Chemistry 1 Gets Makeover

 If they had a reality makeover show for course redesign, Chemistry 1 at Missouri S&T might be on it. Starting in spring 2012, the gateway class, which serves more than 1,000 students per year, moved to a “buffet” model of instruction in contrast to the traditional lecture and recitation.

photographs by B.A.Rupert

Klaus Woelk, interim chair of the chemistry department, and Emma Satterfield, assistant teaching professor, principal re-designers of the new model, share their thoughts about the redesigned course.

Question: Chem 1 has already seen many innovations during the last few years, such as being the first course on campus to use clickers, and usage of online student discussion boards and homework. So if it’s not broken ... ?

Woelk: What was broken in Chem 1 was not the course but our faculty distribution, the teaching load. I currently have 19 chemistry faculty, and six of them were engaged in that single course. At the same time we were teaching 200- and 300-level courses in one class. It takes away the opportunity for seniors to take higher-level classes as an elective. So basically we were not able to teach our full curriculum. In the redesign, we will engage only two to three faculty and have the others available to teach the upper-level electives.

Question: Where did the idea to redesign the course come from?

Woelk: The initiative is from the governor of Missouri to have the 13, public, four-year institutions redesign large enrollment, multi-section courses. Provost Kent Wray came to me and asked if chemistry would be an appropriate course for this because it is the largest course on campus. By seeing that we could solve (the faculty) problem by redesigning it, I agreed. I am also convinced it will result in better learning. Then we wrote a proposal to NCAT (National Center for Academic Transformation) and it was accepted.

Here is a snapshot of how four students might experience the same content in Chem 1 in the redesigned course:

•        Chris will go to the face-to-face lecture only twice a week and attend a collaborative learning group with 23 other students in a two-hour block once a week.

•        Gina will “attend” the same lecture as Chris, but it will be from her laptop in her dorm room. She will participate in the lecture with computer keystrokes instead of clickers, and her polling data will be included with those in the face-to-face class. She also will attend the collaborative learning group so she gets face-to-face time with her classmates.

•        James opts for an entirely online experience. He will participate in the lecture identically to Gina from his laptop, but instead of the collaborative learning groups, he will complete online modules covering the same topics while being monitored by TAs on his progress.

•        Tyrone also likes the idea of the online modules instead of the collaborative group, but he chooses to be in the classroom for the twice weekly face-to-face lectures.



Question: Can you discuss the space and faculty saving that you are anticipating in the fall?

Woelk: In the fall (2012) we want to increase the section size from 200 to about 400. There’s no classroom for 400 students on this campus so, of those 400, half of them need to be somewhere else monitoring the lecture while it’s going on, and 200 can actually come to class face-to-face. By doubling the size, we don’t need four back-to-back lectures anymore conducted by four individual professors; in the fall semester we will only need two. And depending on how successful this concept runs, maybe further down the road we will only need one. This is where the saving of faculty that actually teach physically in the lecture comes into play. I would like to take those faculty and have them teach classes on the upper level for graduate education.

Question: Describe what the before and after are going to look once the redesign is in place.

Satterfield: Before the redesign the students had lecture three days a week and recitation one day a week, which typically tended to be another lecture. The redesign course will have two lectures a week and two hours of collaborative learning sessions a week – getting the students into groups to work together -- which will be more like the recitation was intended.

There is also another option for the students to do online, if they prefer to work on their own. They can go through the material on their own, in a sense, although they will still have deadlines. They won’t have the group interaction. They will still have the resources available, such as LEAD (Learning Enhancement Across Disciplines), and so on. It will be a more independent option.

Question: What outcomes do you hope to see at the end of the spring pilot?

Woelk: At the end of the pilot, we will not see an effect in saving faculty because of the lower enrollment and because it’s a pilot. But we certainly hope to see more effective learning on the side of the students, and we will hopefully see that students who engage online will have at least the same success as those that are actually in a face-to-face classroom.

Question: How will that be measured?

Woelk: Everyone involved in this class will have the same exams, the same homework, so the assessment tools will be the same for both. The final data we will collect to assess the redesign vs. the traditional part, will be the four exams and the final exam, which is comprehensive.

Question: Why do you believe there will be improved learning?

Woelk: I am convinced that this is a better way of teaching chemistry. I think the new model will be at least equivalent but most likely better than the old way. Just moving from three one-hour lectures to two, and having two hours of collaborative learning instead of one-hour recitation each week will be more effective. In addition, the students who are involved in the online modules will have the opportunity to form their own learning groups. We will guide them in forming study groups if they prefer. Some students may wish to work with these modules on their own; we will let them. It doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t care about these students.


Satterfield: We will be monitoring the students’ progress very closely to make sure they stay on task and are making progress. Working with the online modules doesn’t mean that students don’t have face-to-face contact with their instructors or TAs. There will still be LEAD centers almost every day, and we will extend our office hours. If students are struggling, we will actually request that they meet with us.

Question: What do you think will be the biggest challenges for the students taking the non-traditional aspects of the course?

Woelk: I say time management. Students are responsible for their learning. They’re given more freedom to work on their own time, and for some students that might be a challenge because -- I’d say it’s known -- that students tend to procrastinate and finish everything just a couple of hours before the deadline. While this is a challenge for the students to keep up and be responsible for their learning, it’s a challenge for us to continually remind them that they need to stay engaged.

Question: Will students be able to change from one format to another if they aren’t successful with their first choice?

Satterfield: If the students aren’t doing well they can choose to drop the course or switch sections, which is the opportunity to go to the traditional method (in the spring). In the fall they will have the option of online or face-to-face lecture, which they can switch sections if the space is available. It’s the same with the collaborative learning and online modules. If the space is available and it works with their schedule, they can switch sections at given times.

Woelk: This will only be at certain times only, because we want to avoid a continuous coming and going.

Question: Are there any major challenges that you anticipate?

Satterfield: I expect that tracking students is going to be more difficult. It’s going to require a little creative thinking and it’s going to put more responsibility on the TAs and them communicating with the students more.

Woelk: The online homework component gives instant feedback to the student and the instructor. So the time that was spent grading we now hopefully spend monitoring students’ results and the time they put in. I think if we do that right, we can actually improve our monitoring of the students’ performance because we have all these online tools. Every assignment that we give can be attached to certain learning outcomes and can be sorted according to them. You can then see if a student is good in memorization or knowledge or deeper thinking skills when you assign these learning outcomes appropriately.

Question: What do you see down the road – will this have an effect on other large enrollment classes on campus?

Woelk: The general initiative is that this model is tested at one university and then offered to others if the outcome is successful, so I expect that we will introduce this model to other universities, particularly within the state of Missouri, but also nationwide as a successful new method of teaching large, entry-level science classes. It’s not limited to chemistry. We have already been invited a couple times to report on it.

I have a couple of other instructors who are actually closely monitoring our progress. I have talked to some who are interested in particularly the buffet style that we offer, ranging from engineering management to physics to mathematics. I think being open to options is always good, and I like that I have discussions with instructors who are actually interested in improving the teaching and education just as much as I am. We can certainly learn from each other. There are other courses on campus, basic science courses, where just as many instructors are involved (as in Chem 1). If this really leads to a saving in faculty power that we have to put in these large courses, I’m sure that other departments will be interested.