Friday, October 5, 2012

Visual-Spatial Vs Auditory-Sequential Learning in Organic Chemistry

Organic Chemistry is a visual-spatial scientific discipline requiring an educational approach unique in comparison to other sciences.

Those who teach in primary or secondary schools obtain degrees in a variety of subjects. With many schools, one need only take two college level courses to be certified proficient in the subject at the high school level. Career non-university teachers must take course work beyond the baccalaureate level, including education, in order to obtain their teaching credential. Quite ironically, professors at Universities are not required to take a single course in education to teach the subject most related to their Ph.D.

Some professors are natural educators, while others must work at it. Some natural educators work on becoming truly amazing educators via study of teaching methods and psychology of education. In principle, educational psychology is the study of how humans learn in educational settings. This necessarily involves the psychology of teaching, however extends to both cognitive and perceptual psychology, each of which is a separate sub-discipline, however one overlaps with the other. Cognitive psychology involves the study of thought processes, perception, memory, neuroscience and learning. How might exploration of a social science lead to becoming an extraordinary chemistry professor?

I've been a student of analytical psychology for more than ten years. Recently, my interests in psychology have shifted toward cognition and neuroscience. Most of my development as a teacher was not related to anything I did in the classroom, rather it had more to do with my experience as a tutor. The advantage I have as a tutor is the one-on-one relationship with the student. Over the years, I was able to observe two primary modes of learning endemic to every student. This fostered my interest in cognitive and perceptual psychology, and the understanding of these modes has helped me grow as an educator.

The concepts of auditory-sequential and visual spatial learning have been around for almost three decades. Auditory-sequential learners are those who (1) think primarily in words; (2) learn sequentially by progressing from easy to difficult material; (3) can easily focus on details; (4) excel at memorization; (5) feel most comfortable with one "right answer"; (6) are analytical thinkers; and (7) excel at algebra and general chemistry. They are left-brain dominant, making excellent accountants, bankers, engineers, lawyers, mathematicians, physicians, and scientists. Linear-sequential teaching and thinking are the standard in American education.

Visual-spatial learners, on the other hand, are those who (1) think primarily in multi-dimensional images; (2) learn holistically, mastering complex skills easily however struggle with simple skills; (3) see the "big picture" at the expense of details; (4) excel at seeing relationships; (5) generate unusual solutions to complex problems; (6) are good synthesizers; and (7) excel at geometry and physics. They are right-brain dominant, making excellent artists, builders, creators, inventors, musicians, writers and visionaries. A visual-spatial approach toward learning science has yet to be adopted on a statistically significant scale to determine effectiveness over the auditory-sequential mode.

Both auditory-sequential and visual-spatial learners have fundamental strengths making them unique. Some visual-spatial learners also excel at auditory-sequential processing, i.e. they can utilize both sides of their brain equally well. The caveat here is the potential for "paralysis" when both sides of the brain are struggling to solve a particular problem in their native mode. Interestingly, I've found that Organic Chemistry is best learned and understood by left- and right-brain balanced people - these are the ones with logical and analytical reasoning skills who can learn the science as a language in terms of imagery, not words. They can also reason using images. I'm indeed fortunate to fall into this last category, and am thus able to use strengths from both learning modes to reach my students, especially when the shift is from memorizing functional groups to understanding reaction mechanisms.

    Auditory-sequential learners... think primarily in words... can easily focus on details... [and] feel most comfortable with one "right answer," [whereas] visual spatial learners... learn holistically... see the "big picture"... [and] generate unusual solutions to complex problems.

Part of being an effective teacher or tutor is recognizing the primary mode of learning in the student, and then focusing the lessons to suit their needs. Visual-spatial learners have different needs than auditory-sequential learners, and hence a different approach is needed, especially in the sciences. No science professor knew this more than Prof. James H. Mathewson, a University of California - Berkeley Ph.D. who taught at San Diego State University from 1964-1992. His monumental publication, "Visual-Spatial Thinking: An Aspect of Science Overlooked by Educators," contains far more detail than is practical here. The reference is Mathewson... Science Education, Vol. 83, No. 1. (1999), pp. 33-54.

Aside from depth of knowledge in his/her field, along with a natural propensity for interpersonal dynamics, an amazing science teacher is one who is cognizant of modern trends in educational psychology, and who is adaptive and flexible in his/her teaching style. S/he can deliver a presentation to reach both auditory-sequential and visual-spatial learners. An amazing science teacher takes "time to grow," and always perseveres to become better and better.

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