organic chemistry

Ethnically diverse students’ knowledge structures in first-semester organic chemistry

Enrique J. Lopez, Richard J. Shavelson, Kiruthiga Nandagopal, Evan Szu, John Penn

Chemistry courses remain a challenge for many undergraduate students. In particular, first-semester organic chemistry has been labeled as a gatekeeper with high attrition rates, especially among students of color. Our study examines a key factor related to conceptual understanding in science and predictive of course outcomes—knowledge structures. Previous research on knowledge structures has focused on differences between experts and novices. Given the increasing ethnic diversity of college classrooms and research indicating unique differences in certain higher order cognitive processes associated cultural practices and ethnicity, it is important to investigate whether similar patterns exist with respect to knowledge structures. Our study utilized concept maps to measure knowledge structures. Two separate analyses where performed to determine whether or not ethnically diverse students’ organize their knowledge of organic chemistry content in structurally different ways. The first analysis utilized concept map proposition scoring to examine the influence of prior science achievement and ethnicity on knowledge structures. The second analysis examined holistic map structures to determine whether or not ethnically diverse students show qualitatively distinct structures overall. Results show significant mean differences on concept map proposition scores related to both prior science achievement and ethnic group membership. However, examination of holistic structures revealed that students’ qualitative holistic structures did not vary by ethnic group membership. Taken together, our findings suggest that variation in students’ knowledge structures are related to prior science achievement across ethnic groups, not qualitative differences in the ways ethnically diverse students’ structure knowledge. Implications for teaching and learning in organic chemistry are discussed.


Culturing reality: How organic chemistry graduate students develop into practitioners

Gautam Bhattacharyya, George M. Bodner

Although one of the presumed aims of graduate training programs is to help students develop into practitioners of their chosen fields, very little is known about how this transition occurs. In the course of studying how graduate students learn to solve organic synthesis problems, we were able to identify some of the key factors in the epistemic development from student to practitioner. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with four first-year organic chemistry graduate students enrolled in a course on organic synthesis and two third-year organic chemistry graduate students who were in the process of preparing an original research proposal in organic synthesis as a component of their Ph.D. oral qualifying exams. Three interconnected factors that fostered the students’ development into practicing organic chemists were identified: (1) the students needed to perceive the material they were asked to learn in the course lectures and in other interactions with the professor as “real;” (2) they needed to work on authentic activities that provided concrete instruments for knowledge construction; and (3) the students needed scaffolding with a more-knowledgeable other in the form of feedback on the authentic activity.