head and shoulders photo of sheryl wiskur

Chemistry professor strives for understanding over memorizing

Sheryl Wiskur is a 2022 Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award winner

Sheryl Wiskur knows how hard organic chemistry is. She has been teaching at the University of South Carolina for 15 years. But more importantly, she struggled with it herself as an undergraduate.

“I can relate when my students are struggling and I can share with them how I turned it around,” says Wiskur, a 2022 Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award winner.

How she turned it around was learning how to study, comparing the process to learning a sport. You can’t just read about a sport all week then expect to perform on gameday — you have to practice.

“Organic chemistry is a hard class. It's a lot of information, and the students need to understand the concepts, not memorize it,” Wiskur says. “The key is learning how to study and how to apply concepts to problems they have never seen before. If I teach them these two concepts, I feel like I have given them tools they can use throughout their lives.” 

Wiskur knows that most of her students will not follow in her footsteps and become organic chemistry professors — many are satisfying a requirement for medical school — so she uses non-chemistry examples to explain some concepts and some real-world applications of others.

I can relate when my students are struggling and I can share with them how I turned it around.

Sheryl Wiskur

So she might use the example of Velcro to explain how similar molecules react differently based on their structure or tell how a chemical weapon inspired a chemical cure.

“I try to relate it into something that is relevant to today,” she says. “So I tell them a story about how the reaction they just learned about was used as mustard gas and it was the inspiration for chemotherapy. And then, I'll show them how that works.”

Wiskur also recommends her students take advantage of the university’s Supplemental Instruction program, which she and other chemistry professors helped expand to include organic chemistry.

“When I was really struggling in organic chemistry, the strategy that truly helped me to get a handle on the material was going to tutoring sessions run by students who had recently mastered the class,” Wiskur says.

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