Student understanding of chemical concepts is difficult to gauge. However, if you tie it into objective tests and test through a specific curriculum, you might be able to determine how much a student understands.
Rationale for Study
I have been teaching at Flushing High School since September 2001. Starting with my first Regent’s examination in June 2002, the school has seen a drastic drop in the percentage of students passing the Regents examination. My study focused on one possible reason for the decline: Teachers may need new connections with their students over the course curriculum.
Flushing High School is a 2800-student public high school located in Flushing, Queens. The student body is extremely diverse with the majority of students classified as Hispanic and a growing number of Asian students predominating. Approximately 200 students are enrolled in seven Chemistry classes. Last year, about 28 percent of the 169 Chemistry students who took the Regents examination passed the test; this figure was up from 23 percent of the 343 Chemistry students passed the Regents.
My chemistry class contains 28 students, all classified as English Language Learners. They are mostly Asian-Americans with a range of capabilities in understanding English.
Flushing High School also offers 12 classes in art instruction for the general student body. Art is considered an elective and is not assessed with a statewide Regents examination.
“Art in Chemistry; Chemistry in Art,” by Barbara Greenberg and Diane Patterson, formed the main inspiration for this project. Much of the year’s planned curriculum was based on lesson plans and suggestions provided by Greenberg and Patterson.
“Understanding by Design,” by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, helped me put together a rubric for assessing the students’ understanding of the chemical concepts.
I relied mainly on regular tests (both in-class and take-home examinations) to maintain a close observation on the levels of understanding exhibited by each student. I also maintained a rubric that was meant to assess the degree of understanding the material into their curriculum. I made general observations of grade and attendance figures from last year to this school year. These general observations were for insight and direction, not statistical proof.
I originally planned to adopt an altered version of the art/chemistry connected curriculum I had reported on last year. The curriculum consisted of 20 experiments and projects covering eight state standards topics in Chemistry. I also planned selected laboratory exercises and a display of artwork in the school library. Almost from the start I learned about my students processed information differently than what I expected. They seemed to develop understandings about chemistry based on how their individual backgrounds and experience. It seemed that no matter how I presented the information, the students made conscious decisions on how much they were going to learn. It was difficult to understand this at first, but much of how much they learned came from connections they formed with previously understood concepts. In private discussions I found their understanding of chemistry painted by what they learned before high school.
The students generally liked the art projects and their connections with the science. Motivation remained high throughout the year. The art projects kept many students coming to class. I noted a general decrease in the number of cuts and absences as compared to a year ago.
In reviewing the year, I formulated five points for teachers attempting an integrated curriculum:
- To develop understanding by integrating different subjects within one curriculum, teachers must understand that they risk confusing students with information., but you also must deal with previously accepted concepts from the students’ past grades.
- As a result of past understandings, teachers may find a variety of lessons working against their goals because they do not “fit” the way that students want to understand.
- There are times when innovation may cause more confusion and anxiety than traditional methods in reaching students. Merely repeating back prepared answers to specific questions is not what teachers want when they try innovations. However, this might be all that students expect from their lessons and may resist any changes to their expectations.
- Teachers must understand traditional teaching methods and curriculum before administrators give them permission to begin an Integrated curriculum. This also applies to team teaching. Both teachers should know traditional learning methods before they innovate.
- As much as possible, teachers should understand how much their students understand their subject before entering their classroom for the first time. There is no such thing as an”empty vessel” that we fill with knowledge. Administrators must insist that teachers demonstrate understanding of their students’ needs before attempting innovations to traditional methods.
- Teachers must maintain an awareness of which topic fits the needs and agenda of their students. What the teachers want may not be exactly what the students expect when they start a course.