INTRODUCTION: I teach general chemistry at a community college. Most science and engineering majors take the course in their first semester and need to earn a high grade to gain admittance to a four-year school in their major. Nonetheless, the success rate in this course remains very low, with an attrition rate between 30-50%.

One of the reasons that many of these students are unsuccessful is their beliefs about learning. Many believe that learning is a passive process, that learning is a solitary activity, and that if they are smart they won’t need help. They also greatly underestimate the time they need to devote to studying in order to be successful. Experience is a slow teacher, and by the time they realize these beliefs are inaccurate, most have gotten too far behind and drop out. In the past I have attempted to address these beliefs head on. I’ve spent a lot of the first class lecturing students on what it takes to be successful in chemistry. I even designed a handout that clearly explains how to be successful in the course. As you might guess, my lecture and handout were largely ignored.

Last semester, I decided to try a first-day activity that I hoped would catch students’ attention, foster interdependence, and make them aware of the active nature of learning.

This activity can be used in any course. It can be done in as few as 20 minutes, but can be extended depending on the depth of discussion you choose to facilitate.


*To create an attention-getting first-day experience
*To help students become aware of the active nature of learning
*To foster interdependence between and among students


*Four-foot length of string or yarn, ends tied to create a loop, one per student
*Instructions for Witch’s Broom, one per student (appended below in Support Documents)
*Two questions for student reflection written on board (see directions below)

Note: You will need to be able to demonstrate this activity for students, so be sure to practice in advance.


1. Distribute a loop and written instructions to each student. Tell students, “This is an individual activity and you may not to talk to others.” Give them 2 minutes to follow the written directions.
2. Call time and ask successful students to hold up their completed Witch’s Broom. There will likely not be many.
3. Ask students, “Would you like to talk with someone to try to figure it out?” Most will be relieved. Tell them they have 2 more minutes to try to figure it out with a partner.
4. Once again, ask student to hold up their completed Witch’s Broom. There will likely be more successful students this time.
5. Ask remaining students, “What do you need to be successful?” Many will ask you to demonstrate.
6. Demonstrate the procedure several times very slowly and carefully. This should take only a minute or two.
7. Give students one minute to complete the broom. Many more will be successful, but perhaps not all.
8. Write the following two questions on the board and have students write answers:
*What did you learn during this activity?
*How does this activity relate to learning [your subject]? [3 minutes] 9. Lead a class discussion and help students build an analogy between the Witch’s Broom activity and learning the subject of your course. Possible questions include:
*What written directions do you have for this course (e.g., the textbook)?
*Were you more successful when you worked alone or when you talked to someone?
*Were you more successful after you watched my demonstration? Was this sufficient to master the skill? [This is like coming to class and seeing me do problems on the board…] *If you were unsuccessful, what more could you have done?
*What would you need to do between now and the next class if you are going to be quizzed on witch’s broom? What is this analogous to? [Doing practice problems] *Do you think you would have been able to make the witch’s broom if you missed class and had only the written instructions?
*Why were some people more successful than others? [10-30 minutes]


I used Witch’s Broom as the opening activity in two sections of my general chemistry class, right after introducing myself and welcoming students to the course. The class was eerily quiet as I handed out the instructions and the strings. At first students looked puzzled as they contemplated the strings, but soon they began to read the instructions. Very few were successful in the first two-minute time period (perhaps 10 of 80 students). Many looked flummoxed and slightly annoyed. Normally I would not intentionally annoy my students, but I think it was a good alert for them that this class was going to require something of them that they weren’t necessarily expecting.

When I told them they could to talk to a neighbor, an audible sigh of relief swept through the class and the volume of chatter immediately increased. Several students starting asking me to show them how to make the witch’s broom, and I told them I would.

Later, when I slowly and repeatedly demonstrated the activity, I heard scatted sounds of “aha.” It seems many of the students had difficulty following the direction about twisting the string in the second step, but once they saw it, they got it. As I did demonstrations, some students who were unsuccessful continued to ask others for help. When I concluded the exercise, about 70 out the 80 students were successful.

During the subsequent discussion, students fell back into more typical stances, waiting for me to tell them the answers—perhaps because I had resumed my traditional role. With some patience and persistence, I was able to draw out from the students that talking to other students is very helpful, that practicing the skill they are learning is essential, and that missing class will leave them dazed and confused. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that because of my enthusiasm I did lapse into “telling” mode more than I would have liked and I am contemplating a slight redesign. All told I spent 25 minutes on this activity.


I did this activity in two different sections of my chemistry course, and the lessons each class reported learning that first day were similar. Both sections reported that the activity taught them that there are multiple ways to learn and that hands-on practice is necessary for success. I explained that practicing in chemistry requires solving lots of problems and working on the problems until they are confident they know the skill. In both sections, the responses were about what I anticipated, with the exception of one student who related the strings of the Witch’s Broom to atoms.

Two weeks later, I asked students to write about what they had learned from this activity. The most common lesson learned was the importance of reading directions carefully, and following them exactly (over 50% of students included this in their response). The frequency and intensity of this answer (there were numerous exclamation points in their responses) caught me off guard. Although it was not one of my intended outcomes, following directions certainly is one of the required skills for success in chemistry, especially in the laboratory.

The next most commonly reported lessons were what I was hoping for. About 25% of the students reported at least one of the following:

*Working with others helps learning
*People have different ways of learning
*Practice leads to success

Beyond those responses, many students also gave personal responses such as “I need to be more patient,” “I need to not allow frustration to get in the way of my success” and “I learn better by listening than by reading directions.” All of these seemed to be powerful self-realizations that could potentially help the students become successful in my course if they choose to act upon them.

One of my favorite responses captures the essence of what this experience meant to many students: “Though it threw me off at first, I found that string exercise we did on the first day of class really opened my eyes on quite a few things. One thing I learned from the experience was to follow directions and pay attention to detail. If you did not follow each direction step-by-step and pay attention to all the details, there was no way you were going to end up making witch’s broom. Another lesson I learned from this exercise was that it never hurts to ask someone for help if you need it. I got the witch’s broom the second time by myself, but I was asked for help on how to do it from a classmate. [As a] … result, I saw that without asking for help, my classmate would have been behind everyone else had they not had that more visual demonstration.”

On its own this exercise is insufficient to convince students to become active learners. However it functioned as an effective introduction to many of the learner-centered techniques I later employed. Working in groups became the norm. I taught several topics without lecturing at all, but rather by providing students with structured handouts to work through in groups while I acted as a roving resource. In the past students have viewed these lessons as my failure to teach, but this semester students participated actively without comment or revolt.


Beginning class by having students become active learners right from the beginning brought me joy. I was getting really bored with a first-day syllabus review. For a long time I’d felt that all that time I spent talking and the students sat listening was not what I thought good teaching was; but I was unsure how to avoid it. This activity was a fun way to begin the course in a much more active way.

I also liked that many of the students who were successful first were female students who in my experience often come into chemistry with much less confidence than their male counterparts. Many of the more confident students—those sure they are smart enough to sit passively in class and learn everything—looked slightly shaken, which was exactly my intent. Thus, I was pleased that the activity simultaneously helped some nervous students believe they could be successful, while alerting the overly confident that there might be more to the course than they were expecting.

I also learned that it is very difficult for me not to lapse into telling students what they need to know to be successful.

SOURCE: I adapted the directions for Witch’s Broom from Anne Akers Johnson’ book “Cat’s Cradle: A Book of String Figures” published by Klutz, a specialty kids publisher. I chose Witch’s Broom because the directions are fairly short and not too involved.

SUPPORT DOCUMENTS: Instructions for Witch’s Broom

1. Start with the string running across both palms, but behind your pinkies and thumbs.
2. Reach across with the first finger of your right hand and hook it under the string that runs across your left palm. Don’t pull your hands all the way apart yet.
3. Twist the new loop twice by twirling your first finger around twice…
4. … then pull your hands apart
5. The next step is to reach across with your left first finger and catch the string that runs across your right palm. The trick is to reach through the loop you’ve just twisted to pick up the string.
6. Pull your hands apart again.
7. Drop the loops from the thumb and pinkie of your right hand and pull your hands apart so the strings are tight. There’s the Witch’s Broom.

–Kirsten Casey, Faculty, Chemistry, Anne Arundel Community College, MD

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