What insights did you have about “learning” as a result of this course? Answers from my physical chemistry II course

On our last day of class, I asked the reflector in each team to answer the question in the title. Here are their answers.

  • The group work was something that we all had to adjust to but as a group agreed that it was very beneficial.
  • Review & repetition are key to learning.
  • No one is an island, communication helps develop understanding.
  • “Learning” is hard.
  • We learned how to better apply info in the models to answer questions.
  • (1) explaining to others can help you determine what you need to study more and reinforce what you do; (2) practice often = learning by doing works best for me; (3) listen to others, they can help you see things in different ways.
  • It’s nice to have other group members to ask questions to.
  • It’s more than just memorization. All of the concepts we have learned have all built off of one another and we’ve had to analyze and process the information.
  • More critical thinking helped us with working through problems like the T/F on the exam. The interactive nature of the course helps with remembering how to work through certain problems/concepts.
  • Groups that work together, medal together.
  • Practice makes perfect and review sheets matter.
  • Learning is not about getting the information right away, but really is about being able to talk through problems and help other understand.
  • In terms of learning insights we have had, we realized that collaboration facilitated all facets of learning, including independent information processing.
  • That a lot goes into it, considering all the different process skills you talked about during the semester!

Grading an exam

Let’s talk tests. I prefer taking a test over writing one, and I prefer taking a test over grading one. However, there is no better way to learn what your students know than by giving an exam. In the next POGIL blog post I will discuss how teaching using POGIL affects the dynamics of giving exams.

When writing the exam, I want to make sure I test all the material (what if the students study something and I don’t ask about that something?). I want the students to think “yes, I’ve seen that before” – so I know that I have tested them on the things I have emphasized and made the students practice. Generally these are the number-crunching questions (calculate the work done… what is the wavelength of a certain transition..). Students do well on these questions, but it takes them a long time to solve.

I also want to put in a question the students have not seen before. Why? So I can test their critical thinking skills. After all, we tell our students that critical thinking is important. If something matters, there must be points assigned.

I try to think about making the test so that the weakest students in class can get at least a 60 and so that the strongest students find something to challenge them. Sometimes this means asking students to prove something mathematically (I teach physical chemistry!), and I will often set this up as an extra credit question.

Then I have to consider the grading. My physical chemistry classes range from 60 to about 120 students, and I don’t get any assistance from TAs for grading. So I want to include some tasks that are pretty straightforward to grade. This is why I include true/false questions – easy to write, easy to grade. Not, however, easy for students.

Maybe your students, like mine, beg you for an old exam to study from. Given that old copies of our exams are likely floating around (in bits or on paper), it seems fair to give everyone in the class the same opportunity. So I post the old exam (without answers) and then I have to be even more creative to come up with different questions covering the same concepts.

This spring I’ve had the added challenge of teaching in a 50-minute class period. In a 75-minute class, the students could have a full 85 minutes to finish the exam because there is 15 minutes between classes. A 50-minute class means at most a 57-minute exam. How to cut an 85 minute exam by 30 minutes?

Spring 2017 exam 1 – perfect exam. The students finished on time (in 57 minutes), and almost all of the students worked on the exam for the full 57 minutes. The mean score was 85%. No one scored below 50%. Success!

Spring 2017 exam 2 – flawed exam. No student turned in an exam before 50 minutes. After 65 minutes, I walked toward the room exit announcing that any exams not in my hands would not be graded. The mean score dropped to 75%. Because my students became flustered and frustrated with the exam length, they stopped thinking (clearly). Few of them had time to review their answers. Miss!

The Silver Lining: I did find that exam 2 highlighted the concepts the students had mastered (most could plug numbers into equations, assign point groups, assign symmetry to molecular vibrations, and describe the harmonic oscillator). Even better, I learned what my students really didn’t “get”. (They do not have a good grasp of the relative energies in translation, vibration, and rotation, and they have trouble manipulating equations symbolically.)

Coming soon: Spring 2017 exam 3: Return to this site in May to find out if exam 3 was a success or a miss.

How Can I Learn How to Incorporate Active Learning in My Teaching?

Short and best answer: Go to a POGIL Summer Regional Meeting (link).

Read on if you want more justification!

Maybe you’ve read or heard about the PNAS paper “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”.1 Maybe your department head or dean has asked you and your colleagues to include more active learning strategies in your teaching. Maybe one of your colleagues has started using active learning and talks about how much more fun teaching has become. Maybe you tried some active learning strategies, but the students rebelled. Maybe you’ve heard of this “pogil” thing and you want to find out more. Or maybe you have even tried “POGIL” (you found those activities on a website and they looked effective and interesting) – and it really didn’t work out that well.


Working in teams on an activity at the Southeast Regional POGIL Workshop.

What to do?

One of the best ways – I would argue THE best way – to incorporate active learning in your classroom is to attend a workshop. “But wait,” you say, “I’ve been to workshops at my school. Someone comes in and lectures to us about how to get students to be more active. And their ideas work in their environment, but they would never work in my class.” Your students are not sufficiently well-prepared. Your class size is too big or too small.

Well, the POGIL Project has an answer for you – and the answer is an active workshop. Our summer regional workshops provide real, hands-on practice with active learning techniques. Workshop participants become students, and then the participants unpack and reflect upon their own learning. Here are some of the great features of a POGIL Regional Meeting workshop:

  • If you want to use POGIL in a lab course, you will do an actual, honest-to-goodness POGIL experiment, collecting and analyzing data in the same way as your students, and then you will write (a rough draft of) a POGIL experiment.

Writing a POGIL experiment at the Southeast Regional POGIL workshop.

  • If you want to write POGIL activities, there is a track designed just for you: You practice defining your objectives, developing robust models, and scaffolding learning cycle questions.
  • If you want to improve your facilitation of POGIL activities, there is a track designed for you, too: You can facilitate an activity of your choice and get constructive feedback on how to improve, and you learn innovative ways to get students more engaged.

The POGIL Regional Workshops have other benefits:

  • You work with faculty and teachers in your discipline and in related STEM areas, so you can see how these techniques work in different environments.
  • You network with faculty and teachers, getting tested advice on implementing POGIL in your classroom with your
  • Present your own classroom-tested ideas in a poster session.
  • Stay in a dorm and eat on campus (ok, this one might not be considered an advantage, but it does keep the costs down).

To see the full agenda and descriptions of sessions for the summer workshops, go here. To sign up, visit www.pogil.org.  And you can email mdubroff@pogil.org with any questions. Sign up now! Spaces are limited, reserve your place today.

(1)        Freeman, S.; Eddy, S. L.; McDonough, M.; Smith, M. K.; Okoroafor, N.; Jordt, H.; Wenderoth, M. P. Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 2014, 111 (23), 8410–8415.

Why Use Assigned Roles? Mare Sullivan, long-time POGIL practitioner and chemistry teacher, shares her experiences with implementing POGIL roles – especially its effects on her students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).


As a high school physical science and chemistry teacher for almost two decades, I have taught many students diagnosed with ASD. I was surprised – pleasantly surprised – to observe how this subgroup of my students responded to the introduction of POGIL strategies.


Our students were always working in threes or fours. Students with ASD struggled, not knowing when or how to enter, sustain, or leave a conversational topic – skills essential to healthy group function. We often partnered with our Special Education professionals to plan interventions and accommodations, but we had little success.It was painfully obvious who they were whenever they tried to work in a team.


During the 2005-2006 academic year, we adopted the guided inquiry and classroom facilitation strategies we had learned from attending POGIL workshops. However, we did not use specific team roles for our students. “They will take too much time to teach!”, we said, and “Roles really won’t make any difference for our students’ learning.” So, what happened? The guided inquiry activities had a positive impact on most students’ learning, but made no difference in how our ASD students functioned in their teams. These students’ struggles continued.


In 2010 we implemented specific roles for POGIL teams. We created role cards that included tasks useful in our science and math classes, and we chose names that made sense for our school culture. Large versions of the role cards were posted around the room for easy access. The very first task of the year was a 15-minute mini-guided inquiry activity to introduce roles. We included a roles-related question on each of our daily mini-quizzes for the first four weeks of class, and we occasionally gave feedback on students’ performance in a particular role as we moved about the room.


We were thrilled at how well our ASD students performed in their teams once we had incorporated roles. Without any additional training, the students memorized the sample scripts included on each role card. They used these sentences to initiate appropriate conversations with their peers. They learned their responsibilities and followed those “rules.” This gave them credibility with their peers because they were discharging their duties as expected. Students who had previously stood out as socially awkward in teamwork were no longer obvious. I knew tell who they were, but a classroom observer would not have known.


During student/parent/teacher conferences that Fall, one parent cried as she shared that for the first time in her son’s twelve years of schooling he had been able to function successfully in a cooperative learning group with his neurotypical peers. Tears welled up in my eyes, too. I felt gratitude for the unexpected gift this young man and his family had received, but I also felt regret that I had waited so long to make such a simple change to my classroom routines. It was a change that enhanced all my students’ learning to some extent but opened the door for one student to experience the joy of being a valuable team member for the first time in his academic career. He was the first but not the last student to benefit so dramatically from group roles. I hope that your students may have the same opportunity.


Growing Groupwork From Groans To Groovy

How often have you made a group assignment only to hear “I hate working in groups?” In fact, how many times have you worked as part of a group, only to feel frustrated? POGIL requires students to work in self-managed teams, generally of three or four students. So how does an instructor facilitate the groupwork so that it is productive and even enjoyable?

  1. Asking students to work in groups does not mean instructors can stand back and watch! It is important for instructors to interact with groups – facilitate – as they work on activities. Simple questions such as “do all of you have the same answer” or “can you explain that to the other people in your group” or “have you discussed that question with your group yet” reinforce teamwork.
  2. Decide how you want to assign students to groups. This will depend on your classroom structure and environment. For more ideas, see this previous POGIL blog.
  3. Emphasize the importance of good communication. Remind students to talk to each other. Use your classroom polling system to ask the class to rate their team’s communication. And make sure that they know each other’s names – it is always surprising to me how long it takes for students to get to know other students.
  4. Give a group quiz – especially using the IF-AT scratch-off forms (see this link) – these forms are like lottery tickets. These group quizzes really reinforce interdependence.
  5. Use roles! Sometimes I feel a little bit silly using roles. In POGIL workshops and POGIL materials, the most common roles include group manager, recorder, and presenter. However, in practice the roles students may use might be different from this. One student might be good at asking questions, another good with remember calculus. This semester I’ve been talking with my class about reflecting on the roles that they create within their own groups.
  6. Yes, it is possible to get students to work in teams in large classes! First – and believe it or not – students actually do what we tell them to do. Second, you can reinforce teamwork by assigning some credit to it. Consider doing the occasional group quiz, for example. Even one or two percentage points out of the total grade provides incentive for many students.

Below, one of my students writes about the roles students have taken on in her group. Her words prove to me that talking to students about roles, and asking them to use roles, is not silly – it is critical to the success of the groupwork.

After briefly talking about group roles in class I felt that our group worked through the activities better. Generally I felt that my role became the question-asker. If I saw key words or concepts that I thought we should define together in the process of working through questions, I asked the group and we worked through definitions together. This particularly helped us when we were stumped on model two of activity S3 … One of my group members is strong in calculus and partial differentials. Whenever we needed to derive or write out a mathematical relationship to the concepts we discussed he was able to guide and help make sure we understood the answer and helped us with any questions we had. Another of my group member did well with visualizing models and coming up with example models to explain difficult concepts and how they relate to one another. With his help we were able to get a clear picture in our heads of the relationship between variables. The last (but not least) group member was good at keeping us on task with discussions. He kept us focused by considering how our discussions would be relevant to the questions being asked and to make sure we were moving through all the questions in the activities. These were the general trends I saw but I do not want to box anyone in to their roles. I think all of us at some point have done each of these roles to learn about the concepts being discussed.


How, when, and where can I go to learn how to be a better POGIL facilitator?

Have you ever considered becoming a workshop facilitator? Would you like to facilitate a workshop at your school or on your campus? Are you interested in a hands-on workshop where you could hone your classroom facilitation skills? Then the announcement below is for you:

The POGIL Project is now accepting applications for the
2017 POGIL Facilitator Training Workshop


The POGIL Project is now accepting applications for a three-day POGIL professional development workshop with a focus on workshop facilitation. The workshop is designed for those who attended a regional workshop between 2013 and 2016 or those who have previous POGIL workshop experience and who are interested in becoming a more skilled facilitator.

The workshop will provide hands-on, practical training in student-centered learning techniques and effective POGIL workshop and classroom facilitation.  Participants will be prepared and encouraged to run a half-day inquiry-based learning workshop on their home campuses at the conclusion of this three-day experience.

Two attendees at the 2016 Facilitator Training Workshop share their thoughts on the workshop and how they used the training after the workshop.

Ruthanne Paradise, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, writes:

The facilitator training workshop was really valuable. The things that I found most useful at the facilitator training workshop were the fishbowl experience, the continuous feedback, and making connections with new people. In the fishbowl it valuable to receive feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of my instruction.  This gave me confidence that I was correctly implementing POGIL in the classroom. The feedback that we participated in was continual. Each person at the training workshop actually led a different section. It was really neat to see the variety of different approaches to using POGIL in the classroom. It was good/safe place to see what worked well and what didn’t work well. And as with all of the POGIL connected events I have met lots of neat people and reconnected with others.

Craig Teague, Cornell College, writes:

I found the Facilitator Training Workshop to be quite beneficial on several levels.  First, I took the next step for my professional development and involvement in the POGIL Project.  I was able to see and experience both the nuts and bolts of how to run a workshop as well as the philosophy and pedagogy behind the workshops themselves–they’re designed as a learning cycle!  Second, I took away concrete ideas for how to improve my facilitation in my own classroom.  For me, the biggest aspect of this was having students report out from their groups–I realized I had been doing it the same way when there are multiple ways to report out.  Finally, I got to interact with wonderful colleagues at the workshop.  People there were dedicated to student learning and it was a pleasure to both revisit old acquaintances and friendships as well as establish new ones.

Please read over the workshop details below. Send in your application today!

Workshop Details

Workshop Location:
The Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott and The SpringHill Suites by Marriott; two adjoining sister hotels in the Downtown/Alamo Plaza area of San Antonio, Texas. Overnight room accommodations have been reserved at The Fairfield Inn & Suites. The meeting room location has been reserved at SpringHill Suites.

Workshop Dates:
January 14-16, 2017. The workshop will begin on Saturday, January 14th at 8:30 a.m. and end at Noon on Monday, January 16th. Participants should plan to arrive on Friday, January 13th for overnight room check-in at The Fairfield Inn & Suites Hotel.

Workshop Fee:
The workshop fee is $775, and includes registration, materials, a private, non-smoking room for the nights of January 13, 14 & 15 (checking out on the 16th), 3 breakfasts, 3 lunches & drink breaks. A limited number of scholarships are available for those who do not have access to professional development funds. Space is limited to 20 attendees.

Dinners, transportation and parking are not included in the workshop fee.

How to Apply:
To apply for this workshop, applicants will need to complete the Facilitator Training Workshop Application that can be found by clicking here.  Please return this completed application via email to Ellen Harpel at eharpel@pogil.org or fax it to (717) 358-4640 no later than November 1, 2016.  The POGIL Project will inform applicants of their status no later than November 11, 2016.

Additional Information:
For additional information and details on this workshop, please visit the POGIL website event page at:  https://pogil.org/events/2017 or contact Ellen Harpel at eharpel@pogil.org

What advice would you give to new faculty?

I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion for new faculty; this could have happened anywhere – not necessarily at my institution. The topic of discussion was “what do you know now that you wish you had known when you started your career.” We had some fairly typical discussion about making time for writing, building your network, and talking to colleagues in your department about promotion and tenure.

Then there was this statement by one of the faculty – I will call this person Professor X – on the panel (I am paraphrasing): Limit the time you spend on teaching or preparing to teach… Also: I hate teaching. And this gem: Don’t spend time teaching because it doesn’t matter what you do or how you prepare – the outcome is the same. This person did allow that teaching graduate students  in the lab is fun and rewarding.

After peeling myself off of the ceiling, I spent the rest of the week thinking about these words. Is it really true that nothing teachers do matters? How can it be that someone has a faculty position at a university yet hates teaching?

Professor X, I decided, had mistaken “lecturing” for “teaching”. X did say “I like teaching my graduate students – I like seeing them learn.” Yep, definitely teaching going on there, and learning too. Maybe Professor X had prepared a fantastic lecture that had actually bored students or that students had not shown up for. Maybe after a series of lectures, the students had done poorly on an exam. If so, then I would have to agree with X! Don’t spend time on preparing a great lecture. Find another way to teach – teach your classes the way you teach your graduate students. For me that means use POGIL to teach.

I’ll close with some evidence that my students are learning – learning physical chemistry: So I want to start off by saying these group activities have more merit than I previously thought… [E]quating [multiplicity] to entropy makes a lot of sense when I revisit things I have learned in organic chemistry. In that class we said that the more resonance structures a compound had the more stable it was as there were more delocalization. What I didn’t understand is this delocalization was really talking about how entropic the electrons were. Instead of understanding that topic I just drilled in my head that resonance equals stable. Now I can finally get a better idea of how entropy relates to the stability of a system and its constituents…

And learning how to learn: While attempting to assist a teammate with a problem that I thought I understood adequately, I discovered that I had trouble relaying the information to him, which suggested to me that I didn’t understand the material as well as I thought I had. I have read and been told on many occasions that teaching is an excellent way to fortify our own knowledge, but it is also a method of determining where our weaknesses lie.

So my best advice: Attend a POGIL workshop – make your classroom more active and engaging. It will definitely be a great way to spend your valuable, limited time wisely.