Let's Talk about It! Using a Graded Discussion Procedure to Make Chemistry Real

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  • In the Classroom

    JChemEd.chem.wisc.edu Vol. 77 No. 10 October 2000 Journal of Chemical Education 1305

    Lets Talk about It! Using a Graded DiscussionProcedure to Make Chemistry RealAmy RoedigerMentor High School, 6477 Center St., Mentor, OH 44060-4193; aroediger@mhs.k12.oh.us

    When The Plain Dealer ran the headline Chemistry keyto Mars discovery (1), I certainly wanted to introduce thisarticle to my classes. Because students so rarely recognizechemistry as the key to any topic outside the classroom, muchhas been written about making chemistry relevant. Effortsrange from providing students with answers to application-based questions (2) to using literature in the science class-room to pique interest (3). Some educators invoke more ex-tensive measures to bridge the application gap, such as thecreation of a mock jury trial that examines a chemistry-related crime (4) or the adoption of a laboratory programthat uses only real-world chemicals (5).

    The news of the now famous Antarctic meteoriteALH84001 broke in August 1996, leaving me little time tooverhaul my September lesson plans to include a fascinatingstudy of Mars. On the other hand, merely giving the students acopy of the article seemed like a waste of time. Would theybother to read it or understand why the chemistry of thismeteorite was important? Drawing on a National ScienceEducation Standard that emphasizes the importance of discoursebetween students (6 ) and an article about the promise ofproductive classroom discussions (7 ), I developed a plan thatcombined discussion and assessment in an effort to connectchemistry to real life.


    Students read an assigned set of articles, which explorean application of the current classroom topic. Articles reflectseveral viewpoints on an issue. The following day approxi-mately 25 minutes is reserved for the graded discussion ofthese articles. Desks are arranged in a circle to encouragediscourse. A discussion question, written on the board,stimulates ideas. Students use the articles to support theiropinions as they answer the question. However, unlike the situ-ation in typical classroom discussions, students are graded onthe basis of their responses and their participation.

    The teacher, sitting outside the circle, says nothing anddoes not interfere in any way with the discussion process.Instead, she listens to the responses and grades them. Allstudents begin the exercise with 8 out of 15 points. Theyaccrue additional points by responding to the question or byencouraging others to participate. The number of points forstudent responses ranges from 1 to 3, depending on the qualityof the response. The teacher records the points as a check-plus (three points), a check (two points), or a check-minus (one point). Additionally, students can gain a maximumof three positive participation points (one point per act) forencouraging others to speak, complimenting ideas, or askingfor clarification. Students lose points (one point per act) for

    interrupting another speaker, engaging in one-on-one debate,monopolizing the discussion, holding side conversations,or other inappropriate behaviors. Participation points arerecorded simply as pluses or minuses. Table 1 shows a rubricfor response and participation. Students lose all points if theysleep or do not have the article or their notes in plain sight.Table 2 demonstrates a sample for a graded discussion. Uponcompletion of the discussion, the teacher engages the studentsin a critique of the process, pointing out particularly goodresponses or how everyone might improve the next time.

    With the Mars articles, I posed the question Is therelife on Mars? The initial responses quickly concluded yes,citing evidence of four compounds found in the meteoriteand quoting scientists from the article. Several minutes intothe discussion students began to disagree. Just because theremay have been life on Mars at one time, life might not existat present. Students scrambled to find evidence in the articlethat might affirm or refute this claim and the discussionwas off and running. Some students, desperate for points,methodically responded Thats a good point, but eventually,as they were drawn into the topic, those compliments wereoffered genuinely as they learned a different point of viewfrom their peers. As the process became self-sustaining, I wasequally amazed by the quality of responses and the level ofparticipation. When I gave them the times up signal, theywere disappointed that the process had ended, but motivatedto learn more about chemistry.

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  • In the Classroom

    1306 Journal of Chemical Education Vol. 77 No. 10 October 2000 JChemEd.chem.wisc.edu

    Topics and Questions

    Since most high school textbooks now include applicationsin all chapters, a chemistry textbook offers excellent ideas forgraded discussions. My students have considered the FDAapproval of olestra, the dangers of radon gas, the lingeringproblem of acid rain, the efficacy of the Clean Air Act andsubsequent amendments, and the possibility of a petroleumshortage. I try to restrict my use of articles to newspapersand common magazines because these are the sources of newson which a student will rely beyond high school. Articles thatpresent multiple viewpoints ultimately enrich the discussion.It is critical that articles include current scientific informationand a pertinent link to chemistry class, and come from areputable source. Finally, questions must be phrased carefullyto allow students to fully investigate the topic. Is there lifeon Mars? obviously offers more possible answers than Whydo scientists think life may have existed on Mars?


    A study in which nontraditional teaching methods wereintroduced in college chemistry classes showed that discussionhelped students organize ideas in meaningful ways and increaseinterest in chemistry (8). Following graded discussions, mystudents responded more actively during lectures, askingquestions about the chemistry of neon lights or batteries.And, while they learned, they began extending their knowledge.

    Sorenson suggests that encouraging student-focuseddiscussion heightens the ability to analyze literature (9). Indeed,as students function at the analysis and evaluation levels ofBlooms taxonomy, their ability to think critically is strength-ened. Articles often contain conflicting information, whichstudents contemplate. Furthermore, because this discussionis graded, students offer their most sophisticated responsesin hopes of obtaining the greatest possible number of points.

    By choosing articles of varied levels of difficulty, a teachercan successfully utilize the graded discussion with any age orability group. In fact, Freeman and Horowitz concluded thatwhen very young children discuss science stories, they are morelikely to enjoy text that at first appears too technical (10).Students of all ages can benefit from this rare discussionwithin the science classroom.

    Because discussion relies on verbal skills rather thanmathematical ones, this activity provides teachers with anopportunity to assess skills in a different context. Offeringpoints for participation creates a climate conducive to exchange

    of ideas. Students learn social skills valuable for college orthe workplace. Consistent with the findings of Berka andBerka (11), the best students in the class are not always bestat discussing material. Students who struggle with stoichi-ometry, for instance, may coherently advocate a tougherClean Air Act, while students who excel at equilibrium mightstammer through a summary of the risks of radon.

    Perhaps most importantly, students read science newsstories and connect their chemistry content with the envi-ronment in which they live. The process generates enthusiasmfor learning science. Students happily recount for me thatthey watched television specials about Mars, talked with theirparents about our dependence on petroleum, or explainedto fellow grocery store patrons about the wow in Frito LayWOW chips. At the end of the year, the discussions remainembedded in their minds, defining the impact of chemistryon their lives!


    The obstacles to reforming science education include lackof time, money, and training. Using a process as simple asthe graded discussion helps students find relevance andappreciation for science while encouraging the high degreeof student interaction that results in the creation of meaning.Because the graded discussion requires no money or specifictraining and takes very little time, teachers and students reapbenefits without sacrificing important curriculum.

    Literature Cited

    1. Maugh, T. H.; Torassa, U. Chemistry Key to Mars Discovery.The Plain Dealer (Cleveland); Aug 8, 1996; pp 1A, 15A.

    2. White, M. A. J. Chem Educ. 1995, 72, 1064.3. Hollis, W. G. Jr. J. Chem Educ. 1996, 73, 6162.4. Jones, M. J. Chem Educ. 1997, 74, 537.5. Kerber, R. C.; Akhtar, M. J. J. Chem Educ. 1996, 73, 10231025.6. National Research Council. National Science Education

    Standards; National Academy Press: Washington, DC, 1996;pp 3233, 36.

    7. Barton, J. Educ. Dig. 1995, 60 (5), 4852.8. Francisco, J. S.; Nicoll, G.; Trautman, M. J. Chem Educ. 1998,

    75, 210213.9. Sorenson, M. Eng. J. 1993, 82 (1), 4247.

    10. Horowitz, R.; Freeman, S. Read. Teach. 1995, 49 (1), 3035.11. Berka, K.; Berka, L. J. Chem Educ. 1996, 73, 931933.