It’s every professor’s dream to have a student learn a subject so well that he goes on to tutor his peers in it. To have him tutor so well that he publishes a study guide, though, is beyond imagination!

That’s exactly what Michael Rosen did in 2008 as a student tutor at the University of Delaware. We spoke with him about his experiences leading up to writing The Guide to Surviving Chemistry, Second Edition.

Michael, what motivated you to make the jump from stellar general chemistry student to general chemistry tutor?

As a student, I understood how frustrating it can be to not understand a subject. Some people can naturally follow along, while it takes others a lot more time to comprehend.

Students often have a difficult time admitting that they are having difficulty and actively seeking additional help. After quickly realizing my ability to understand the material and then explain it in a meaningful way to my peers, I wanted to help those who were struggling.

Can you tell us how you related to today’s students? Why is peer-to-peer learning so effective, in your opinion?

Peer-to-peer learning is an excellent way for students to learn. Not only does it give students a way to not feel intimidated or embarrassed to ask a question, but it also allows students to connect the dots amongst themselves. To a professor, certain subject matter may seem like common sense, but to students learning it for the first time it may not be that easy.

In my guide I take into account that my readers come from a variety of backgrounds and levels of understanding, which is why I always start at the very beginning. My goal is to bring every reader to the same starting line and then collectively bring everyone to the finish line without losing anyone along the way.

Here’s an example from the Guide:

“Think of chemistry as a soap opera. The ultimate goal of every element is to obtain 8 valence electrons. The noble gases… already have a stable octet of electrons. They are completely content and have no need to bother with any other. However, every single other element in the periodic table is not as fortunate and so is jealous. They’ll do anything in their power to become just like a noble gas.”

What are some common student learning struggles that you kept seeing happen over and over again?

The most common struggle that I have seen over and over again is students quickly giving up after not understanding something. Many students go into certain classes and immediately think that they are not going to understand anything, or think that they are not smart enough for the subject.

My goal is to give students the confidence that they need to be successful in class. The way that I accomplish this is by taking a very systematic approach to all subjects. I have developed analogies and mnemonic devices to make the material more enjoyable and easier to remember.

In the Guide, I use a mnemonic device to help students identify the names of functional groups in organic chemistry. When there are two acid groups in the same molecule, they should count how many carbons are in between two acid groups.

0 carbons = oxalic             Oh

1 carbon = malonic          My

2 carbons = succinic         Such

3 carbons = glutaric         Good

4 carbons = adipic            Apple

5 carbons = pimelic          Pie

Do you have any advice for instructors who struggle with engaging their students? What can instructors do to motivate their students to improve their class performance?

I think it’s important for professors to understand their audience. Few students have a strong background in all subjects, and not every student enrolls in a class because they absolutely want to be there. There are a lot of classes that students have to take to fill a graduation requirement, and it is the challenge of an instructor to pique their interest and demonstrate that the class has a lot more to offer.

What are your tips for success in Chemistry courses? How do you encourage peer-to-peer learning in your classes? Share your ideas in the comments.


Special offer for Engaging Minds readers and their students! Order The Guide to Surviving General Chemistry, Second Edition from and receive a 20% discount. Use offer code SAVECHEM when checking out. Offer good through December 31, 2015.