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Flipped Chemistry

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Dan Esterline

Flipping Fridays

Posted by Dan Esterline May 14, 2018

After reading about flipped classrooms and attending an NSF-sponsored cCWCS workshop (Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops & Communities of Scholars) June 20-23 2016, I decided to try out flipping my organic chemistry lecture. My class meets for lecture every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for 50 minutes. I decided to try out flipping my organic class on Fridays only as an experiment during the fall semester of 2016.


First I had to become comfortable with recording my lectures. After investigating several software programs, I settled on the use of Debut Video Capture. Several other software programs were just as good, but Debut was simple to use and easily recorded my computer screen and my voice very well. An additional incentive was a free 3-month trial followed by a one-time fee of $19.99 for use of the software. I’ve used this software for two years now and find no reason to switch. I show PowerPoint slides on half of the screen and Paint software on the other side. With the Paint software, I can draw anything necessary, or I can pre-copy and paste items before recording. These recorded lectures are posted a week in advance by downloading them onto YouTube and providing the URL to my students. Sometimes I either collect a copy of their notes or quiz them to provide incentive for watching the online videos.

During class on Fridays, we work on problems related to the online lecture. I have introduced a variety of activities into Fridays including worksheets, mini-quizzes, Kahoot online quizzes, old exam reviews, individual problems that they answer and explain on the whiteboard, etc... 

One of my favorite activities involves predicting pka values. I bring in individual slips of paper with one organic structure on each. Students are given a slip of paper with an organic acid or base, then they have to compare to their neighbor’s structure and rank them based on relative acidity. Then each group of two students compared their ranking to another group of two students. We then have time to review the results and talk about inherent problems with predicting relative pka values.


Friday lectures are now fun! They are energetic, real active learning takes place, students sharing their ideas is the focus, not the professor. I can use Friday’s for pre- and post-exam reviews, for class-cancellation make-ups, for a more detailed review of complex topics, etc...  I sometimes bring in a bag of cheap gifts for students to compete for. I truly believe I am a better teacher because of the flipped classroom concept.

John Osterhout

Hello Class

Posted by John Osterhout May 3, 2018

It's fall. It's Monday morning. The semester is fresh. The sleepy faces in front of you are staring up with trepidation, with hope, or with quiet expectancy. For most of them it is their very first college class. Guess what? It's flipped. What do you tell them?


Hello class. Welcome to <name of class here>. I am <your name here> and I am your instructor for the semester.

We will be using a flipped classroom. This means that I will not be lecturing. You will be introduced to the material by reading assignments and on line homework. In class, we will have quizzes and do worksheets in groups.


Before we get into specifics, I suppose you are wondering why I am doing the class this way. The short answer is because it works. Studies have shown that students, you, learn better by doing worksheets and talking about the material than by listening to me sing and dance at the front of the class. My own experience is that my sections, the flipped sections, usually do better on the exams and alway do better on the comprehensive final exam than the sections where the professors lecture.


Why does flipping work? Spending time working problems and talking about it with other students helps you learn better than me telling you a bunch of stuff and letting you figure out how to work the problems on your own.

Also, there is the aspect of repetition. Who has a favorite song? Do you know all the words to the song? Did you know all the words to the song after you heard it for the first time? No, of course not, it took six or seven times hearing the song before you got all the words down. In this flipped class, I'm going to give you several opportunities to think about the material, which means several opportunities to learn.


The opportunities are:

  • The reading
  • The on line homework
  • The group quiz at the beginning of class
  • A group worksheet
  • Homework problems that repeat the previous worksheets ideas.
  • Quiz problems from the previous worksheet


So I can give you six opportunities to learn the important material before you sit down to cram for the tests. Then, when it comes time to cram, you will find that you already know a lot of the stuff. Big win for you.


Does this work? If you were weightlifter, how would you prepare for a meet? Would you do nothing until the night before then go to the gym and pump weights all night long? If you did that, would you expect to win?


If you were a weightlifter, you would lift every day, gradually increasing your weight and skills until the day of the meet. I want you to be preparing for your exams the same way, a little at a time, every day, until it is time to study for the exams. Then, your study is really a tune up and not a marathon effort to learn every single thing for the first time.


You might have noticed that this class is about you learning, not about me putting on a show. My job here is not to be a talking head in front of the class, but to guide you through the course and to explain the ideas to you when you get stuck.


Why not just explain the ideas to everyone all at once? Everyone learns at a different rate. At some point, the group that you are working with will be stuck on a certain idea or problem. You need help. You ask me. When you ask me, you want to know the answer right then. You are receptive to the answer and when I help you with it, it will stick with you better. A group that is proceeding a little more slowly, would not be ready for the answer at the same time. So I help you when you ask and I don't care if I answer the same question multiple times, I will help you when you are ready.


If you need extra help, I have office hours Monday through Thursday 1:00-2:00 pm. If you don't want to come in individually, I have tutorials Monday and Wednesday 5:00-6:00 pm. I will work problems from the worksheets, the homework, or explain ideas that may be troubling you. If your class or work schedule won't let you come to my scheduled office hours, then send me an email and I'll set up a special time to see you. I will sit with you as long as it takes. The class is about you learning. I'm here to help.

College is all about learning how to learn. Each of you must find your own set of tools that will help you learn. There are the learning opportunities built in to the class, there are my office hours, and my tutorials. What else can you do to help yourself?


Here are some ideas (See also What Students Do to Help Themselves):

  • This course has a Special Instruction tutor, <insert name here>, who has posted hours, usually about six per week.
  • The tutor center in the library has a chemistry tutor <insert name here> who is available about ten hours per week.
  • The worksheets have links to videos when I can find suitable ones. The videos are from the on line homework, from Khan academy, or from random sources if they are good.
  • Your standard search engines can help you find explanations.
  • The American Chemistry Study guide is a good source of problems and exercises.
  • The textbook has a study guide at the end of each chapter and problems at the end of the chapters, half of which are answered.


There is no lack of help for you in this course. The first homework is due at 6:00 am before the next class. The class schedule and the assignment sheet for the next class are posted on Blackboard. See you in class.

Kevin Revell

Making Chemistry Stick

Posted by Kevin Revell Apr 10, 2018

If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend the book Made to Stick:  Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  This extraordinary book, written by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, poses a question that is critical for teachers everywhere:  Why do we remember some ideas and stories, but not others?  What makes an idea “sticky?”


The book ranges from urban legends to cognitive psychology; from successful ad campaigns to unforgettable classroom lessons.  It’s fantastic reading for anyone who wants to become a better teacher or communicator.


In one chapter, the authors describe how new ideas are understood and stored more effectively when tethered to existing concepts or images.  To illustrate with my own example:  Imagine you were trying to describe the winter sport of curling to someone who had never seen it.  You could begin by a detailed description of the icy court, the dimensions, and the objective – and fifteen minutes later your audience still wouldn’t understand the gist of it.  Or, you could begin by saying “It’s like shuffleboard on ice.”  With three words – shuffleboard on ice - your audience already has some concept of the layout and the general objective of the game. 


As chemistry teachers, our job is to help students understand and remember a complex subject.  How do we make it easier?  In my own teaching and writing, I regularly use analogies, metaphors, and images that tie concepts to things they already understand.  Of course, many teachers do this.  But in the spirit of sharing good ideas, here are a few of my favorites, top-ten style:


10.  Oxygen atoms come in packs of two, like peanut butter cups. (I extend this to the other diatomic elements as well.)


9.  A barometer is like a straw. Why does the mercury rise up into a barometer?  Why does liquid travel up the straw into your mouth?


8.  Intermolecular forces are like the light from the sun, moon, and stars. The stars are always in the sky, but their light is negligible compared to the light of the moon or the brilliant light of the sun.  Similarly, London dispersion forces are always present – but negligible compared to dipole-dipole forces or hydrogen bonds.


7.  Activation energy is like the startup costs for a business. You may have a business idea that could make a lot of money (or lose a lot of money).  But unless you have enough money to start the business, you’ll never know. 


6.  The plum pudding model. Okay – obviously this one isn’t mine – but think about it for a moment.  Which was more important in the development of modern atomic theory – the plum pudding model or Millikan’s oil drop experiment?  Which one do students remember?  Even though the oil drop experiment was far more important, students remember the plum pudding model.  Why?  Because it’s simple, and it connects with something they can picture.


5.  Your first date, or your first breakup. In my classes, I describe an exquisitely awkward moment from my middle school years in the 1980s, as I tried to ask a girl out at a skating rink.  She could skate, I couldn’t.  Thirty years later, it’s comedy gold.  And it helps students see that the transition point – when you make or break bonds – is always higher energy than the moments before or after.


4.  Heisenberg and the fan. When an electric fan is turned off, we know exactly where the blades are located.  But if the fan is turned on, the blades move so quickly that we no longer know exactly where they are – we just know they are moving in an area that occupies a circle.  Don’t stick your finger in the circle.  In the same way, we never describe the exact location of electrons – Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says this is impossible.  Rather,  we describe them by the shape they occupy.  [Note – this crude analogy can help students begin to think about quantum mechanics, but of course it doesn’t address the wave nature of matter.  A disclaimer may be appropriate.]


3.  Single and double displacement reactions on the dancefloor. In a single displacement, one couple is dancing when a single person cuts in.  In a double displacement, there are two pairs of dancers, and the dancers switch partners.


2.  Enantiomers and diastereomers are like siblings and cousins. I begin by drawing the four possible stereoisomers for a molecule with two chiral centers.  We label each center R and S, and usually label the pairs of enantiomers.  Then I describe my kids, and compare them to my nephew and niece.  We discuss the family relationships – siblings and cousins - then I go back to the stereoisomers to complete the analogy.  The result looks something like this:



1.  Limiting reagents in the kitchen. Before we dive into limiting reagents, leftovers, and the ICE method, I like to pose a question like this:   "Suppose that you are making sandwiches following this recipe.  You have 10 slices of bread and 40 slices of cheese.  How many sandwiches can you make?  What will you have left over?"  


2 pieces of bread + 1 slice cheese  1 sandwich


Most students can get this without a single lesson on stoichiometry.  And if you can get students to tether stoichiometry to what they already know, the ideas become much, much easier.  In my classes, we usually begin by working stoichiometry equations (complete with unit conversions) on sandwich problems.  It works well.


I hope this list has spurred some ideas for you.  And if you’re willing to share in a comment or email, I’d love to hear some of your favorites, as well.

John Osterhout

On Groups

Posted by John Osterhout Dec 8, 2017

In my flipped general chemistry class we start off with a group quiz and continue with a worksheet, also performed in a group. The nature of the quizzes and the worksheets are important, sure, but so are the nature of the groups. This post is about handling the groups.


When I first started flipping, I was teaching a class of 80 students, which in my small chemistry department at a small state university is considered “large”. I was in a stepped classroom, with fixed tables that would seat four students. At the start of the class, I used the rows for groups. The groups were essentially assigned by however the students arranged themselves. The groups were enriched for groups of two or three friends that were coming to class together.


After the first exam, I had the bright idea to make groups that consisted of a student from each quartile of the class. So each group would have a good student, two middle students and a student from the bottom quartile of the class. At the time, I was giving each group a single worksheet and one person was in charge of filling it out. I did this mostly to cut down on the grading time. The room was a glorious roar of activity as the students chewed their way through the worksheets.


Bt the end of the semester, I had realized that only the best groups were making it to the end of the worksheets. For most of the class, this left significant swaths of information uncovered. I decided to give each students their own worksheet and require them to turn the worksheets in completed by the next class period. The roar of the classroom diminished by a factor of ten.


I soon realized what had been going on. When the groups only had a single worksheet, only the most motivated student would work. The other three would talk about football, deer hunting, or whatever until time ran out. When everyone had their own worksheet, everybody had a stake, and the frivolous talk went away. Lesson learned.


After that year, I was able to move into a smaller classroom, one that held about thirty-five students. For our small state school, this is a “normal” class size. I decided to assigned the groups by test score so that some groups were made up of the top-scoring students and some were of the poorest scoring students. The department had been talking about instituting a placement exam for the freshman chemistry students to allow us to screen out the totally unprepared and assign the less-prepared students to our non-majors chemistry class. I decided use a variation on that them, start the students off with a first-day quiz, and use that to do the initial assignments. The first-day quiz contained some math problems, some simple chemistry problems, and a logic problem. I used the scores to arrange the groups.


The flaw? There was little correlation between the first day quiz scores and ultimate (or even immediate) performance in the course. The quiz can measure basic skills, but it can't measure gumption. See Brand Tenn's post, Developing Grit. Of course, I didn't realize this until after the first couple of exams.


What to do? I started to rearrange the groups after the first exam, using the exam scores to make up the groups. The advantage of this was that I could get all the top students together and they could advance as fast and as far as they could. Having the poorer-performing students together isn't an entirely bad thing. They quickly discover that there isn't one “good” student who will do all the work. Sometimes these middle groups turn into learning machines as the students help each other. The other advantage of identifying the poorest performing students is that I know who they are and I can give them more attention in class.


There are some problems with using the first exam to guide group formation. One is that quite often the results on the first exam stem from prior knowledge. The students are running on their high school chemistry and aren't doing any work. When these students run out of high school savvy, the course, which had been easy, is suddenly hard. Then they have to discover a new work ethnic, one that contains actual study. Some do, some don't. So the first exam isn't a good predictor, either. One can rearrange the groups after every exam. Students, of course, hate this. Once they get used a group they are loathe to change. However, they do quickly settle down into their new groups. One might even consider this valuable experience in “teamwork”, which the state is always in a tizzy about.


After several years of coping with groups, here is what I am doing now. I still give a first-day quiz. I use it only to see if there are any students who can't do any math (see my recent post, It's That Chemistry Algebra, where I found a student who couldn't solve X – 2 = 0) and to lament the generally sorry preparation of students in math and chemistry.


Now, I initially arrange the groups by major. I lump the pre-professional students together with the honors students and form as many groups as I can. I find that by using the major as the guiding principle, I wind up with groups that internally have similar motivations. The pre-professional students are motivated by grades. The chemistry and biology majors sometimes show a little interest in the subject material. Most of the rest of the students don't want to be in the class, they are there because their major requires it. They are motivated by survival. This initial arrangement of groups by major works better than the other methods I've tried, but I'm still looking!


Other group caveats: groups that are all men don't usually work. The guys tacitly or explicitly decide that it isn't cool to be too interested in this academic stuff and so spend the whole class pushing their worksheets around the table trying to look busy while they shoot the bull. Three men in a group doesn't usually work either unless the woman is unusually motivated or outgoing. Groups with 2+ women, even groups of entirely women seem to work fine.


Groups can be derailed by the disgruntled student. I always get one or more students who are very unhappy with the flipped classroom. After all, I don't teach. (They equate lecturing with teaching.) An unhappy, vocal student can poison a group, sometimes even an entire class. I try to head this off in the beginning by explaining the ideas behind flipping and citing the success of the flipped classrooms compared to the non-flipped classes in our department.


I have not tried to micromanage the groups. That is, rearrange the groups as we go along depending upon the skills, motivations, and personalities of the individuals. Unfortunately it seems that by the time I can get a good feeling the individual qualities of the students in the class, the semester is over.


Occasionally, I find a smart, motivated student who can actually explain things to his or her co-conspirators. In the vernacular, we call these teachers and I wish I had one per group.

A few semesters back, a student sent an email to one of my faculty explaining that "I'm really good at algebra, it's just that chemistry algebra that gets me." I had always interpreted that statement as a frustration with the problem-solving nature of freshman chemistry. Maybe the student was good at algebra but just couldn't handle the word problems or logic that comes with chemistry. 


This semester has made me rethink that notion. I work at a small state university with a low bar for admission. The general chemistry classes are populated with all majors, some college ready and some not. For most of the students in my classes, general chemistry I is a check box to be ticked. That being said, I've noticed some alarming trends.


A few years ago our department tightened up our math prerequisites for admission into general chemistry I. We only admit students if they score high enough on the ACT or SAT to be admitted to the precalculus class or have passed college algebra with a "C" or better. The remarks below concern students who have met this requirement.


I recently tutored a student who had a poor score on the second hour exam. One of the problems was a titration with sulfuric acid. I was trying to explain that sulfuric acid was the acid made from the sulfate anion. After a while, we got to this point: how many protons must one add to the sulfate ion to produce a neutral species. The student drew a blank, so I thought it would be helpful to write out the equation:


X + -2 = 0

It turned out that, not only was the solution not transparent to the student, the student could not solve this equation. Their approach was to guess until I told them the answer was correct. I cut them off after they guessed the correct answer so I don't know, if left alone, they would have eventually realized that "2" would have done the trick.


Same student, different problem. The exam question asked for the oxidation number of carbon in the carbonate ion. The carbonate ion was written as CO32-. After a bit, we got to the point of realizing that the oxidation number of the carbon had to add to the combined oxidation number of the oxygens to give the charge on the ion. This drew a blank look. So I wrote on the board:


X + -6 = -2


No luck here, either. The student's first guess was -8. It did get better from there, but the underlying process was "guess until Dr. Osterhout says it's right."


To do a quick assessment of the class's math skills I gave a first day quiz this semester that included some math problems to be worked without a calculator (you can see the quiz and the results on the worksheet page of my blog, Here is my favorite:


a = b/c, solve for c.


In the Fall of 2016, 59% of the students correctly solved the problem. Sadly, this Fall the number was 47%. It does not bode well for your future in chemistry if you are in the 53% that can't do this little bit of algebra.


Here is one designed to see if they know anything about manipulating numbers in scientific notion. Remember, they could not use a calculator for this one.


3.0 x 104 x 4.0 x 103 =


This garnered 75% and 66% in Fall of 2016 and 2017 respectively. I was a little surprised that the results were so favorable. But then there was this:


2.0x106 x 4.0x104 / 8.0x10-3


That one was 18% in 2016 and 14% in 2017. The students don't fare much better if they use their calculators. Even at the end of the semester, I have students who still use the 10x key on their calculator to enter numbers in scientific notion. I also find that students have blithely ignored my exhortations to use the SCI option on their calculators and read, for instance, 6.43 x 10-8 instead of 0.000000064 on their displays.


Recently we were doing calorimetry. In one variety of problems the students are asked to find the final temperature after, say, hot water is added to an iron pot. The equations encountered were of the following variety.


g x cs x (Tf - Ti) = -g x cs x (Tf - Ti)


The students had to solve for Tf. They gathered up the appropriate numbers and happily plugged and chugged until:


1021(Tf - 25) = -3138(Tf - 95)


(I left out the units, because I'm illustrating the math for you.) At this point four out of eight students in the tutorial session were unable to distribute the numbers into the parentheses. I fear that it is much worse in the class in general, because the only students coming to the tutorial had a least a marginal grasp on the material. The ones that really needed to come, didn't. Once we got over that hurdle, we arrived at:


1021Tf - 25530 = -3138Tf + 298000


Here again, half of the students couldn't proceed.


In deference to the student in the first paragraph, it isn't necessarily "that chemistry algebra," sometimes it is just plain old algebra (and maybe just some sixth grade arithmetic). Keep in mind that all of these students had either passed college algebra or had a 600 or greater on the math portion of the SAT. So, what's a mother to do?


Currently our general chemistry professors build math and calculator exercises into their homework and class materials. Clearly it is not enough. Our department has discussed developing a chemistry tutorial that would meet one hour a week to do remedial math and chemistry. We have experienced push back from the administration because they fear this would diminish our enrolment capacity ($). However, it would likely improve retention ($$). Any ideas?

iClicker Reef is a great tool for formative and summative assessments.  In this article, I will summarize the ways I use the different question types in order to conduct various types of (non-content related) formative assessments. 


Multiple Choice:


1.  Student Understanding


How well do you feel you understand  ____ ?

A.  Piece of cake.  I get it.

B.  I understand most of it.

C.  I am mostly confused.

D.  I do not understand any of it.


2.  Student Confidence:  Many times, it is informative to find out how confident students are with their problem solving skills.  Ideally, students who understand should not only have the correct answers, but also be confident in their answers.


Select the most appropriate choice.

A.  I'm finished and am confident I am correct.

B.  I'm finished, but not too sure I am correct.

C.  I'm almost finished.

D.  I don't know how to do the problem.



3.  Traffic Control: During lectures, it is often very difficult to get any feedback on how students are processing the classroom discussions.  For lecture classes, it is useful to periodically stop and let students give feedback on class pacing - then follow up with specific questions on their misunderstandings.


Select the most appropriate choice.

A.  GO: Continue. Pace is fine, I understand.

B.  CAUTION: Please slow down. I need time to catch up.

C.  STOP: I do not understand.


Short Answer

4.  Question Collector

 After one particularly difficult problem on simplifying rational expressions, I asked students what the most difficult step was for them.  No one spoke - even though most students got the problem wrong.  I then fired up a short answer question in iClicker Reef and asked for submissions electronically - almost everyone gave me a response!

I noticed two things from their responses, many people did not know how to find the LCD and secondly, many students were simply trying to memorize steps to problems.  This brought us to a nice discussion on learning, and how I am teaching them tools they can use when encountering problems.  


5.  Muddiest Point

Another way to use the short answer question type is to collect a list of the most difficult topics (muddiest points).



6.  Speed Drill Progress

Numeric questions can be used to gauge student progress in paper assignments.  I often drill students on various topics and have them answer using paper and pencil, since iClicker Reef's refresh time is too slow.  I often ask students to send me the number of questions they got correct.  


7.  Level of Understanding 

Like measuring student confidence, instructors could ask students to state their level of understanding of a concept or unit on a 0 (do not understand) - 10 (understand everything) scale.



8. Campus resources: 

During the first week of classes, it might be a good idea to use target questions to ensure students know the locations of important student resources: Tutoring Center, Instructor Offices, Financial Aid Office, Registrar, Counselors, etc. by asking students to locate the resources on a map.


I hope that you can see many ways iClicker Reef can be used in addition to testing student understanding of core concepts and facts.  Do you use iClicker or another classroom response system (CRS) in your classes?  In what other ways have you used your CRS to conduct formative  assessments in class?  Please share your ideas in the comments box below.

Brandon Tenn

Developing Grit

Posted by Brandon Tenn Oct 11, 2017

My classes are rife with groans and sighs when passing back exams and quizzes.  To try and encourage student persistence and grit development, I decided to implement mastery based quizzes like Kevin mentioned in a previous post


I gave students three attempts to pass a quiz on dimensional analysis.  The first attempt was given in lecture.  The second and third attempts were taken outside of class.  Since I am on campus daily, I set aside time – while I was teaching labs, had office hours, or was working in my office – for students to take it.  By the day of Exam 1, 50 students passed the mastery based quiz on dimensional analysis while 84 did not. 



Passed Benchmark Quiz

Did not Pass Quiz

Number of Students



Average Exam 1 Score



Passed Exam 1



Did not pass Exam 1




Not only did the students who passed the benchmark quiz do better on the exam, but only 20% of students in this group got a score below 60%.  Many of them were in 50-60% range.  On the other hand, of the students not passing the benchmark quiz, 74% of them did not pass the exam, and many of their scores were in the 30-50% range.


I also instituted benchmark quizzes in my Intermediate algebra class, and noticed similar results.  Benchmark Quiz #1 was related to exam 1, and Benchmark Quiz #2 was directly related to Exam 2. 



Exam 2 Average

Passed Both Benchmark Quizzes


Passed Benchmark #1 only (Related to Exam 1)


Passed Benchmark #2 only (Related to Exam 2)


Passed only one Benchmark Quiz


Did not pass any Benchmark Quizzes



The data shows a strong correlation between passing the benchmark quiz and higher exam scores in both classes.  Therefore, I decided to continue using benchmark quizzes to give students an attainable goal prior to their first exam, knowing that students who are successful on the benchmark quiz will have a higher probability of success on the subsequent exam.


In response to the student exam performance in both courses I showed students a short TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth, on Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  A few days later, I gave my students a short article called “The State of Being Stuck” and asked my chemistry students to write half-page reflection paper on it, discussing how they would apply the concepts of grit and the growth mindset to Introductory Chemistry this semester.


The chemistry students are currently working on passing their second benchmark quiz, which is on nomenclature.  Exam 2, which covers nomenclature will take place on Friday, October 13, 2017.  I will update this post once the exam is graded and the data has been analyzed.


Other Resources on Grit and Growth Mindset:


Quotes from Reflection Papers:


“I will not be afraid of a challenge just because it looks hard to do.”


“I always tell myself, ‘This too shall pass.’”


“As a future teacher … I want my students to give it all they have and not give up, therefore that is what I am going to do in all my classes.”


“I sit next to someone who is failing this class and complains about it every morning.  She always seems to be blaming other people instead of herself.  When I ask her what she does to study or take notes, she tells me that she does not even watch the videos.  My motivation for wanting to come to this class is that I want to be able to engage in class work.”


“There’s nothing wrong in getting help from other people who get something more than what you may be understanding yourself.”


“Fear of failing hinders me from even beginning sometimes.”


“I’m actually pretty proud of how far I’ve come because I could have easily gave up … I told myself if I don’t pass this class, what does it mean for my future, am I going to do the same thing when it comes down to everything else in my life?”


“It’s OK to fail in things that you do in life, but the important part is to be gritty.  You don’t have to be super smart to survive in this life.  You just have to be gritty.”


“I always found science classes to be difficult for me, so I never really put the most effort in them.”

On January 12, 2018, 8-4 pm, Merced College (3600 M St., Merced, CA 95348) will be hosting a conference on Active Learning.  This conference is open to all post-secondary educators in 2-year or 4-year public or private institutions.  There is no registration fee for this conference, but seating is limited.  For more information, to register, or to submit a seminar proposal, please go to:


If you have any questions on the conference, please contact me at



Phone: (209) 387-6783

Problem: The same student(s) always answer questions.

Solution:  Popsicle sticks

The same student(s) always answer questions while the rest of the class remains quiet.  How can we get other students involved in the discussion?  Place each student's name on a popsicle stick and place the popsicle sticks in a container.  When seeking responses, draw popsicle sticks at random.  Not only does the randomness keep students engaged, but it also ensures that everyone will have an opportunity to share.  Asking students to draw names can remove instructor subjectivity.


Problem:  I can't tell which groups or students really need help.

Solution:  Stop and Go Cups (or cards)

When active learning activities are in full swing, especially in larger classes, it's very difficult to get feedback from all students/groups on their progress and understanding.  One easy way to tell how students are doing is to hand them a set of color coded cups or cards - green, yellow, and red.


ColorIndividuallyIn Groups
GreenLecture pace good/Understanding materialProgressing fine with task
YellowPlease slow downProgressing slowly, needs help
RedI don't understandGroup is not progressing - needs immediate help


Problem: Students are waiting for someone else to answer before solving the problems themselves.

Solution: Index Card Answers

There are many student polling apps available, some paid, some free.  Undoubtedly each semester they will be a day or two in which the polling app servers are malfunctioning.  A great low tech way to garner student responses is to hand out index cards, each with a letter A-E written on it.  When asking multiple choice questions, students can hold up the card corresponding to their answer.  Alternatively, when in a bind, and you don't have time to hand out cards, students can denote answers with their fingers, placing their hand in front of their chests, so other students cannot see their answers.


Problem: Students do not discuss problem solving with each other.

Solution: Think-pair-share

I saw a very revealing, humorous video on this topic during the summer.  Although the video is not appropriate for this post, I did realize that many times students will jump directly to sharing, before spending adequate time thinking about the problem.  In my classes, I do not call discussions "think-pair-share."  Rather, I give specific directions like "Work on the problem individually for x minutes, then submit your answers (electronically or otherwise), then discuss your answers with a partner." 


Problem: In class, students don't have a chance to stop and reflect on their learning.

Solution: 2-minute paper (Quick writes)

We all need a chance to stop and reflect on what we are learning.  Many times, as instructors, we start class by taking a breath and lecture for the entire class period and stop only to dismiss the class at the end.  While we may have said everything we intended to, students most likely were not given adequate chance to stop and reflect on what was being said.  I've been in many workshops as a participant, where the facilitators gave us time to stop and reflect by asking simple questions like "Summarize what you just learned." After the 2- minutes, instructors can gain much insight into the student's thought processes by letting them share (voluntarily) what they wrote - or by collecting their papers.


Problem: I cannot tell what students are struggling with.

Solution: Exit ticket (Muddiest Point)

A permutation on the 2-minute paper is the exit ticket.  It's very difficult, many times, to determine what topic(s) students are struggling with at the end of a lecture.  Some instructors ask students to do a 2-minute paper by asking them to describe their muddiest point from the day's lecture/activities and hand it in on their way out of class.  Although this post is focused on low-tech solutions, I would be remiss if I don't mention that Socrative, a free student polling app, has an Exit Ticket feature already built in.


What other tricks do you have up your sleeves?  We'd love to hear about them!  Please share your in-class tricks to maintain student engagement by writing a comment below or by emailing me at:


Acknowledgements: This post was motivated by the illuminating discussions that we had prior to the start of the Fall 2017 semester during a 50 minute workshop on active learning.  In particular, I want to thank English professor Denise Rempel for sharing with us many of the innovative (and often crazy) activities she employs in her classes - specifically for sharing with me how she uses popsicle sticks to engage and colored cups to monitor student learning.

Macmillan Learning is proud to announce that The Flipped Learning Global Initiative has named Introductory Chemistry author Kevin Revell one of the top 40 Flipped Learning educators worldwide.


The list, compiled annually by the FLGI executive committee, names the top 100 K-12 educators from around the world who are identified as driving forces of flipped classroom adoptions. This year, the initiative broadened their recognition to include the top 40 Flipped Learning leaders in higher education.


FLGI’s Chief Academic Officer, Jon Bergmann, stated, "The 2017 FLGI Flipped Learning Leaders lists includes some of the most experienced, innovative and proactive education and training professionals in the world. These are the people driving Flipped Learning forward in thought and action and demonstrating what is possible when Flipped Learning is done well."


Congratulations, Kevin!

Recently I was doing some proposal research on Gen Z (also known as Centennials, iGeneration, Post-Millennials, Plurals, or the Homeland Generation) and realized that this incoming generation of students is not only prepared for the flipped classroom, but expects it! Having been born starting in the late 1990’s, these students have been constantly engaged in constant communication through social media, technology at their fingertips, and consistent and fast internet access. In a recent survey from Barnes and Noble College on what Gen Z expects and wants from a college education, it was clear to me that the flipped classroom sets the stage for their ideal educational experience that is both immersive and engaging.


Based on the survey Gen Z wants:


Professors that care about their success and individual attention51% prefer meeting face to face, 77% prefer 4 year colleges
The flipped classroom provides more opportunities for one-on-one mentored like experiences through increased faculty/student interactions in guided classroom activities and group discussions. And while this generation values technology, independence and self-reliance, they still prefer the face-to-face experience and crave opportunities to interact with faculty and peers in person.



Career preparation:

35% currently own their own business or plan to own one in the future, 49% have already taken courses for college credit where 84% plan to

The flipped classroom allows faculty to incorporate more real-life problem solving activities that allows students to practice applying both their background knowledge and new knowledge in ways that better mimics the problems they will face in their careers. Additionally, the flipped classroom teachings soft skills typically not address in the traditional lecture such as time management, collaboration, communication, and team work.



Interesting and engaging course work:

Class room discussions, working through problems, and working in small groups are preferred tools for learning

 The flipped classroom takes the passive learning out of the classroom to make time for more collaborative learning experiences such as small group activities and discussions. The instructor can also bring in tailored activities reflective of a specific group’s interests that are relevant, timely, and more engaging. Additionally, the survey reports that students not only embrace technology in the classroom but expect it and rate class websites with supplemental material, game-based learning systems, DIYL (“Do it Yourself Learning), Smartboards, digital textbooks, online videos and learning websites as their top tech tools for the classroom.


Group learning environments:

80% study with friends, 60% like to exchange new ideas with friends, 52% like to help their friends learn

The flipped classroom allows for pedagogy that incorporates group problem-based learning by moving the lecture out and the hands-on activities in. By incorporating small group work, students also benefit from the diverse perspectives and knowledge of their peers and build stronger connections which help promote retention and success. 


  • Learn by doing:

51% learn by doing, 38% learn by seeing, 12% learn by listening

The flipped classroom affords the flexibility to allow more hands on and applied learning in the class, lab, field, or studio. In the survey, students reported class discussions as the most beneficial which opens opportunities for authentic student driven inquiry in the classroom (think Socrates) or problem based learning
  • Challenges:

(89% see college as valuable, 64% prefer advanced classes)

This generation is not afraid of a challenge and expects to be pushed. The survey reports that an overwhelming majority of Gen Z students plan to or have already taken courses for college credit in high school. In the flipped classroom, the incorporation of active learning, group learning and blended learning strategies affords instructors the opportunity to weave in more challenges that push our students to think for critically about the concepts and application of those concepts in order to solve real world problems.


So flipped teachers rejoice because as Gen Z takes their first steps on to our various campuses they are poised and ready for what we have to offer and may even push us to do more! Have you noticed a change in student perceptions already? Have you noticed a change in their expectations? Let us know! We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

               It was a Thursday evening as I was relaxing post-workshop and gearing up for summer research when I received a text from my colleague asking if I wanted to teach the summer intro-chem course. I immediately jumped on the opportunity since I have always wanted to get my hands on a chemistry for non-science majors course... the only drawback? The class started that following Tuesday and I have never taught intro chem before! Despite that little set back, I was eager to start planning my learning outcomes, lessons, demonstrations and labs; and was feeling energized after a week long workshop that focused on active learning. To set the scene for you: the course was only 6 weeks long, met every day for an hour and a half for ‘lecture’ and twice a week for lab. The text we used was the ACS Chemistry in Context (9th Edition, text and lab manual) where we covered Chapters 1 through 5, 8, 10, 11, 12 and 14.  The students ranged from rising sophomores to graduating seniors who majored in disciplines ranging from education, business, math, and philosophy.


At the start, I worked 2-3 hours each night to prepare carefully crafted powerpoint lectures with active learning break outs (more emphasis on the powerpoint lecture).. I believe I found myself relying on more traditional teaching methods because of my lack of confidence in teaching this material. But I quickly noticed the students were having a hard time paying attention and were drifting off.. who can blame them? Who wants to be ‘talked to’ for nearly 2 hours a day every day. After their first exam where grades ranged from low F’s to high A’s with an average of 68%.. I decided I needed to change things up and decided to shut my mouth and flip the course immediately. (This was actually inspired by a book I was reading at the time titled “Teaching with your Mouth Shut” by Donald Finkel.. read it, its great!)


I didn’t make lecture videos, I stopped wasting time making power points, and instead allowed the text book to lecture for me by assigning readings associated with each class meeting. I then could spend most of my planning time and efforts in researching and choosing in-class activities that we spent 100% of the time on in class with students working in small and diverse groups. On exam two, the class average was a full letter grade higher than the first exam (76%), which was maintained in exam III and the final.

         Students worked in small groups on various in-class activities described below.

Because I found it so challenging to find and research the resources I used, I wanted to take a moment to share with you the materials I found helpful and also ask and see if you have an activity, book, demonstration or other resources that you find especially helpful for an intro chem course (Comment below!)


Introduction Chemistry: A guided Inquiry (POGIL, 1st Edition) by Michael Garoutte and Ashley Mahoney published by Wiley.

I really wish I had this book from the very start! I requested the exam copy right when I found out I was teaching the course and it took a couple weeks to get to my desk but I was so happy when it arrived! While it wasn’t an all-inclusive resource, it was really valuable and we used a number of activities from the book in class such as the Acid/Base, Molecular Shapes, and Rates and Energies of Reactions activities. The only drawback to this text? It wasn’t put into a real-world context which was the emphasis of the ACS text book and the class. But I did hear lots of “Ah hah!”s  throughout the class meetings.

For our nutrition and cooking with chemistry unit, we made pop rocks, rock candy and dipping dots in order to discuss phase changes, recrystalization and how the rate of freezing effects the creaminess of ice cream.


Solving Real Problems with Chemistry (2nd edition) by John Goodwin, David Hanson and Troy Wolfskill; published by Pacific Crest.

This is another POGIL-like workbook that incorporates guided reflection on the actual learning process (which unfortunately the students would skip unless somehow incentivized). What I loved about this book (in addition to the reflective process) was the incorporation on intro chem/gen chem concepts into a real-world context. On days that we worked on these activities (such as “Time of Death – When did it Happen” (integrated rate laws) and “Keeping Warm with Carbon-Based Fuels” (enthalpy and heats for reations) I overheard a number of side conversations that related the chemistry to their daily lives in terms of retail, public policy, and CSI! Again, it was a great resource, but didn’t 100% line up with the text/material I was covering so wasn’t an all-inclusive resource.

In our forensics unit, students got to test money for trace amounts of drugs and isolated unknown compounds for TLC analysis in order to link a suspect with a murder case.


Calculations in Chemistry (2nd edition) by Donald J. Dahm and Eric A. Nelson, published by W. W. Norton.

This was an absolute fantastic resource for my class as the major determining factor for success in my course turned out to be the ability to solve mathematical word problems. I utilized this book as a supplemental tool and aligned sections from this book with the ACS text book for students to use as additional practice. I felt it was well written with lots of guidance and the cost is very effective! I think in future courses I will make this a required resource for the course and wish I had started utilizing it earlier. The students could have really benefited from me spending a day or two at the start of class learning and practicing basic word problem analysis and dimensional analysis without necessarily going straight into chemical concepts.


Other various online resources

I pilfered several other various resources from the web such as the new ACS Reactions Video Series (this is a great tool for engaging and contextualizing chemistry for folks with no science background and I am constantly sharing these videos through social media), the Legacy High School Chemistry POGIL activities, and for our forensics unit the Mixed Reception Activity by the ChemCollective. We also used the PhET simulations in class as well to demonstrate balancing reactions and phase changes.


Student feedback on the course:

" I feel much more prepared and really learned a lot"

" The class was enjoyable and related to our daily life so we felt we would actually use this information... I found the worksheets helpful"

"She created an environment that was comfortable to ask questions and dig deep into certain areas that were not understood well or people were interested in"

"Class structure of handing out worksheets and learning in groups how to do them on top of her guidance was probably the best way for me to learn"

"Less lecture, more practice seemed to work well in this class"


Again, by no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list of useful tools for intro chem and I would love to hear your own preferences and ideas. But after writing this post... I am left with one question: Wouldn’t it be nice if we had one all-inclusive resource that was flexible and incorporated context-based active learning for our students? By no means can I require my students to purchase 1 text book, 1 lab manual, and 3 work books for a 6-week course.

What say you? I’d love to hear your feedback, comment below:

If you are not yet familiar with the lightboard studio, let me briefly introduce this awesome tool! The lightboard is simply a clear glass board, framed with LED strip lights that the instructor stands behind and writes using fluorescent dry erase markers. The best part about this tool is that as you are writing on the board, your back is not to the viewer, hopefully allowing for more engagement with the video. This tool is very helpful to create engaging supplemental instructional videos, demonstrate problem solving, create lecture videos, or even a more interactive exam key in which the students can see your thought process! (Have another idea for the use of this tech? Let me know! Leave a comment below). Now, there are a number of tutorials out there on the internet that can describe how to construct this lightboard, but most will run you $3-5,000 in cost. In this post, I will share with you how we constructed and fully equipped our lightboard studio at BSC for less than $1000!
Watch the brief introduction here:

The studio lay out:

As you may have noticed from the video, the layout of the studio is pretty simple. You just need a dark rectangular room, a black screen behind you, 3 LED flood lights constructed in a 3-point configuration behind the board on to you, a mirror opposite of the board, and a somewhat decent camera mounted to a tripod.  In our studio, we use the mirror to flip the image (no I am not writing backwards that flawlessly) and the camera then records the image on the mirror.  For the sound, I used a 20 ft wired lapel microphone that plugs directly into the camera. I also purchased a wireless system that can use up to two microphones in case we want two people in the video. The sound quality is not as great with the wireless system, but I am clean that up post production using Camtasia or other video production software we already have on campus. 

The shopping list:

The cost of the construction is intimately linked to two items:
1. The glass used in the board. We used a 48X96 inch clear acrylic that was 1/4 inch thick from a local vendor, you can find this online at vendors such as Acme Plastics for around $160 but the shipping costs more than the actual glass, so we recommend trying to find a local vendor that can cut to your specifications.
2. The camera. There are hand-held DH camcorders that are very cost effective, but the next step up is full fledged professional cameras which basically triples the cost. We went with a small canon HD handheld that had a number of good reviews on amazon (see below).


The entire shopping list can be found below:
  1. 48in X 96in, 1/4in thick plexiglass (cheaper option) or lead-free glass (up tp $10,000 but better results) -  We went with the plexi glass option from a local supplier for approximately $140. While you can find this online at Acme Plastics for $126, the shipping is very expensive. In actuality the 96 in width is excessive and we had the local supplier cut it in half providing us with plexi glass for two boards. It is often difficult to find it in a smaller dimension.
  2. Wood and hardware to construct a base: $20.00 - $160.00 from Home Depot. Tyler constructed the frame and the base for the board by hand. The price range depends on whether or not you would like to put the board on wheels as castors are expensive. We opted not to put our board on wheels. The board is light weight and can be easily picked up and moved with two people.
  3.  Black backdrop or green screen with frame - $75.00 from Amazon (LimoStudio)
  4. Heavy duty muslin clamps – 6 pack - $8.00 from Amazon (K2M Mart)
  5. 2 LED studio lights: $69.99/pair from Amazon (Julius Studio came with stands and light filters/diffusers)
  6. Set of two 9ft photo studio light stands - $36.00 from Amazon (Neewer)
  7. Telescoping microphone boom arm - $13.00 from Amazon (JamStands) This is actually used from one of the smaller LED lights to help with the three-point light system.
  8. 1 Dimmable Bi-Colo LED Video light with U bracket - $110 from Amazon (Neewer)
  9. Set of 2 lavalier wireless microphones - $40.00 from Amazon (Pyle PDWM2145)
  10. External lavalier microphone with 20’ audio cable - $25.00 from Amazon (Canon) The wireless system is nice if you want two people in the video, however the sound quality from the corded mic is much better.
  11. 2 packs of neon expo dry erase markers - $8.00 amazon (EXPO)
  12. Large wall mount mirror – donated by physics, estimate cost is $50
  13. Polarizing lens kit for camera - $48.00 from Amazon (Canon, 43mm)
  14. LED light strip with power supply - $25.99 from Amazon (WenTop, actually came with two strips of LED lights so we have a backup or could use to make a second board)
  15. Tripod for camera – Donated by department – Estimate cost is $50-$100 for sturdy tripod.
  16. Dedicated HD video camera – Cannon Vixia HF R700 - $276.00 from Amazon


By constructing your own board and base, and being a savvy shopper, you can construct this awesome blended learning tool pretty cheaply! How could you incorporate this into your own courses? I'd love to hear! Leave me a comment!

In the spring of 2016 I started incorporating a semester long service learning project into my senior level medicinal chemistry course at Birmingham-Southern College. While service learning may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we consider active learning or flipped teaching in the classroom, it does involve similar core values that flipped teaching hopes to achieve: a student centered application of academic material to help promote deeper understanding and critical reflection. The only difference is that the product of service learning must in some way provide a meaningful benefit to a target community. As an educator who continues to study pedagogy, I have quickly recognized the powerful impact service learning can have on a student; but as a chemist, I found it extremely difficult to imagine how I could incorporate such a valuable practice into my own courses. Instead, I decided to let my students do the imagining for me. Each year at the start of the spring term, I place students in small 3-4 people groups and prompt them to reflect on and propose a project that they could complete within the term.

The prompt:

To provide a frame work for the project, students are provided with the following prompt:


Throughout the semester we will be developing, implementing and assessing a community service project. This project must:
  1. Emphasize initiatives to combat public misconceptions of pharmaceuticals and increase overall social scientific literacy in the Birmingham area.
  2. Increase opportunities for low-income families in the metro and/or surrounding areas to receive necessary medical care and educational support to properly take necessary medications and monitor their health.
  3. Be feasibly conducted by students in next year’s Medicinal Chemistry course over a 2-3 week period near the end of the term.
This project can incorporate support from existing community service programs but must expand or implement something new within the scope of that program. If you plan to utilize an existing program, you must approach a representative of that program with your proposal and summarize his or her feedback/support.
I expect this proposal to be NLT 5 pages typed, include sufficient detail on how the project can be implemented and managed, provide an explanation of the broader impacts of this project and how they align with this call for proposals. 


As described above, students are expected to produce a written proposal which is assessed with a proposal rubric(also provided at the start of the term). Additionally, each group is then given time to present (or pitch) their proposals in front of the class. After the pitch session, students then discuss if they prefer to remain in their smaller groups and each group complete their own proposed project, or if they would like to align aspects of the various proposals to make one larger project that the students work on as a class. Each time I have done this project, the class has decided to work as one larger organization, at which point I encourage the class to set up a means of communication (groupme works well for this), to develop a timeline and to assign specific roles to individual students. 

Assessment Strategy

Beyond trying to visualize how service learning can fit into an advanced level chemistry course (which I offloaded on to the students), determining a way to assess and measure impact on academic learning and thus provide a meaningful grade for the students was also a challenge for me. So again, I reached out to the students for help and together we crafted a plan:


Proposal (50 points): Already described above.
Journal (50 points): Throughout the experience, students are expected to maintain a journal in order to document their contributions, log time spent on the project, and reflect on the experience. A total of 10 journal entries (one per week) is expected. Each journal entry should include a date, log of time spent on the project, should be NLT a page long and should include not only descriptive features, but thoughtful reflection as well. Reflective prompts will be provided on the course moodle page to help orient you as you write.
Hours (25 points): Students are expected to spend NLT 30 hours on this project and the time spent should be documented within the notebook. This includes time spent in research, planning, journaling, preparation and implementation.
Products (50 points): Students will be evaluated on the products (paper materials, videos, interviews, events, presentation poster) of their projects. If there is no tangible product by which to evaluate, students will construct a research style poster explaining the project.
Community partner and peer evaluations (25 points): Each student will be evaluated by three peers and a community partner. The total score will be the average of each evaluation. Evaluations need to be justified, simply assigning a score without supporting evidence will not be acceptable


All together, the project was worth 200 points, or 20% of the total course grade, which aligns with the typical point distribution for the laboratory component of a lab based course. 


The journal is an essential component of the project, not only because it provides evidence of time spent, it also provides an avenue of critical self reflection to help students' align their own expectations and understanding with that they were learning throughout the process. This year,  it also gave me valuable feedback in what did or didn't work well in the implementation of project that I can use in the following year. To help illustrate my point, here are some of the students' comments from their own journals:
  • "It was nice to actually kind of use what we had been learning in a class in a way that I would not have originally through of."
  • "I've found that I like the classes when we talk about helping the community, or even in the larger sense than other classes."
  • "Beginning thinking about this project has encouraged me to become more aware of the struggles that so many less fortunate people face, as well as the responsibility that I have to positively impact these segments of the population... I am excited that this project will force me to get out of my comfort zone and engage with people with whom I may not normally interact".
  • "An especially important consideration I had today was how valuable different perspectives and opinions can be within a team"
  • "This project has already taught me that simply giving up out of exasperation is not an option."
  • "However, I think this project is teaching me to plan further ahead and to be more supportive of my peers' work."
  • "This project honestly  may be my favorite curriculum related work I have done during my tenure at BSC".
  • "During the progression of this service project, I hope to gain insight into new models of empathy."
  • "Overall, this has been a challenging yet rewarding task to complete. Really using my creativity is something I haven't had to use as a chemistry major/math minor/pre-med student. However, I do think it is incredibly important to exercise this part of your brain,, as it can be utilized in so many different ways regardless of career choice."

The product

This year, the students came up with a really clever and creative project: A youtube video series called "Vedicinal Chemistry" that features short 3-5 minute animated videos on common topics related to health and medicine. These videos are meant to be shared through social media and with local schools/institutions.. by why talk about it? Why not watch them?
I loved this project for a number of reason! First, it is something that the community can continue to use well beyond the single term in which the project was implemented, so it has a much more lasting impact. Second, it provided students a glimpse into my teaching style. A number of students remarked in their journals how surprisingly time consuming creating a simple, well-researched, 3-5 minute video can be. And third, it is something we can build on and easily expand upon in future classes at BSC. My plan now is to continue the Vedicinal Chemistry video series in next year's class and have each group of students responsible for proposing, developing and implementing a new video to share through social media and to our community partners who are already using the series. 


Interesting in implementing a service learning project in your own course? Have ideas you would like to chew on? Let me know and leave your comments below! Also, feel free to visit my instructional resources page to see my rubrics, reflection prompts and evaluations I developed or borrowed for this project. I'd love to hear your feedback! 

In the fall of 2016, I implemented benchmark quizzes in my organic 1 classes, which I wrote about here.   The quizzes covered key learning objectives, they were pass-fail, and students had to be essentially 100% correct to pass.  Although things didn’t go entirely according to plan, the outcomes for the class were extraordinary.

This past semester, I decided to modify this approach for my introductory chemistry classes.  I had two lecture sessions, with about 210 students total (70 in the morning session, 140 in the evening session).  I built the benchmarks around key learning outcomes for each chapter.  As before, the benchmark quizzes were pass-fail, and students had to answer each question correctly to pass.  Students had 3 opportunities to pass each quiz.  A sample quiz was posted beforehand.  Quizzes were worth 10 points each - 10% of their grade.  However, In order to unlock their full homework grade (also 10%), students were required to pass 6 of 10 benchmarks.  (See this article for more detail about this).   


The Logistics

Students took the quizzes each week at the beginning of their lab section.   I passed out the main quiz for that week to the entire section.  As students turned in their quiz, they could pick up re-quizzes from the previous two weeks to complete.  (For example, quiz 1 was available in weeks 1, 2, and 3 – but not afterward.) 


Because each quiz was pass-fail, it didn’t take me long to grade (about an hour per week).  I simply sorted quizzes by pass-fail, then entered the passing grades.  I kept hard-copy grade sheets for each benchmark.  I recorded a “1” for students who passed the first week, a “2” for the second week, and a “3” for the third week.  This allowed me to track performance week to week. 


One of the biggest challenges was staying up-to-date:  I had to post grades each week, so students knew if they needed to re-take the quizzes.  With 210 students, this seemed like the most labor-intensive part of the experiment.

The Results

Ultimately, I didn’t make it through every benchmark.  I made it completely through 6, and gave a 7th twice, but at the high-stress end of the semester, I decided to give full credit for everyone.  Here are the results:




In general, most students who were going to pass did so in the first week, or in the second.  Very few students passed the third week.  A fourth week clearly was not justified.  The one glaring exception to this was week 4 - naming ions and compounds.  I think that in this case, it took most students longer to really master the ion names and the nuance of naming the compounds, so even the above-average students needed a couple extra weeks before they could get the quiz 100% correct.


To be candid, I found these results discouraging:  I designed these quizzes to keep students on-track with lower-stakes weekly quizzes, rather than waiting for the exams to realize they were unprepared.  I also wanted students to have the opportunity to correct their mistakes if they failed the first time.  But some students simply didn't put any effort into preparing for these.  Perhaps because it is a freshman level class, and the only chemistry requirement for several majors.  Or perhaps the stakes were too low, or the grading scheme too complex.


Compared with previous semesters, my retention rates remained strong (>90%).  Scores on the ACS standardized final were slightly lower.  Despite the considerable effort, I did not see the effects I had hoped.


But there were also bright spots:  While the benchmarks didn’t motivate every student, there were students who came to me to figure out what they missed, and to practice with me until they could work the problems correctly.  This was what I was after.



So what do I make of this?  Using benchmark quizzes had a profound positive effect in my majors organic class, but a negligible effect in my non-majors class.  I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the psychology of the majors versus the non-majors.  For highly motivated pre-med students, it was a challenge to meet.  For the non-majors, the effect was different.


I’m not ready to give up on the model yet.  I think it can still work in the non-majors classes, but I’ve got to tweak it for that group.  This fall, I’m planning to make two adjustments:  Simplify and raise the stakes:


Spring 2017Fall 2017
10 quizzes @ 10 pts.each5 quizzes @ 20 pts. each
3 attempts3 attempts
6/10 required for full homework creditNo connection to homework


My hope is that these changes will make it easier for intro students to see the importance of the quizzes, and give them more priority.  We’ll see how it goes.