About our classroom

The Chem 201 classroom utilizes the POGIL (process oriented guided inquiry learning) method of teaching. The POGIL method was developed initially by college chemistry teachers, but it has spread to include many other disciplines and even pre-college instruction. Still, for most Reed science students, entering a POGIL classroom will be a novel experience. This page provides a brief sketch of the POGIL classroom and links to articles about active/group learning methods.

First, let me offer a brief sketch of POGIL courses that appeared in a recent research article (Baum [2013]):

In a POGIL course, group work takes the place of lecture. Students are given much of the responsibility for learning the material as they complete course activities working in small groups. The structure of most classroom activities is based on the learning cycle concept (Kolb, 1984; Spencer, 1999) derived from a cognitive growth model proposed by Piaget (1964). As such, students build on their prior knowledge and experience as they engage in a cognitively challenging situation. Group activities are designed to be completed within one or two class periods.

The instructor’s role in the course is to serve primarily as a facilitator of group learning, monitoring progress and intervening when guidance is needed. The instructor usually does not answer questions directly, but instead helps students to resolve uncertainties for themselves. Students are assigned specific team roles such as manager, recorder, assessor, and presenter, promoting positive interdependence and accountability (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991) and providing opportunities to develop process skills.

You may have been puzzled by some of the edu-speak jargon so let me supplement this brief description:

  • The learning cycle concept posits a form of learning that is strongly reminiscent of the scientific method. Instead of assuming that perfect and complete understanding can be reached in a single step, learning cycle theorists claim that learning is naturally cyclical. We acquire information or experience, form ideas about this material, and then put our ideas into action. The cycle repeats itself as needed, that is, when the weight of new material and/or unproductive actions requires us to revise our ideas.
  • POGIL classroom activities can take many forms, but Chem 201 activities will all follow the same format: a written document composed of “models” alternating with “questions”. Each model is a combination of text (always short) and chemical drawings and/or observations that report the results of some scientific activity. The questions lead the students through three stages of exploration (“what information does the model contain?”), investigation (“what patterns or relationships can I find in the model data?”), and application (“can I generalize the patterns I’ve found by applying them to new situations, that is, to ones not contained in the original model?”). This sequence intentionally mimics the stages that working scientists pass through when confronted with new data. The combination of model + questions represents one learning cycle, and an activity will typically contain several learning cycles so that a deep understanding of the material is achieved.
  • The description refers to the instructor as a “facilitator”, but my role is more diverse than that. At various times I am a:
    • lecturer – I estimate that I spend roughly 20% of class time — especially at the opening and closing of each class — introducing, summarizing, and untangling ideas from the front of the classroom
    • author – Chem 201 relies on a large amount of written material. Aside from the textbook, I write, draw, and distribute learning activities, daily learning supplements, the pages on this web site, the 201 lab manual, exams & answer keys, and more
    • observer – part of my “facilitation” of POGIL instruction is to see what is working and what is not. As your team works on a learning activity, I position myself in the classroom to listen in, look over shoulders (when necessary), and study how things are going. Every new class is a learning experience for me too!
    • facilitator – the magic word. I don’t just observe. I also respond, guide, and help, your team deal with learning challenges so that you make forward progress. I am part of every team.
    • tutor-coach – I am available to all students for questions and additional help outside of class. PLEASE COME SEE ME.

The POGIL method is such a radical departure from the traditional top-down, “sage on the stage” lecture-listener method of teaching that students can find it a little unsettling at first. Here are answers to three frequent questions about POGIL.

  • Is POGIL a successful teaching method? The research is emphatic on this point. Yes, POGIL works. POGIL students learn the material at least as well, if not better, than they do in traditional classrooms. Students also become more proficient at working in groups.
  • Is POGIL a good match for Reed College Chem 201? Once again, yes. Without a doubt. The achievement level of 201 POGIL students has matched or exceeded (sometimes markedly exceeded) the achievements of 201 lecture-only students from previous years. Student feedback also indicates that the POGIL experience provides students with a better understanding of how to make group work more rewarding and more successful.
  • Do Reed students respond well to POGIL? Yes, but answers will vary across a semester. Reed profs are highly effective lecturers, and once a student becomes accustomed to their passive roles in lecture, they may come to view any other kind of college teaching with skepticism. The active learning we do in a POGIL class, by comparison, looks at first like the same kind of work a student might do on their own, so where’s the instruction? A cautious “wait and see” attitude towards POGIL is not unusual at the start of the semester. However, enthusiasm grows as the semester rolls along and students see how all of the parts — lecture, learning activities & supplements, textbook readings, and practice problems — fit together. In general, Reed students like to be in charge of their own learning, and they prefer to have their learning organized around discovery, social interaction, and frequent/immediate feedback and they often find that POGIL is a very good match for their learning style. It just takes a little getting used to.

I’m currently building a list of research articles that have investigated classrooms based on active + group learning:

  • [Baum, 2013] Baum, E. J. Coll. Sci. Teach. 42(6), 27 (2013). “Augmenting guided-inquiry learning with a blended classroom approach”
  • more to come…