Arizona Board of Regents: Learner-Centered Education Course Redesign Initiative

Arizona State University

Course Title: General Chemistry
Redesign Coordinator: Janet Bond-Robinson

Project Abstract
Final Report (as of 6/1/09)

Project Abstract

The Tempe campus of Arizona State University (ASU) plans to redesign its general chemistry sequence, which enrolls ~ 2640 students each fall semester in 15 lecture sections of six different courses. The general chemistry sequence serves ~4500 students annually. The six courses differ primarily in the student populations served. They range from well-prepared chemistry majors; science, chemical engineering and pre-medicine majors; non-science majors; and, pre-professional nursing students. The sequence also meets ASU’s general education requirement for a lab science. The traditional format also includes a 24-student recitation for all students that is designed and managed by laboratory graduate teaching assistants (GTAs).

In the traditional courses, students do not spend the kind of continuous time on task that leads to long-term understanding. The lecture format does not provide sufficient active learning opportunities for students nor does it accommodate the diversity of learning styles and skill levels in the student population. The recitation sessions are not being used to their full capability because students are not fully engaged in problem-solving activities. Recitations tend to consist of Q&A sessions rather than structured activities that promote specific learning.

ASU will use the Supplemental Model in its redesign. Lecture activities will be modified to increase active learning and interaction among peers and instructors. The first hour of three hours of lab will be replaced with a guided problem-solving session led by two experienced GTAs with an interest in chemical education. This session will be held in a location specifically designed for innovative, group-oriented and high technology recitation activities, and GTAs will be specifically trained to conduct these activities. Completing weekly online homework and pre-laboratory assignments will increase students' understanding of chemistry. Online quizzes will help ensure students' active engagement in homework. Their progress can be monitored to offer prompt feedback on what they have and have not learned. Pre-testing students before they enroll in the course will determine their skill levels and deficiencies and will ensure that students are directed into the course most fitting to their level of preparation. It also will inform department decisions about course learning environments.

The redesign plan also includes creating a repository of materials for general chemistry courses for increased collaboration among ASU faculty members and campuses. Production and organization of shared resources among general chemistry faculty members will include online homework, classroom activities, recitation activities, and assessments.

The redesigned course will enhance the quality of learning by increasing student involvement in their learning, collaboration with peers and engagement with the course materials. Students will receive prompt feedback on their work in progress. Students' deeper understanding of chemistry will allow them to solve problems and apply what they know when it is relevant. It also will lead to greater success in subsequent chemistry and science courses. Student learning will be assessed using common final exams as well as pre- and post-assessments of content knowledge and cognitive variables such as logical thinking and learning styles.

The redesigned course will reduce instructional costs by replacing traditional recitation periods held in the first hour of labs (~24 students each) with guided problem-solving sessions of 66 students each led by two experienced GTAs. The number of GTAs will be decreased from 99 to 75 annually. The redesign will reduce the cost-per-student from $439 to $354, a reduction of ~ 19% and will result in an annual savings of $396,000. The savings are earmarked for further innovations and technology replacement in the general chemistry laboratory program. ASU-Tempe’s redesign plan will also be extended to the Downtown, Polytechnic and the West campuses.

Final Report (as of 6/1/09)

Impact on Students

Improved Retention

The redesign reduced the DFW rate four percent in the course for science majors in the first semester general chemistry course. The DFW rate did not change in the non-science-majors course. One explanation for this may be that the number of nursing and other allied health students in the course has dropped because of a new medical focus on the Downtown ASU campus. In addition, the other students are those enrolled simply to complete a lab-credit course; thus, their interest and motivation may be considerably lower.

Other Impacts on Students

Two valid and reliable surveys were given to students concerning their experiences with the recitation graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and with the recitation activities. Student attitudes have been overwhelming positive about the cooperative learning and the usefulness of the 50-minute session. They believe the GTAs gave them help and attention when needed. Overall, they believe that the redesigned format enabled them to learn in a way they preferred to learn rather than sitting passively as is often the case in lecture classes.

Impact on Cost Savings

  • The number of GTAs involved in the course was reduced from 99 to 75 annually.
  • The mix of personnel teaching the course also changed: 8.5 GTAs were replaced with five full-time instructors.
  • Together, these changes produced a savings of $411,575, a 20% reduction, which was slightly more than the projected 19% reduction.
  • There was also a considerable reduction in the use of space. The need for 74 recitation rooms for 24 students each was replaced by one newly designed room for 72 students devoted exclusively to general chemistry recitations. Previously the courses used 110 hours of recitation rooms.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

  • Cooperative learning. Cooperative learning in the recitation sections was efficient and useful since it was more engaging to discuss chemistry with peers than reading a text. Engagement is the essence of attention; therefore, it was important to increase involvement of students with each other over a common task.
  • Increased course consistency. Common 50-minute activities were implemented in each general chemistry course, improving the consistency and cohesiveness of the experiences that students enrolled in all lecture sections obtained.
  • Guided inquiry. The writing of the new activities in a guided-inquiry format helped students connect concepts and ideas. The first semester science-majors’ course also worked to provide more concrete understanding of highly conceptual ideas such as spectroscopy and limiting reagents in a chemical reaction.
  • Greater student engagement . The general chemistry courses are composed of over 150-200 students. The recitation format each week increased student involvement and decreased individual student anonymity. Both factors are important to engagement. Lack of anonymity encouraged individual progress.

Cost Savings Techniques

  • Reduction of GTAs. Reduction of GTAs was important and desirable. In the past, a shortage of chemistry graduate students had resulted in the department’s hiring outside graduate students to staff the general chemistry program. Since no one in the department knew the graduate students, this led to uncertainty in quality control.
  • Changes in the lab. Taking the recitation hour from the three-hour laboratory enabled cost-saving strategies concerning GTAs. Each laboratory GTA could teach four two-hour labs instead of two three-hour labs because the preparation load for the recitation hour was removed. In the cooperative learning environment, peer function was higher and the work for students was purposefully scripted. Consequently, only two recitation GTAs were needed to work with 72 students whereas the lab sections of 24 students required three. Thus two-thirds as many GTAs were necessary to take over the hour of the new recitation format.

Implementation Issues

  • Recitation classroom. Designing and constructing the room was very time-consuming. The team met weekly with the architect’s office and the project manager for eight months. The new cooperative classroom with 12 round tables for six students was completed by August 2008.
  • Recitation activities. Constructing the recitation activities was a major part of the design work. Nothing that was previously prepared fit the newly designed coordination of laboratory and lecture that the recitation session provided.


Sustainability is high because of the construction and monopoly of the new cooperative learning room for the general chemistry classes. The provost toured in April 2009 to see the team’s progress, and visitors from outside our department have been impressed with the function of this learning environment.



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