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Flipped Chemistry

August 23, 2016 Previous day Next day

[Originally published by John Osterhout on August 17, 2015]


I polled the students in my flipped General Chemistry II class to see what they found useful for their studies. At the beginning of the Spring 2015 semester, we made a list of things they could do to help themselves learn chemistry. At the end of the semester I asked them to rate the things that we discussed. Here are some of the results. This post is a follow up to my earlier post The Flipped Classroom: To Video or Not to Video.

My Flipped Class

After a class, I post a handout on Blackboard that contains the reading assignments and the learning objectives for the next class. The handout also contains a brief introduction (which few student read) and a list of vocabulary words. When I can find appropriate content, I provide links to videos. The videos that I have used include ChemTours (Norton), ThinkWell videos (Cengage) and Khan Academy videos (more about the videos later). Online homework covering the material in the reading assignment is due the night before each class. I assign on average about six problems, although the number varies depending upon the material. In class, the first exercise is a quiz that has five questions about the assigned material, two questions over the previous day's material and a bonus question that is extra credit. The students have been told that the first quiz question covers the first learning objective and so on down the list. The quizzes consist of the simplest possible questions that relate to the day's learning objectives. The role of the quiz is mostly to see if the students made any effort to internalize the learning objectives. The students work in groups of four for the quizzes and I observe that this engenders some lively discussions. After the quiz, I give the students a worksheet that contains more complicated problems. The worksheet is also done in groups of four. I spend the class time walking around the classroom helping the groups as requested. I post the answers to the quiz and worksheet questions on Blackboard. These became available a few minutes after the end of class. The next homework assignment contains problems from the previous class's material and from the new material for the next class. All of the sections of General Chemistry take group exams so the students are tested over the material on the same day using the same exam.

The Poll

Since there were no lectures or required video lectures, the emphasis was on the learning objectives. I tried to make it clear to the students in the beginning that it was up to them to figure out how to learn. At the beginning of the class, we listed off a set of resources that the student had at their disposal. The poll concerns which of these that the students used and which were useful. The question on the poll was: What did you do to help yourself? I asked them to rate each of the resources that we had discussed. There were five possible answers for each resource: A = Did not use, score = 0, B = Not useful, score = 1, C = A little useful, score = 2, D = Moderately useful, score = 3, and E = Most useful, score = 4. The average score = (0*A+1*B+2*C+3*D+4*E)/100. Forty-one students from my two sections of General Chemistry II took the poll. Not all of the students who were registered in the two classes took the poll.

The Answers




Use by Students (%)

Rank of 17

Worksheets & Keys




Daily Quizzes




Study with Other Students








Online Homework




Hard Copy Textbook








ACS Study Guide




Kahn Academy Videos




Evening Tutorial Sessions




Self-identified Videos




Office Hours




Tutoring Center




UC Davis Wiki




Thinkwell Videos




Online Textbook




Office Appointments





Notes on the resources: “Internet” was not further defined – it was meant as a catch-all for things internet but presumably not the tools named directly, such as Khan Academy Videos. The online homework was delivered the SmartWorks system from Norton. The textbook was Chemistry: The Science in Context, 4th Edition, Gilbert, Kirss, Foster, Daves, W. W. Norton & Compan, New York/London. The online textbook was delivered though the SmartWorks login. ChemTours were short (less than 10 minutes usually) animated tutorials on chemical topics assessed through the SmartWorks system. ThinkWell videos are longer, lecture-like videos from Cengage. Khan Academy videos were either assigned or found by the students. I gave two tutorial sessions per week for one hour from 5 pm to 6 pm on Monday and Wednesday and had four scheduled office hours 1-2 pm (before the chem labs) on Monday through Thursday. Office appointments were tutoring outside my regular office hours scheduled in advance by the students. The UC Davis ChemWiki was listed in the beginning as a resource. The Tutoring Center is run by Angelo State University, and ususally has a chemistry tutor present.

The Fate of Videos

In my previous post, I asked “Do the students need to have knowledge spoken to them in order to learn?” During the Spring semester the students could use four different types of videos: ThinkWell, ChemTours, Khan Academy and other, self-identified videos. The videos were far down in the rankings: ChemTours (7th), Khan academy (9th), Self-identified (11th), and ThinkWell (15th). There seems to be a correlation here with length: the ChemTours were the shortest, the Khan Academy generally longer and the ThinkWell videos were forty-five minutes plus, covered big chunks of content, and were made to replace classroom lectures, which they strongly resembled. In talking with colleagues, I find that they echo this result: students won't willingly watch long videos outside class. In the beginning of my flipping experiments, my students complained bitterly that I didn't lecture. When provided with lecture-like videos, they won't use them.


The Most Useful – The Top Six

  1. Worksheets and Keys. I posted the keys to the daily worksheets immediately after the class ended. The keys provided examples of five or six worked out problems per day for the students. Many students made notebooks of the keys, some simply corrected their own worksheets.
  2. Daily quizzes. The keys for these were posted along with those for the worksheets. These also provided sources of problems to study.
  3. Study with other students. I meant this to mean “out of class” study with other students but many may have construed this as “group work in class” as well. Next time I'll make the choices more explicit.
  4. Internet. Where would we be without the internet? I know from talking with the students that they used the internet to search for solutions for their online homework, for explanations of the learning objectives, and for clarification of the textbook.
  5. Online homework. Talking to the students, you would think that the online homework was the work of the devil. Then it winds up in the top five—go figure. I use the homework to trap the students into engaging the material before they have the quizzes and worksheets in class. If nothing else, they must do some kind of preparation in order to be able to do the homework problems.
  6. The hard-copy textbook. Most of the students bought a hard-copy book. They all had access to the ebook through their online homework system. I was pleased to see that the textbook scored as highly as it did. As time stumbles on, I feel that the students are becoming less capable of or at least less willing to use books as learning tool.


The Least Useful – The Bottom Five

  1. The tutoring center. I was surprised that the utilization of the tutoring center (44%) was as high as it was, but a utilization of 44% had the effect of lowering the score, since "did not use" = 0 score.
  2. The UC Davis Chem Wiki. The students had a hard time navigating the wiki. They couldn't find the appropriate information by searching the wiki and when they did, the answers were too involved or the nomenclature was too different from the textbook to be useful.
  3. ThinkWell videos. As a professor, I think these are great. The students, not so much. The knock on these videos is that they are too long (45 minutes plus). Why forgo lectures in a flipped classroom if you just have to sit through them outside class?
  4. Online textbook. About four students brought laptops to class and used the online textbook in class. The rest brought or shared a hard copy book. There were a few students who tried to use their cell phones to access their textbooks, which proved difficult since the screen is so small and since I outlaw cell phone use in class.
  5. The big loser, office appointments. Two students used office appointments regularly because my regular office hours conflicted with their classes. The others would mainly drift in before the exams for a quick tune-up. Note on office hours in general: only one male came to my office hours during the entire semester. This has been my experience over a number of years and seems to the be the experience of others as well. The ratio of women to men in my evening tutorials was about 6:1.


Moving Forward

I can correlate these data with the grades and with scores on the American Chemical Society final exams. I am sorting through the data now. I can tell you this: there is not a simple correlation between the number of resources used and the final grade. I will look at what the A and B students found useful and compare that to the student will lower grades. I'll let you know how it turns out.

[Originally published on August 13, 2015]

Most chemistry classes, including mine, rely heavily on in-class annotations. To do this, instructors need an annotation tool that integrates smoothly with the flow of class. Here is a brief review of several tools I've tried:


1. Drawboard PDF

This is my new favorite tool, and the one I'm planning to use this fall. It features a small pallet that minimizes when not in use (the pallet is the small hexagon in the image below). When you first open this app, it will ask you if you are using your finger or a stylus. It differentiates touch and stylus better than anything else I've seen. I can rest my palm on the screen without any stray marks, but still easily swipe to scroll to the next slide. The drawing is crisp - great for organic. Cost: $10


2. Journal Note Writer

I have several colleagues who build their slide decks in JNW, and use it exclusively. The color

pallet is easy to access, and the writing is smooth - with the occasional stray mark from the hand on the screen. A couple drawbacks I've encountered: I like doing my slides in PowerPoint, which means I'm transferring my files to .jnt format before class, then to .pdf if I want to make them available to my students afterward. Also, sometimes pictures/shading don't transfer well when printing to a .jnt file. ChemDraw used to be very problematic, although it seems less so now. If Drawboard doesn't work out, I'll go back to JNW.


3. PDF Annotator 

This program works pretty well, and I used it for several years. It prints from Powerpoint more cleanly than Journal Note Writer, and has an unobtrusive pallet that can be hidden to one side. The drawback is the price: In an era of free or inexpensive apps, this one costs $59.95.


4. PowerPoint 

Especially with the addition of Office Mix, PowerPoint has become much more versatile in the last couple of years. It's annotation used to be really clunky - it's smoother now, but I still inadvertently advance slides while trying to annotate about 20 times every class. I used PowerPoint last semester with my Intro Chem class, because the animation capabilities outweighted the hassle of the annotation features.


5. Bamboo Paper

I've taken a liking to this paper notebook app - It doesn't use PDF, but you can import images one at a time. The interface is pretty simple, it writes smoothly, and I believe it was free (or under $5).

[Originally published July 10, 2015]

Doug Schirch teaches chemistry at Goshen College in Indiana. Recently, he wrote to me:


I've been following your helpful website since about the beginning of the year, when I started flipping the second half our GOB course for nursing majors.

After only a couple weeks into the course I could see that this really worked better, especially for this course. That held true to the end of the semester when the students took the standardized ACS exam and responded to questions I asked them on their course evaluations. I then gave a presentation to the faculty at my college, which was well-received.

I've made a video-Power Point presentation of why I made the switch, what I did, and how it worked out for me. Perhaps this will be of help to others.

Doug's video (22 min) is available below:

Kevin Revell

Learning About Learning

Posted by Kevin Revell Aug 23, 2016

[Originally published by Cynthia LaBrake on Friday, September 19, 2014]


Over the years that my children were making their way through elementary school, I became the go-to science volunteer. Times were tough for the teachers as they were adapting to new science achievement testing. Many of my elementary school teacher friends were feeling the pain of not only having to beef up their own science content knowledge, but to also learning to teach science using active, inquiry methods. The days of opening the book and defining science vocabulary words were over!

At about the time my youngest son was attending kindergarten (2007), I began to think - “What do we do at my own institution to prepare elementary teachers to teach science?” I learned that our elementary teachers were herded through all the regular non-majors, large lecture courses and were required to take a total of 12 hours of science. They then had a “science methods” course their senior year. Those large lecture courses were very much using the telling is teaching model – I know because I taught the non-science majors chemistry sequence for 6 years.

As conventional wisdom will attest, those who raise a concern end up being tapped to solve the problem! I ended up co-leading an interdisciplinary group of science faculty to develop a new four-semester sequence of inquiry-based science courses for pre-service elementary teachers.

I had been teaching chemistry in the lecture format for over ten years. However, the process of learning how people learn science changed my own personal teaching philosophy. Telling people what I took years to figure out was not an acceptable way to facilitate the construction of solid science principles for future teachers. By working outside my comfort level with other science faculty, I had authentic learning experiences in physics and geology using constructivist, inquiry methods. As a result of this experience - I knew I couldn’t go back to my old "tell them and drill them" style of teaching. High teaching evaluations and a litany of teaching awards aside – I knew I wasn’t really advancing learning – I was just facilitating fact-gathering.

What does this have to do with the flipped classroom?

Fast-forward four years – the course transformation program was launched on our campus. Chemistry was selected as a “gate keeper course to be transformed” and I was asked by our chair to help transform our large-enrollment general chemistry course. The goal was to increase learning outcomes and reduce the Drop/Fail rates. I just had to share what I had learned about constructivist theory, active learning, process learning and all the other evidence-based teaching practices I had picked up during my sojourn into the course development of the pre-service elementary science curriculum.

I convinced my chemistry colleagues that student-centered active learning was the way to help uncover and disrupt misconceptions such that we could lay a solid foundation in chemical principles for all our STEM majors. The problem is that when you move to an active learning model – you have to give up some class time to let the students make mistakes and mess about with the activity to find their way to developing their own concept map. Our solution was to take some of the direct teach material and skill building training out of the face-to-face time of class and chunk and package it into learning modules delivered by a home grown homework service called Quest. Since we started this project, the university has changed learning management systems, and we are now delivering content outside of class via Canvas. Hence, we were able to free valuable class time for more engaging, thought-provoking, guided inquiry type activities.

Today I’m known on campus as the woman who flipped her class. When we started down this road, I didn’t even know what the word flipped meant! Rather, we were just trying to use widely available technology to enhance our student’s experience. I have since learned a lot about the subtleties of the different types of technology-enhanced teaching. I would refer to our class more as a blended learning environment than a flipped class. Regardless of what you call what we do, our focus is on creating a supported student centered learning environment - both inside and outside the traditional classroom.

[Originally written by David Collins on Friday, September 5, 2014]


Lecture format used to be the teaching standard. In fact, I became an educator because I loved to lecture! Like an artist/entertainer, I find great enjoyment formulating analogies, developing examples, and articulating concepts to a live audience. However, in the last 12 years, pedagogical research has forced me to question the lecture format, and technology has changed student-teacher interaction, assignments, course structure, textbooks, and dissemination of information. Teaching innovations are being introduced at an unprecedented rate. The days of teaching uniformity, as was created by lecture and paper, are likely over!

I am still not convinced any single teaching approach (new or old) is best, let alone best for everybody. Although I'm experimenting with in-class group work and the "flipped" classroom, I am not completely divorced from lecture. The more I talk with people, the more I realize most are developing their own composite style. There is wisdom in diversity and strength in flexibility.

Shifting to Flipped

For years I have prepared daily lectures with daily reading assignments and homework problems. Structure was provided by one PowerPoint file for each lecture day, forcing me to stay on task. In addition, this structure allowed an easy (but time consuming) transition to a "flipped" classroom. All "lectures" were already organized and prepared, I just needed to convert them into a "flipped" format. This new format allowed students to better review course content and come prepared to class, or so was the intent. Apparently, a daily reading assignment from the textbook with lecture PowerPoint files online are not enough to prepare the student for a chemistry class. The current YouTube-viewing generation does not want to read (as much as it hurts me to say), they want a video.

Last year I prepared 40-min videos of all my Quantitative Analysis lectures using my iPad and the Doceri app. I experimented with ShowMe, Explain Everything, Educreations, Vittle, and ScreenChomp; but nothing seemed to have the versatility offered by Doceri. Although the app was free, the price to remove the watermark ($5) and the software to interface with a computer ($30) made it a little expensive. The app allows for uploaded PowerPoint files as screen shots, saved and animated annotations, and recorded presentations before, or even during, class.

The most significant challenge I have had teaching Quantitative Analysis was finding classroom time for practice problems, and for the last 10 years, this has been the greatest student complaint. With pre-class lecture videos, classroom time was partitioned into 20 min of group discussion with submission of lecture questions using, 20 min of a short lecture (recorded in class using Doceri) specifically focusing on lecture questions, and 20 min of group practice problems different from homework. I was surprised to find the majority of students staying after class and continuing to work problems until lab started 15 min later.

Feedback and Improvements

About mid-semester, several students participated in a focus group sponsored by the university to evaluate the class. I quickly learned most students found 20 min of group discussion ineffective. Most requested more lecture and more in class practice. For the second half of the semester group discussion was limited to 10 min. I was encouraged by the format when the students scored the highest I have seen on the American Chemical Society final exam!

Shortly after preparing lecture videos for Quantitative Analysis, I prepared lab videos for general chemistry to help students prepare for lab. These videos included a "chalk talk", Excel instructions, and lab photos. This improved the students preparedness, slightly reduced the time students spent in lab, and allowed for more in-class time to review and work practice problems. A colleague recently adopted the same lab videos for general chemistry.

The most common objection to the Quantitative Analysis videos was their length. So I encouraged the students to watch the videos at 1.5x or 2x speed (a simple fix), and many were satisfied. However, when recently preparing lecture videos of all second-semester general chemistry PowerPoints, I decided to keep them to 20 min. This was accomplished by being more efficient with my script and having all of my annotations prepared ahead of time. These videos will be used for the first time fall 2014. Wish me the best!

I plan to continue experimenting with a blend of ideas. I will continue with the "flipped" format for a while, but I don't believe I will ever completely leave the lecture.

[Originally Published March 15th, 2014]

Last March, I took a few moments to collect my thoughts mid-semester.  As we head into a new semester, I offer these reflections from mid-spring:  I hope the insights offered will be beneficial to you:

March, 2014:  This semester, I’ve been flipping my Intro Chem course.  As we’ve just completed the midterm, I’d like to stop and look back down the mountain.  What’s worked?  What hasn’t?

Observation #1:  It’s a dumb idea to bring a camera crew the first week of class


I wrote about how video lessons lack the spontaneity and fun of being in a classroom full of students.  In order to fix this, I wanted to try filming my class, and then compare the live versus tablet-only presentation style.  So, I contacted the folks in the TV production department, who graciously agreed to film my class the first week.  This didn’t work well for a couple of reasons:  First, with my white Powerpoint projected onto the screen, the lighting was all wrong.  More importantly, I think the presence of two cameras in the first week of class created an intimidating environment.   I’m usually pretty good at helping students relax and speak up in class, but this dampened the tone of the class at the outset, and I’ve struggled the rest of the semester to get my class to engage.

Observation #2:  There and Back Again


Maybe because of the first week, or maybe other factors, but my biggest challenge this semester has been getting students to speak up in class.  Early in the semester, I used class time to work problems as a group, but the dynamic just wasn’t working.  Frustrated, I even tried going back to lecture.  The trouble is, if people are not going to speak up during recitation-style problem solving, they’re certainly not going to speak up during a lecture.  Ultimately, what seems to work best for this crew is to bring a set of problems, and have them work in small groups.   More people are comfortable asking for help in this environment, and students seem to be learning more from this structure.

Observation #3:  Don’t Spoonfeed - Challenge!  


In my Organic 2 Lab course this semester, I’ve built pre-lab videos followed by an online quiz - and the students are more engaged and prepared than I’ve ever seen before.   

With my Intro class, however, I didn’t build in pre-class quizzing - and I really wish I had.  Putting all of my lecture content online has been an incredible amount of work for me, and it’s disheartening when only a handful of students have even looked at the material before class.   And I think students are more passive if they know they can access the video content the night before the test.

Next time I teach this course, I plan to use our online homework system (Sapling Learning) to build pre-class quizzes for each flipped topic, so I can make sure students are watching the video content before class.  I already feel like the online homework is my best tool to challenge and engage students (I typically have 80-90% completion rates, even in Intro Chem).  If I can use these graded assignments to help students prepare before class, I think we can really raise the bar.


And you?

I’d love to hear from everyone in the comments section.  Have you run into these challenges?  What solutions have worked for you?  

[Originally published July 17, 2014]


As a chemistry professor, I am always energized when speaking with other professors about how they teach their classes.  What keeps students engaged?  What techniques and approaches help students perform better?  How can the classroom experience be more fun and rewarding for both the professor and the students?  There are a lot of good ideas out there.

This year, I’ve heard one topic over and over:  Flipped Classrooms.

A flipped classroom is one in which the traditional lectures are delivered outside of class (usually as videos), and the in-class time is reserved for discussion, exercises, and group learning activities.  High school teachers have been moving toward flipped classrooms for several years, and it seems to finally be spilling over into higher education.  It seems most of the professors who have flipped their classrooms absolutely love it.  They mention the jump in student engagement, about how much more interactive and enjoyable their classroom time is, and how much better their students are performing.

On the other hand, many professors (including me) find the process of flipping a classroom to be intimidating, and full of questions.  “How do I find or produce good online content?”  You may have seen some lessons posted on YouTube:  Sometimes I find an amazing video, but a lot of it is poorly done, not quite at the level I need for my course, or just weird.  Creating your own video content ensures that it fits your class better, but it is really time consuming.  And how do you make sure your students are watching the lessons beforehand?  Finally, and perhaps most terrifying:  You’ve taken your beautiful lectures, and put them online…but what do you do when class time comes?


Through this community, I hope we can begin to answer these questions, and share new ideas that will invigorate our teaching and enhance student learning.  We will feature interviews and first-hand accounts from other educators who are somewhere in the journey - from those who have flipped their classrooms to those just beginning the process.  We will also feature a “Tools and Resources” section where you can share content designed for the flipped classroom, and see how others approach the pre-class and in-class experience.  The community is is equally for you to share your ideas and resources, and to draw from others.  


This is going to be fun!

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