Advisor teams up with DAE to offer chemistry study workshop

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Like most advisors, Anne Marie Vencill loves working with students. She cares about helping them succeed and empowering them to make decisions about their futures. When she began advising 360 science students in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences a year and a half ago, she noticed the struggles that her first-year students were having with introductory chemistry. After two semesters of advising students from her office in Memorial Hall, she decided to do something that might be considered a bit unorthodox—she became a chemistry student.

Last fall Vencill—an entomologist by training, with doctoral and master degrees from Viriginia Tech and a master’s in educational leadership from Marymount University—spent a half semester in a Chemistry 1211 course. Each day she sat and listened to the material in class. She observed the behavior of the students around her. She reviewed the course material in the eLearning Commons. Sitting in the class provided Vencill with the unique perspective of her students.

“I got to see what they see. I found that there’s so much to distract students in class today—phones, tablets, other students. There was a lot of movement and restless energy in the classes I sat in,” said Vencill. “I also have observed that most of these first-year students I advise come in with a basic chemistry course in high school and just aren’t prepared to handle college chemistry. So the question is then, how can we help them?”

From this experience was born her “Formula for Success,” a workshop for first-year students on how to study for chemistry. The workshop was modeled after a seminar at Louisiana State University for first-year students in science courses. Students attending the LSU seminar improved their course grades by a full letter grade. She wanted to see if she could have that kind of impact at UGA.

So Vencill partnered with Keith Allen, academic coordinator for retention and CARE in the Division of Academic Enhancement. This was a more targeted approach for Allen, who coordinates a series of Get Smart workshops each fall semester to help students across all majors transition into college through academic strategies designed to improve success in the classroom. Her concept tied in nicely with a workshop that Allen provided on teaching students how to learn, but this one was tailored to students in the CHEM 1211 classes.

Vencill and Allen offered the workshop in two different evening sessions, strategically planned after the first chemistry test of the semester and when students began to realize the need for help. The workshop content centered on Bloom’s Taxonomy and seven tips to help students succeed in chemistry.

The workshop had 120 students in attendance each night. By all accounts the sessions were successful, at least from the immediate feedback. Of the nearly 180 students who completed surveys at the end of the sessions, all but one indicated the workshop was helpful.

Other chemistry study workshops have been offered in previous years as part of the Blue Card program incentive in which students received credit for attending events and were awarded with early class registration. However, Allen doesn’t recall such a high attendance rate from the students as this workshop, particularly considering there was no inducement except for a desire of the students to improve their grades.

“Back then, even with the Blue Card program incentive, we could only get 75-80 students to attend,” said Allen. “Anne Marie’s strategy and success in taking this course, reaching out to students, and gathering real, tangible faculty buy-in for her content is incredible. This is a great win for the students and the faculty, and I greatly appreciate how she has gone out of her way to reach and support these students.”

The chemistry instructors agree Vencill’s workshops were helpful to their students. All four instructors put the PDF of the presentation in their classes’ eLC folders for all CHEM 1211 students to access.

“I love Anne’s commitment to help the students succeed,” said Martina Sumner, one of the CHEM 1211 instructors in whose class Vencill sat. “The workshop showed students ways to study more effectively. They can apply several of the techniques from the workshop to improve how they study and earn higher grades beyond chemistry. The impact is huge.”

Behind Vencill's desk hangs a periodic table of elements that she handcrafted into a quilt. The quilt is symbolic of her passion for science and art, each element carefully sized, planned and stitched into a larger pattern that creates something more spectacular as a whole. In essence, that’s what Vencill wants to help her students achieve—to look at each piece of their education with purpose, to stitch together their academic plan to work toward a career goal that fits their own interests and expectations.

“I want them to be successful, not just in chemistry, but in everything,” said Vencill. “Once they can figure out how to do that, they can do anything.”