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

The University of Arizona

Course Title: General Chemistry
Redesign Coordinator: Vicente Talanquer

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

Project Abstract

The University of Arizona (UA) plans to redesign its General Chemistry course. Currently designed as a two-semester course sequence for science and engineering majors, the course introduces students to the fundamental principles of chemistry. The lecture and laboratory are currently run as separate courses. The lecture courses are pre/co-requisites for the laboratory courses. The overall annual enrollment is ~4000 students. The lecture courses meet hourly, three times a week in a large lecture hall for 300 students. They also include a one-hour discussion session, split into two sections taught by the course instructor. The labs are run by graduate teaching assistants (GTAs).

These courses, in their current format, have several major problems. The lecture and laboratory courses are offered sequentially and are weakly correlated. There is a lack of consistency among the different instructors and over-reliance on traditional lecturing. Valid and reliable assessment tools are not utilized. The discussion sessions are so over populated with students (~150) that they are often run as an additional lecture session where students passively receive information. Students who do not have the skills necessary to succeed in the course lack of appropriate support.

UA's redesign plan, using the Supplemental Model, restructures General Chemistry by combining the lecture and lab into a single course. The curriculum will be consistent across all sections, and the discussion sections will be integrated with the laboratory work. The redesigned course will include three hours of lecture and four hours of lab, incorporating the one-hour discussion session conducted by GTAs. Learner-centered educational modules will be created to involve students in collaborative group work activities during the lecture, laboratory, and discussion sessions. All homework, which will be completed and graded on-line, will use a common homework system. Common assessment tools, including common partial and final exams for all sections, will be implemented.

The redesigned course, with better alignment between all components, will improve both student success and the quality of their educational experience. A more integrated and coherent course will enhance students' understanding of fundamental ideas in chemistry. The smaller discussion sections will provide more individualized attention and support to students, opening avenues for active, inquiry-based learning. GTAs and undergraduate preceptors will run the discussions sections, enhancing the interactions of the instructors with the students. This will also make more efficient use of the GTA's time and will free up the instructor for two hours each week for other academic activities such as curriculum development and evaluation. The learner-centered modules will offer a high-quality educational experience to all students based on common and well-defined learning objectives and a well thought-out course sequence.

Valid and reliable assessment tools will be used to evaluate the course outcomes and provide formative feedback to both students and instructors. Student learning will be assessed by comparing current and past student performance on standardized final course assessments (American Chemical Society standardized tests). Additional assessment plans include: systematic observations of classroom and lab implementations of the curriculum materials; analysis of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments completed by students; small student focus groups to evaluate their reactions to the modules; and pre- and post-attitude surveys.

Four faculty and eight lecturers supported by 85 GTAs teach the traditional course at a cost of $188 per student. The redesigned course will be staffed with four faculty, six lecturers and 85 GTAs at a cost of $171 per student. These changes result in a cost-per-student reduction of 13% and a projected savings of ~$100,000 per year. The savings will remain within the department and will be used to improve chemistry education throughout all levels.

Final Report (as of 6/1/09)

Impact on Students

Improved Learning

The impact of the project on student learning was measured by using the results from the common standardized American Chemistry Society final exams that all students have to complete in each of the two semesters of the general chemistry program. The same exams have been used in the general chemistry courses for the past three years.

Students in the redesigned courses performed significantly better (p<0.05) than their counterparts in previous years. The average final exam grade in the two semesters that the redesigned first-semester course has been offered was 59.3 ± 15.1% compared to an average of 54.0 ± 16.3% in the two previous years.

Comparison of the results of a diagnostic pre-test applied at the beginning of every semester indicated that the entering students were not significantly different in terms of background knowledge (average grades of 43.8 ± 14.8% for students in the redesigned courses in 2008 versus 46.7 ± 17.7% in the previous year traditional course.)

Similar results were obtained for the second course in the general chemistry sequence. The average final exam grade in the one semester that the redesigned course has been offered was 49.9 ± 11.6% compared to an average of 45.2 ± 7.69% in the equivalent off-sequence semesters in the two previous years.

Improved Retention

Comparison of the final grade distribution of the traditional and the redesigned courses also showed a significant improvement in student performance. In general, the average grade for students who passed the course increased from 67.1% to 70.7% in the first semester, and from 64.4% to 68.1% in the second semester.

In the past two years, 11.4% of the students enrolled in the first semester of general chemistry failed the course. This percentage dropped to an average of 6.5% in the two semesters that the redesigned course has been offered. Similar trends were observed for the second course in the series (a drop from 14.4% to 4.8%.)

The data also indicated that the redesign had a moderate impact on the number of students that withdrew from the general chemistry courses. The percentage of students that withdrew from the first course dropped from 6.49% to 4.96%. In the second course, the change was from 8.86% to 6.31%.

Other Impacts on Students

The project created opportunities for students to work more collaboratively in the classroom and in the laboratory. Instructors observed increased student attendance and participation. Students’ comments suggested that they enjoyed the interactive lectures and the alignment between lecture topics and laboratory experiments.

Impact on Cost Savings

As anticipated, major cost savings were associated with the reduction in the number of course planning and student contact hours for faculty and lecturers. The project allowed project participants to generate a common set of lecture and lab presentations and activities that all of the instructors used. Planning time has thus been reduced considerably. Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) are now responsible for teaching the discussion sessions for the courses, which have been integrated into the laboratory time. Thanks to these cost savings, the department of chemistry has been able to sustain, and even increase, the average enrollment in the general chemistry courses despite the major budget cuts that have been suffered in the past three years.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

  • In-class collaborative activities. In-classroom collaborative group activities were created/adapted and incorporated into the common weekly lecture and laboratory notes for both courses. Students worked in pairs or small groups during these activities and presented their ideas to their classmates as part of whole-class discussions.
  • Online simulations. A variety of online interactive simulations were made available to instructors and students to facilitate in-class activities and discussions, as well as to enrich homework assignments. Some instructors asked students to bring their laptops to the classroom and had them working in pairs exploring different phenomena.
  • Redesigned lab activities. Laboratory activities were modified to create more opportunities for students to pose their own research questions, design experiments to solve a problem, and reflect on the validity of their claims based on the experimental evidence that they collected.
  • Common midterms and final exams. Common midterm and final exams were developed and implemented based on a common set of learning objectives for both courses. This helped decrease the wide variability in the depth and extent of the material covered in different sections of the same course.

Cost Savings Techniques

  • Reduction in faculty contact hours. All discussion sessions were integrated into the laboratory setting and were managed by GTAs. This reduced the total number of student contact hours for faculty and lecturers.
  • Coordinated planning. A common set of weekly lecture and laboratory notes were developed that all instructors and GTAs used. This reduced the planning time that instructors needed to invest in the course.
  • Coordinated exam development. Common midterm and final exams with a multiple choice component were developed and implemented. This has reduced the amount of instructor, staff and GTA time and support needed to prepare, implement and grade exams.

Implementation Issues

  • Team work. The development and implementation of the project helped solidify a core group of instructors interested and responsible for the enhancement, supervision and evaluation of the general chemistry curriculum. Team work highlighted the importance of having regular meetings to discuss different ideas and points of view about how to best teach the different topics.
  • Training. As the project moved from pilot to full implementation, the development team faced challenges in how to train and better support the work of new instructors and GTAs who were not involved in the development of the project. The team recognized the importance of assigning course leaders who could help support the work of everyone involved.
  • GTA challenges. One of the major lessons learned during the implementation of the project was the central role that GTAs play in the implementation and success of the new model. Although most of the GTAs expressed very positive opinions about the redesigned courses and the support they received to implement the new activities, it is clear that some of them struggled to implement the learner-centered teaching strategies that the new format demands. This has led the team to propose modifications to the formal training that these laboratory instructors receive during the summer and the academic year to ensure that they can more effectively implement learner-centered activities in the laboratory. Observations of student work in the laboratory suggested that the seamless integration of experimental work and discussion sessions was a challenge for most GTAs. The team is currently discussing and exploring different options to solve this problem.


The department of chemistry at the University of Arizona fully supports the changes that were implemented and is committed to provide the resources needed to sustain the project. At this moment, all of the general chemistry courses offered by the department are being taught following the new format.



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