my class website, (so if students need to go home and look at them again they can), but in-class time is better spent processing the material for themselves rather than almost mindlessly copying words from the board.

Some students feel like there's some magic to the way that I phrase things.  For example, a student asks a question, and I ask the class to answer.  Another student gives a great answer.  We move on.  But, the first student asks, "Yes, but what would you say?"  (As if my words mean more than his or her classmates' words.)  

Other times, students will be hesitant to write their own words down in their guided notes as an answer to the question.  They want to copy directly what the slide says or what I say.  From the very beginning of the year, I try to push them past this misconception and help them to build confidence in their OWN words.  I focus on understanding the concept, not memorizing the words.  I never have questions or answer choices on a test that exactly mimic the notes on the board.  I want students to focus on being able to answer a question in their own words, and feel confident in this.

For some topics, I have students create their own notes.  For example, for atomic structure, I have students make the foldable shown below.  

My PowerPoint is organized into three parts -- Atomic Structure, Isotopes, and Ions.  While I explain each topic, students have their pens/pencils down.  After I explain Atomic Structure and guide the students through questions and practice and examples, I have them open up to the first section of their foldable and work together with the students around them to organize what they have learned in whatever way they choose.  As they discuss in groups, and ask me questions, they write down what they have learned in their own words. (This helps each student to see many different perspectives on the topic and if someone was unsure about something this is usually when the 💡 shines above their head.)

Examples of student-organized notes:

When they are done discussing in groups, we then go through the PowerPoint about isotopes. 
We repeat the process again: 
I teach, we discuss, students ask questions, I give examples, I ask questions, 
(all while students have their pens/pencils down).  
Then they get into groups again to organize their notes and thoughts.

The first time you do this, many students will struggle or be reluctant.  Teaching students to write their own notes requires scaffolding and support.  I have on the PowerPoint a list of words/concepts/topics we just covered to jog their memories and guide their group conversations.  I am available to answer questions while they are writing their notes.  This is important -- they are not taking a test, they are writing notes, and it's important for them to be accurate.

I love hearing the discussions between students while they are writing their notes.  The retention of information is so much higher when they are forced to think back to the lesson while they write their notes.

Again, students know that they can go home and look at the PowerPoints more if they need to, but in-class time is spent allowing them to come to their own understandings of the material.

Student-Owned Homework

I do not assign "homework."  I give my students opportunities to practice a new skill in class (usually with either a worksheet or a game).  When class is over, they have the option of finishing the worksheet at home, or if the practice was a game, there's an optional worksheet they can pick up.  It is their decision.  I try to instill in them from day one that homework is practice for them.  If they need extra practice, then they should do it or they will struggle on the quizzes.  

I post answers online so that they can check as they go and recognize mistakes immediately.  I generally let students know the day of the lesson when the quiz on that skill will be (usually a few days later).  This allows students who do not understand right away a few days to spend time practicing before the quiz, and does not penalize students who take a little extra time to learn something.

Students who understand the concept/skill during the in-class practice time do not need to spend time at home practicing unless they choose to.  At home practice is for them, not for me.

Student-Centered Lessons

There are some topics that require me to lecture.  There is no other good way for students to efficiently learn the material.  But there are some topics that, if guided well enough, students can learn at their own pace.

For these topics, I have guided lessons and activities.  These are activities that have the notes embedded and give students active practice with the topics instead of just learning fact after fact after fact.

I allow students to work at their own pace, within reason, and check with me after every page.  This "checking" allows me to quickly point out errors and have 1 on 1 discussions with individual students or pairs of students about their errors and misconceptions.  As students are coming up to me individually, it turns what could have been a whole-class lesson into short private tutoring lessons, one topic at a time.

Students who generally fade into the background and don't ask questions in class, but instead fall further and further behind, are forced to show me their work in a safe, private environment, throughout class.  I have practice worksheets or extension activities available for students who finish early, allowing the students who need more processing time the chance to do so.  Combining the lesson with the lab activity gives students hands-on, immediate practice with the concept, instead of it being abstract and theoretical.

Here are three examples of student-centered and self-paced lessons embedded with activities:
Density Guided Lab
Average Atomic Mass
Guided Lab

The Take Away

As teachers, we all know that everything we do in class is to try to help students learn.  Many students do not realize just what that means, and treat everything they do in class as a "favor" for their teacher.  In order to maximize learning, it is important that students recognize that they are working for themselves.  The best way to do this is to build a classroom culture that gives the responsibility of learning to the students at every step, from lessons to notes to practice.

Happy teaching!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

AP Chemistry Escape Room

Can YOU Escape Without a Calculator?!

There is nothing like the stunned silence on the first day of AP Chemistry after I announce: "There are no calculators allowed on the multiple choice of the AP exam.  Therefore, I will not allow calculators on the multiple choice portions of our tests this year."
The gasps!  The shock!  The PANIC!  

My first unit is Stoichiometry and Solutions, and it is basically the same concepts they learned last year, but applying them to AP-type scenarios.  It is a huge leap for them to go from doing each problem the same way as the last, as they did in 10th grade chemistry, to being able to read a new scenario and decide how to go about answering it.  None of the calculations we do in this unit are new to them, but the process and problem solving skills are new.  We spend the first few weeks in the lab and working problems.

With their first unit test approaching, we have been working hard on problem solving skills, stoichiometry, and particle diagrams.  But we had not yet addressed the elephant in the room.  No calculator?  On math problems?  

I wanted their first introduction to this calculator-free multiple choice to be less stressful than a test situation.  A friend of mine gave me the idea to turn it into an Escape Room, and although the final product was quite different than my original vision, I thought it was a huge success in my classroom and wanted to share it.

My students have 1:1 computers, so I decided to do a digital escape room (with a few non-digital components).  I described my vision to technology integration specialist and asked if there was any way to do it.  She suggested I use Google Forms and she set up the template that I then adapted and turned into my escape room.  

How It Works

Students are paired in groups of 3-4.  As this is their first introduction to Chemistry Without Calculators, I wanted them in groups that would allow collaboration.  I let them choose their own groups, but you could assign them if needed.  Each group needs one computer.

I went over the directions with the class (see the instructions that follow) to make sure they understood each step.  I reminded them that without calculators, many of the numbers in the AP exam will be mental math friendly, and to change decimals to fractions to make the math a little simpler.

I sent them the link to the Escape Room.  The first page asks them to type in their name.  I had them list all their names.  (When each group had entered that and was ready, I told them to begin.)

The first screen asks a question.  They must solve it and enter the correct answer.  If the answer is wrong, it tells them to try again.

(I have set up the Google form to accept the answer without units, and if significant figures are important in a particular question, it tells them how to round their answer.)

Students must keep trying until they get the correct answer, at which point the second question appears.

Students continue until they have correctly answered 4 questions.  At this point, the Google Form gives them a clue about an element.
In the back of the classroom are envelopes labeled with element symbols: 

The students choose the correct folder, based on the clue they are given, and pull out a puzzle piece:

They go back to their seat with the puzzle piece and continue answering questions.  After another 4 questions, they get another clue, and go back to find another puzzle piece.  

There are 16 total questions, for a total of 4 puzzle pieces:

Once they have collected all the puzzle pieces, they put them together to see the final question:

Then, they answer the question, type their answer in the Google Form, and they have ESCAPED!!!

The Details

This particular version took us two 45 minute class periods - this takes a bit of time for them to wrestle with, especially if this is their first time wrestling with how to solve these types of problems.  

I am sharing the files and would love for other teachers to give it a try.   (These questions are not original --  I have taken them from various practice problems I have found to help my students prepare.)

Advance Preparation

Everything you need is in this file:  AP Chemistry Escape Room

Print out the puzzles -- 1 per group.  Cut them out and put all of the same pieces in the same envelope.  I laminated them so that they would last longer.  I put one set of pieces in the "H," one in the "C," one in the "Zn," and one in the "F."  If you wanted to change the envelopes, you could just change the clues within the Google Form.

I had a bunch of "dummy envelopes" so they had to decide which envelope to draw from.  At first those were empty, but then I felt students would just shake them to figure out which envelopes had something in them, so I put scrap pieces of paper in all the dummy envelopes. 😆

If you don't have computers for the students to use, you could easily adapt this:
Just print out the questions and put them in numbered envelopes.  Give each group an envelope with #1.  Have them check answers with you and when they get #1 correct, give them #2.  This is a little more work for you during the class, but it would be one way to adapt it.

The Take-Away

This was really fun for my students, and it was a great way to throw them in the deep end with non-calculator questions.  😉

Creating the template and figuring out how I wanted this to work was fairly time consuming, but now that the template is done it would be quite easy to use this for other units and/or classes.  My students really enjoyed it and after a few questions they started getting the hang of how to handle questions WITHOUT a calculator!

Happy Chemistry students
who have just "Escaped"!

I let my students choose their own groups, and I ended up with several groups of mixed abililty, several groups with three high achievers, and several groups with three students who struggle a little more.  I was very surprised that all groups seemed to perform similarly.  Learning this skill was difficult for all of them, and some of the students who struggled seemed to get more confident when they saw that they got a puzzle piece before a group of "high achievers".

Now that I have the template, I can see doing this more often for this class and for others. If you give it a try, please share your experiences!

Happy gaming!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Rethinking Review Strategies to Boost Student Performance on Science Assessments

Reviewing is such an essential part of teaching. Students can seem to understand each concept as we present it (remembering one objective a day is generally not too overwhelming), but at the end of a unit, semester, or year, it is crucial to give students the tools they need to integrate all the material they have learned.

Many students simply do not 
know how to review.  

They can fill out a review sheet that is provided to them, but studying that review sheet, and making sure they understand the material, is a stretch. Many of them simply want to memorize the material on the review sheet, and depending on the test they're studying for, this can be a sure way to fail.

Here are some strategies for making the most out of review time for your students:

#1 -- Rethink your Review Sheet

If your review sheet is a list of questions, I can guarantee you that students will answer the questions, study those questions, and feel like they have prepared sufficiently for your test. If your test includes the exact same questions as the review sheet, this is fine. It doesn't necessarily help students learn the material, but they should do well on the assessment. However, if your test is written differently than the review sheet is (as most tests are), your students will leave the test shocked that they did so poorly when they "studied SO hard!"

In middle school or high school level courses, it is a little overwhelming to students when you say, "Learn the material I taught you in this unit."  In AP, that's exactly what I say, because at the end of the course, they are required to take a test that literally could include anything we studied, and maybe even tiny details we didn't cover directly in class.  For my non-AP students, however, I try to focus their studying a little by providing a list of "Test Topics." This is just a list of words/phrases/concepts they should be familiar with. I do not provide questions.

Providing questions gives students a false sense of security -- many of them think that if they study the provided questions then they will know everything they need to know for the test.

So, I provide a list, and students can create their own study guides - including hints, examples, and their own questions.  This enables them to focus on the important content, while also making them THINK MORE about the topics than simply memorizing answers to questions.

#2 -- Model "Make Your Own Questions" in Class

Many students have no idea how to write their own review questions.  The first time I ask them to write questions, I get a lot of "Define __________" (fill in vocabulary word).  In class, I try to model a variety of techniques to them to show them how they can write their own questions.

Two Truths and a Lie
I put the students in pairs, and tell them "Write down three statements from the unit's material. Two statements must be completely true, and one is false." Then they can switch with another pair and see if they can determine the lie (and maybe even fix it to be true). In the process of coming up with their statements, students must sift through, and review, and discuss, a lot of material.

One of these things is not like the other
This is similar to the above activity. Again, I put students in pairs and tell them, "Write down four words/phrases from the unit's material. Three of them should be related in some way, and the other should not." Again, they should switch with another pair and see if they can determine the outlier and give reasons why.

I have had students come up with examples of this where depending on how you looked at their list, three of them could go together in one way, and three others could go together in a different way. This is an excellent way to get students to look at the relationships between words and concepts.

On review day, you can take the best student written questions and use them as review. Often these student written questions can be just as challenging as the ones on the test itself, as long as students have taken it seriously and really thought through the questions they are writing.

#3 -- Foldables or Flashcards

Here is an example of an 
foldable review sheet. 
Encourage students to make interactive study sheets.

If the study sheet is on a single sheet of paper, with questions and answers right next to each other, studying is very passive.  

Staring at a question and a correct answer does not force them to retrieve any information, but it makes them feel like they know everything.
If you turn that same study sheet into a foldable, with information below liftable tabs [see photo], students are able to really tell if they know the material. The student instructions for making the VSEPR/IMF review foldable are available here.

Flashcards are similar and also allow students to change up the order of the questions/words which allows for better learning of concepts instead of learning the order of the words/questions.

My students playing
The Periodic Trail
#4 -- Games

Games are my favorite way to review with my classes.  I avoid "whole class" games, because they do not encourage students to be actively participating for the whole time. For this reason, I avoid Kahoot and Jeopardy type games.  My favorite games are played in pairs or groups of 3.  Games should include questions at varying difficulty (and if needed, you can differentiate by giving weaker pairs fewer types of questions).

I have found that games that allow students some sort of way to "sabatoge" their opponent bring the most excitement to my classroom.

Games can be as complicated or as simple as you have time for. If you download generic game boards, you can turn any worksheet into a game by simply cutting it up into question cards. Making games for my classes is one of my hobbies and I have an assortment of Chemistry and AP Chemistry games in my TPT store and am adding new ones as I create them for my students.
I have seen even the most reluctant of students come to life when playing games (even when those games force them to practice complicated calculations)!

Do you have a specific method or strategy you use to help your students review? Comment and share!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Welcome to My Science Toolbox!

Behind My Science Toolbox is a belief that science classrooms can be places where students can learn, struggle, grow, and do all of this while enjoying the process.  
My Chemistry and AP Chemistry classrooms are filled with students at differing ability levels, and I keep the expectations and rigor high, but that doesn't mean we have to lose the fun and the joy of learning.

Instead of worksheets, try activities and games.  These can be as complicated or as simple as you want -- many people assume games are "fluff," but the right game can be incredibly challenging.  Students learn more when they're invested, and they're invested when they're enjoying the learning.

Follow this blog for science teaching tips, hints for scaffolding difficult concepts, and ways to keep your expectations and rigor high, while making your classroom a safe place for students to make mistakes and learn.