John P. Walters

Department of Chemistry

St. Olaf College

Northfield, MN 55057-1098


The following essay is an editorial contribution to the Newsletter of the Analytical Division

of the American Chemical Society, first published in Spring, 1992 Issue.


While there may not be one central issue in the education of analytical chemists, there clearly are issues that are central in the sense of having strong reverberations if addressed first. That is what I want to discuss here. The central issue that I have been working on for most of my academic career is "the transfer of learned knowledge between learning contexts (or situations)", or what I have called "the ownership issue".

My premise here is that one of the biggest problems I have seen in working with young people in analytical chemistry classes over the past 38 years is their consistent compartmentalization of what they experience in class and lab situations, followed by the almost universal abandonment of the compartmentalized material once the need to use it in judgment based situations has passed.

It is, in effect, as if what has happened to them in class and lab has not really been theirs at all, but actually belonged to someone else. Perhaps they have been allowed to see this material, as in the lecture, or even use it, as in the lab, but they have not been able to actually own it. It came from someone else, it did not reflect they way they think and feel, and once they had shown that they could return it, as in an exam, they left it behind for its original owner to do with whatever she or he wanted.

As a result of this, a student will perform well on one experiment, or one exam, or even in one course, but not carry the expected foundation principles and techniques into the next experiment, or the next exam, or the next course. I have actually seen this kind of strong compartmentalization occur from hour to hour within a single afternoon's lab session! A measurement, say of a buffer pH, made at the start of a lab period (done under well intended detailed directions) would be "forgotten" when needed for use in standardizing an electrode later in the lab. Not only was the number forgotten, but so was the fact that this was why the measurement was made in the first place!

The people I remember to have suffered most acutely from this "ownership effect" were not, by conventional standards, dumb or dull. Although they may have occasionally appeared sluggish in lab situations, they quickly became bright and animated when asked political questions, when they discussed their last hockey game, or when they talked about each other. In these cases, they clearly had been involved in process oriented situations in which they had exerted enough of their individuality to have established a degree of personal ownership. The ownership was apparently strong enough to carry over into completely different aspects of their daily living.

One only had to be active in undergraduate teaching during the late 60's (and being at the University of Wisconsin certainly helped here) to see the degree that participation of "trashing" or other intense political demonstrations bonded students with fully owned individual experiences. And it was hard not to see how thoroughly these owned experiences carried over into their lives, even 35 years later to this present day. Witness for example the popularity of 60's music, some 60's causes, and movies such as "The Big Chill".

What is it that makes for ownership of a situation or event, educationally constructed or not? I suspect that the biggest factor is a person being able to somehow be consequential in shaping the impact of the event or situation on others. I don't think the consequentiality has to be large. I suggest it just need to be clearly identifiable, or traceable, to the person, the way they felt, the way they thought, and especially the way they operated (their mind set) at the time they were involved in the event. I suspect the consequentiality of their actions has to be for or on others though to make the event "owned" in the sense of carryover into different contexts. A private or isolated action, with little feedback as to impact, probably won't do this.

If this is the case, we, as teachers, can do a great deal to increase the ownership our students have when in our classes and laboratories. The lab is an especially fertile area for this. Clearly, basic training experiments are needed. Still, even with basic experiments as structured as the "calibration (or certification) of volumetric glassware" enough flexibility can be built into the lab situation that a person doing the work could see their individual consequentiality on others.

Leading a group into a plan of action, and being responsible for that plan, is a great way to circumvent the dullness of even basic motor skill tasks. That plan of action could include larger interactions over the class, such as round robin testing of the results, comparative evaluation of different statistical evaluative tests, developing different graphical methods of displaying class results, and cooperatively exploring the effects of temperature and pressure corrections. The people doing this leading have the opportunity at any time in the work to make some individual decision that could lead to a mistake, as well as a success, and are thus alert accordingly. These few things first come to mind as ways a person could own and carry away even the beginning, technique based experience of "calibrating" glassware. But, if all the bases have been covered with well meaning, but exhaustively bounded, action directives, then the ownership will certainly remain with the person who structured the experience, and not with the person who just tracked the true owner through the steps. The retention of the two kinds of experiences, and of the facts associated with them, would probably be very different.

Perhaps as you think back over your own personal experiences when learning analytical chemistry you can find a moment or two that you owned, and that was strong or unique enough to lead you into the discipline as a profession? In my case this occurred as a sophomore at Purdue University in 1958 when taking the first semester of quantitative analysis with M. G. Mellon as my teacher. The lab experiment that comes to mind was the analysis of a whole rock (right down to the HF sample dissolution in a platinum crucible). I particularly remember the three other people on my lab bench who asked for my help in detecting end points, assembling a C02 absorption gas train, handling the R203 precipitates, and, especially, setting up the gravimetric factors in calculations.

The work in this lab was, by conventional standards, detailed and picky. But, by being able to share what I understood, and being allowed to have even small role- model interactions with others nearby in my lab, I left the experience convinced that only analytical chemistry was "worth the effort" of graduate study. All the other courses were "professional blood sports", designed to show who was best, or who could survive, on their own. But, analytical, and especially analytical lab, was "fun". Actually, it (the lab) was probably no one encapsulated thing at all, and I am sure it changed every semester from what I saw then. But, whatever it was in the abstract didn't matter to me. What did matter was that the experience was mine. I had mattered. I had made a difference. Other people had benefited from what I thought and did.

I suspect that most of us who teach have had a similar experience, and have followed a direction professionally according to what we have owned by being consequential. But, have we retained that ownership through control too long? Do we own and control the experiences of our own courses? Can our students take our courses and shape a piece of their own consequentiality in the lab, or the class, even if that shaping leads to actions that require our creative, unrehearsed, innovative guidance to prevent them from experiencing spontaneous disaster? Do we allow, if not encourage, failure through individual decision making, without punishments that lead to grudging acceptance, shame, or rejection? I suspect results will be mixed in candor here.

Probably the biggest fear I have had in designing for experiences that allow my students to be consequential outside my directives is of the paradox that says spontaneity leads to poor results. Actually, spontaneity and poor results are not necessarily related. Spontaneity, creativity, and even carelessness can lead to anything (witness "dumb luck"). Over the years, I have moved away from discussions and interactions that would force me to relate spontaneity with anything other than enthusiasm, and instead built my experiments and lab situations on "freedom within a mission". Good results occur sequentially throughout the semester, and even good students can get bad answers at the start. Such is the cost of doing business if the final result is to be more than just good results. The final result should also include a substantial portion of owned consequentiality, and a sense of personal pride in making good answers happen, for all involved. The pride my students should feel, if I have succeeded as their teacher, is both in getting good results and in not having let their "buddies" in class down. This is "fun".

Grades are not the problem. The answer to performance grading is too simple to believe. It is to base grades on "profit sharing" rather than a statistical curve. The better the class experiences, the better the individual ownership of those experiences. The more I teach others, the more I own, and the better my experiences, and the better everyone's grades. Thus, the averages will go up with an ownership that results from spontaneously teaching others what each person wants to learn. Then, all that is needed to cap this situation is for the teacher to assure that the better the average on an experiment, on a test, on any evaluative task, the better the grade associated with average performance.

If this happens, then it is possible to have any number of A's. If the people in the class have taught each other so effectively that the class averages have moved up into the A range, then there can be any number of people in that range. The statistical quota on A's has to go. But, if the students have isolated themselves, and have competed so well that the average is down in the low C's, then the few allowed A's will belong to those who can stay statistically far ahead of the average. Of course, those so distancing themselves may be so lonely and "competitive" that they choose to reject the whole experience as unpleasant and go into something else (as I did for the other areas of chemistry).

Chemists are a very clever and ingenious lot, most of whom enjoy digging into a tricky research situation that will give them a chance to tell others how the problem went. Let me close by suggesting that increasing the ownership of students' educational experiences is just such a valid, valuable, and tricky research situation. Approach this activity just as you would approach a research problem. Challenge the givens. Restructure the environment. Invent new techniques and approaches for achieving results. Strive for non-ambiguous results. And let your "staff" (the students) make some of the discoveries. As far as research goes, it is the most exciting I have found yet.