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In lab, I’ve constantly found myself trying to come up with a good way to explain how students should do a measurement and take a reading.  This is a challenge both in my General Chemistry I labs and in my Analytical Chemistry course. 


Our goal is to teach the students how to (literally) look at the experiment the same way as an expert would, and I have been convinced for some time that technique videos are a great fit for flipped chemistry approaches:  By moving the lecture out of the lab, we leave more lab time to actually do the experiment in-class, focusing more time for feedback on the nuance of their technique.  Further, with technique videos, students can revisit the techniques (finesse included) as they think through their post-lab assignments.


I have tried to make technique videos in past semesters, but these have had a number of shortcomings that undercut my goals.  Few humans I’ve met have more than 2 hands, myself included.  Using one to hold a camera left me with a clumsy and artificial technique, which is a tremendous challenge in demonstrating analytical-quality lab technique.  The focal point of my camera slid in and out of focus, making it hard to see a meniscus or glassware markings.  The shifting field of view made it challenging to tell what I’m actually looking at.  And, worse still, the viewer could only see where my eyes OR my hands were working, but not both simultaneously.  A tripod-mounted camera addressed some of these issues and allowed the viewer to see more of the gross movements of a technique, but cost us all the close-up details that are so critical.


Recently, I decided to blend these two approaches in conjunction with David Jaeger, the Director of Web, E-Learning, and Publication Services here at Florida Gulf Coast University.  Dave had approached me about comparing the efficacy of learning from first person vs. third person views of laboratory techniques.  In order to make Dave’s videos, we worked together to list each discrete action or reading that I took when making a laboratory measurement.  We planned to make videos for the use of an analytical balance, a volumetric pipette, and a buret; I use our list of ‘actions’ to guide me, and Dave monitored what else he observed me doing.  This dual approach captured the complete sequence of events that took place while doing a measurement, and ensured that my own experienced technique did not create ‘blind-spots’ where I forgot that a student was missing a skill or instinct.  Dave plans to run experiments with student subjects to determine when the first- vs. third-person view is more useful.


My focus was different, but collinear with his goals: I wanted to develop videos that would teach the students how to best use the glassware with analytical-quality lab technique.  My thinking was that since the first- and third-person views have complementary strengths and weaknesses, I might be able to address the weaknesses of each by combining them.  I decided that I wanted to develop a split-screen video.  One portion of the screen would be my direct point-of-view recording (1st person, which I dubbed the ‘expert eye’ view) while the other was a tripod-mounted over-the-shoulder recording (the ‘wide view’, aka 3rd person over-the-shoulder).  In practice, we had two wide-view cameras, and I retained them both in the final test video.


I will be trying this approach in Spring 2015 with my Analytical Chemistry students, and will be making these videos available to this semester’s General Chemistry I teaching team.  An example video can be found at the link below, and I welcome feedback!



Helpful advice in making similar videos:


  • For the first-person view, we used a pair of video-recording sunglasses with clear lenses swapped in to make them look more like safety glasses in the video. (These glasses are often worn by action/adventure sports participants to record videos.)  The camera is in the nosepiece. 
  • It was challenging to keep the hardware in-frame, since the camera and your eyes may not be pointed quite the same. After some trial and error, we found that it was best to calibrate the glasses before recording.  We accomplished this by making a crosshair on one lens with dry-erase marker, then recording for a few seconds to see it the videos was correctly centered, then moving the crosshairs and repeating the process until the video was satisfactorily centered.  Particularly if this crosshair is on the eye away from the camera, this is invisible in the final video – and is hard to notice even when the other camera can see the eyewear.
  • A backdrop is advisable, since the cameras will be recording at different angles and unrelated and distracting background material can easily enter the frame. Even with a heavy cloth backdrop (borrowed from the Campus-related PBS TV station) and the blinds drawn, you can still see light seeping through the backdrop.  We set the curtain up in a u-shape around the bench to best mask the surroundings.
  • In order to sync the two camera recordings later, I clapped my hands a single time – this provided a sound cue that we could easily spot in Camtasia in the audio track, and provided a time=0 point.
  • I did my best to not talk during recording, unless I did so while keeping my mouth as still as possible (ventriloquist style). In test runs, we both found it deeply distracting to see me in the video talking out-of-sync with the new narration, and found that the original soundtrack recording was usually too noisy to understand due to hoods in the background and such.

[Originally Published March  2015]

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 on September 1, 2015]


Cathy Welder at Dartmouth just sent me a link with a brief review:


I thought the Flipped Chemistry crowd might want to know about this book. I'm halfway through a hard copy and LOVE it. Great info on many types of active learning.

The book, entitled, Reaching Students: What Research Says About Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, is available for purchase as a hard copy, but also as a free PDF through the National Academy Press website:


Thanks so much for the link - I'm looking forward to diving into this one also.

[originally posted January 2015]


Heath Giesbrecht teaches intro, general, and organic chemistry at Houston Community College-Southeast College.  He came across my radar because of his terrific library of teaching videos on YouTube.  He has some of the best whiteboard presentations I've seen, and covering a wide array of topics.  I'll be adding some of these to the Tools and Resources section over the coming weeks.


I had an opportunity to talk with Heath recently, and am happy to share the conversation here:


  1. Heath, your video library is fantastic.  How did you get started with this? 


Thanks, Kevin! As a chemistry educator myself, I really appreciate what you are doing on, so the compliment means a lot coming from you. I want to start off by saying that more than anything I am happy to have been able to produce a library of videos that so many people, students and instructors alike, have expressed to me they found useful. The response from everyone has been wonderful.


In Spring 2010, while I was teaching chemistry at a different institution, I was assigned to develop and teach an online Introductory Chemistry class. While working on this project, I felt the project necessitated me to record videos of the live lectures from my face-to-face class for the online version, both for consistency and impartiality. These lectures lasted about 1-1 ½ hours and consisted of my voice over the PowerPoint slides. Honestly, the student response in the online class to these long videos was poor to say the least. This led me to start thinking of and pursuing alternative ways to engage the students online.


I started to experiment with recording short videos, either as a mini-lecture, a laboratory demonstration, or a solved problem format, with the camera recording me at the whiteboard in front of my class. The students found these to be more appealing and attention-grabbing than the monotonous voice-over lectures, and were enthusiastic to get me to record videos in this style during class and office hours. Students from my other courses found out that I was making these videos for the Intro class and many of them requested that I record videos for their classes (ie. General Chemistry I/II, Organic I/II). I was excited to do so, particularly because of their overall enthusiasm. Unfortunately, two years down the road, I was informed by the DE & IT Director that the sheer number of videos was beginning to overload the college’s server and they would have to be deleted. After losing several hundred of them, I was compelled to move the whole of the collection to YouTube without thinking much about the external impact of the decision.


After two months from the time I posted them, I had more views on my videos using the YouTube channel, than I had for two years while they were on the institution’s server and their popularity continues to grow three years later. When I first established my YouTube channel there were very few channels or videos that had been created by professionals; most of the channels I found around that time were created by amateurs and had many mistakes and inconsistencies. When I started receiving questions and thank you comments from chemistry students all over the world I knew I had to continue not only because I loved teaching chemistry, but because of the free help that the channel was noticeably providing.


2.  How many videos have you produced?


Whenever my students want me to record one for them I’ll do it, as a result I’m regularly adding videos to the library. I know for sure the channel has more than 1100 videos.


3.  How long does it take you to produce each one?


What the viewer gets with my videos is essentially the raw class recordings of a single lecture topic or example problem, hopefully containing a few student responses and maybe a few questions at the end from the students who prompted the recording.


Since I am not very technologically savvy, save for cropping the end of a few of my videos, I refrain from editing them, thus saving me a significant amount of time. In other words, when a student wants me to record a video, I just walk up to the camera, push the record button, work through a problem during class or office hours, and finally upload the video to the YouTube channel. Overall, from initially pressing record to having the completed video uploaded takes about ten minutes for the average five minute video, if I am only doing one. Usually though, I record several videos on the same day, so before I leave work, I begin uploading and they will be on the channel when I return the next morning. So, really the recording time is the longest portion of the process.


4.  How do you use these with your classes?


For my classes, the YouTube content is used in specific course-dependent ways.


In my hybrid courses, my students do not come to class for a lecture section at all, so the videos are used as the exclusive lecture material. I have complete sets of videos for Introductory Chemistry, General Chemistry I and II, and Organic I, so I can and do teach all of these courses in the hybrid format.


In my face-to-face classes, I use the videos strictly as supplementary material. In saying that, I allow my students the ability to choose individually several format options while attending the class. The way I structure my 3 hour lecture period is as follows, 1-1 ½ hours of lecture then problem solving sessions for the rest of the period. Accordingly, if a student prefers the traditional lecture style, they will come for the beginning of class. If they prefer the flipped style where we go over things like extra problem sets, homework, and practice exams, the student has the option to skip the lecture portion and only come when we are working on the worksheet material. This is the time I often find my students wanting me to record videos. Finally, if a student prefers the hybrid format and has signed up for the face-to-face class, I allow them to watch the lecture videos and only come in for the labs, quizzes, and exams. Conversely, if the student prefers the face-to-face format and has signed up for a hybrid class, they are able to sit in on another section if they so choose.


5.  Which of your classes do you flip?


Introductory Chemistry, General Chemistry I and II, and Organic I can all be flipped solely with the video content I have created. I am also working on completing the set of Organic II videos and I envision that I will be able to flip it within the next couple of semesters.

[Originally published on September 23, 2015]

This semester, I'm working on pre-lab videos for our organic 1 sequence. I've done a couple of short "how-to" videos in lab using just my phone. I like using Camtasia for video editing, but it accepts a limited number of file types, and I can't embed the quicktime video from my phone directly into Camtasia. I assume others have encountered this challenge as well, and I wanted to share two solutions - one a bit cleaner, and one a bit quicker:


The Right Way:


A File Conversion Tool Our local AV guru recommends Wondershare Video Converter Pro. For high-quality videos, this is definitely the way to go.


The Quick Way: Use Embed the Video Using Office Mix

Office Mix is a very powerful add-on that is available for Powerpoint. Using this tool, you can record clips from any video file - Youtube, Vimeo, or wherever, and import it into your Powerpoint presentation. I also use the Camtasia add-in for Powerpoint, so this is a nice trick for incorporating video without doing a file conversion.


For example, this week the students are using a rotovap for the first time. In last week's lab, I had a student quickly film me setting up the rotovap. I emailed myself the video. I was able to then "clip" the part of the video I wanted directly into the powerpoint presentation. The whole thing took only a couple minutes. Here's a segment from the completed video: 



With a little more time, I'd love to slow down, script it out, plan my motions, and have everything a little more polished. But at this point in the semester, I have to be content with a "good enough" production - and this seems like a nice, quick way to get there.

[originally posted 12/2/2014]


It's that time of the year again where the turkey has been roasted, eaten, sandwiched, casseroled, and sworn off till next year (or next month for some); and if you are in academia you are now preparing for final exams and course/instructor assessment. It was just earlier this week that I passed out our standard institutional assessment forms to my first flipped biochemistry course and because I wanted to gauge the various blended learning techniques I employed over the semester, I added my own additional assessment. In this survey, I asked my students to rate the various tools I utilized in order to "help deepen student understanding on a variety of biochemistry related topics and to facilitate the development of critical thinking skills". These tools included: video lectures, 10 minute "muddiest point" lectures in class, Sapling Online Homework, lecture powerpoints, Facebook "Journal Club" Discussions, Facebook Course Management, exam study guides, exam study sessions, POGIL workbook activities, case studies, metabolic pathway posters, and the Moodle course management page. Students were asked to rate these tools on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being not beneficial at all and 10 being very beneficial) and then comment on the tool they found most beneficial and least beneficial. The average ratings for these tools can be seen in the graph below.


The standard deviations for these responses where quite large, ranging from 1.8 to 3.0, which to me indicated that these students varied greatly on the tools they appreciated, which should be expected since these tools target a wide range of learning styles. However, I will note that I inadvertently left out one of the most important tools - the textbook. It would have been great to see if there was a correlation between students who valued the lecture videos as little to no benefit but highly valued the textbook, and would be something I look into next year. And while the overall averages may seem disheartening at first glance (particularly the POGIL workbook and video lectures), reading the students comments have been very reassuring; so I wanted to take a moment and discuss some of the common disparities between student perceived gains/values and instructor perceived gains/values that I noticed as a result of this assessment.  In their comments students asked me to:

Improve lecture videos (so that they are) strong enough to stand on their own w/o needing text"

So okay, yes I admit, I took the "good enough" approach this semester because I had over 25 video lectures to make in less than 13 weeks, I do see reflection of that approach in the student evaluations and am planning to revamp a number of the lecture videos this summer and next fall to incorporate interactive features such as questions, polling, and feedback, but I do not want my lectures to ever be good enough to stand alone. I want to encourage my students to continually seek out a variety of resources and to never be quite satisfied so that they keep trying to learn more. As an instructor whose primary goal is to create life-long learners, I am actually encouraged with the student quote above because it indicates that he or she wanted to learn more. That being said, I am learning that it is important in the flipped classroom to constantly remind my students that the lecture videos (as they currently are now) would have been identical to me lecturing at a podium for an hour in a traditional lecture, but now they can pause, rewind, and fast forward as often as they wish, and access these videos throughout the entire semester; and that in traditional lectures, the classroom lecture is meant to help clarify and supplement the required text reading. And, as I said, there was a wide range of disparity in the student valuation of the videos which was reflected in their comments from "The lecture powerpoints and videos were beneficial because it helped identify the most important points from the chapter" to "More in class lecture, flipped classes are very confusing and do not allow the professor to lecture to the students the knowledge they need". 

"POGIL - some concepts, actually most, were too complicated for the scope of this course"

The POGIL workbook, surprisingly to me, was one of the least valued tools by the students. Based on the comments, the students were frustrated both at the level of challenge and that there was no answer key given at the end.  Again, I believe I need to be clearer about the overall purpose of utilizing POGIL activities in the classroom; however, I believe students will always be frustrated and uncomfortable when challenged and it is important to teach them (especially a class made up of 99% pre-med majors) that they will not be given an answer key on the job. As I was reading over the POGIL "How-To"  I ran across this statement : 


Students are missing the experience of science as the exchange and evolution of ideas, and gender and ethnic issues are being ignored in the design of courses. Poor performers withdraw from learning, and even the best performers may disengage because they are not challenged. The results are low levels of learning and high levels of attrition... To address this situation and to help students become better learners in our courses, it is essential to recognize that education has two components, content and process, and that the process component often is not given adequate attention. Science education needs to be concerned equally with both the structure of knowledge, which is the content component, and with the development of the skills for acquiring, applying, and generating knowledge, which is the process component." 

I believe to help our students become better at processing the knowledge they gain from lecture, we have to push our students hard, make them uncomfortable,  and challenge them. Therefore, when I was reading these comments such as "they weren't beneficial because there weren't clear answers, and they were pretty extreme cases, some really hard to understand", actually pleases me as an instructor to no end. But I will agree with the students in that it is important to incorporate some sort of post-activity reflection/discussion, and I will be spending time during the Holiday break figuring out how to do this given the in-class time constraints (and, as always, am open to suggestions from my colleagues).

"I think the class should be more lecture based. While the flipped idea is fun, I think that for a class with this much information, we need a lecture"

This is actually one of my favorite quotes. While I couldn't agree more that an undergraduate biochemistry course meant to prepare both pre-med and pre-graduate students for their post-baccalaureate careers does cover an immense amount of material, I believe this, in particular, is one of the biggest reasons this course begs to be flipped. By incorporating engaging lecture videos (yes something I need to work on), text readings, and challenging/provoking in class activities, we as flipped instructors, can encourage  our students not only to gain fundamental knowledge they need to "make the grade" but to develop the skills they need in order to apply that knowledge critically allowing them to derive new connections and new ideas in their future careers. 


At BSC, our mission statement specifically says "Birmingham-Southern College prepares men and women for lives of significance. The College fosters intellectual and personal development through excellence in teaching and scholarship and by challenging students to engage their community and the greater world, to examine diverse perspectives, and to live with integrity."  If I were to simply "concentrate on the things we absolutely have to know"  as some of my students have request, I would not be living up to the expectations of the college, and even to the students themselves. While flipping the class, such as a biochemistry course, may not seem to have instant gratification for the instructor, I do believe my students will (eventually) see the benefit of this course. In the meantime, let us continue to teach, assess, reflect, and modify!!

[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:


[originally posted fall 2014]


About one year ago, I heard Gabriela Weaver present the results of a detailed study on the use of the flipped classroom in the majors chemistry course at Purdue. The course had been taught in the traditional format in fall, moving to the flipped format in spring with a different instructor, and the results overall were impressive. Her excellent seminar left me with two thoughts – first, that we should implement the flipped class at Marquette, and second, that it would be possible (and seemed best) to test the efficacy of the flipped class in a side-by-side comparison of lecture and flipped courses in our General Chemistry program. Thus began what I call the Flipped Classroom Project at Marquette.


And so, in spring 2015 I will be teaching two sections of our General Chemistry 2 course, one in a traditional format (to some 200 students at 8 am) and a second in a flipped format (to around 120 students). The students will be given common exams, and while students are self-selecting into the courses as I write, all of the entering students will have taken the first-semester ACS exam, therefore benchmarking their entry point. Already there is a bit of a “buzz” around the flipped class, as I piloted this concept in our off-semester Gen Chem 2 course (around 70 students) this fall, and the two courses seem about equal in popularity in early enrollment. In upcoming posts I will share my experiences this semester, and what I’ve learned in implementing the flipped classroom concept.


I would be thrilled to hear your suggestions on ways to implement this project so that the most meaningful data can be obtained, and any questions you might have. Thanks for reading!

Kevin Revell

Rethinking Intro Chem

Posted by Kevin Revell Nov 16, 2016

[originally posted spring 2015]

This spring, I’m teaching one of my favorite courses: Intro Chem. It’s an evening class, two nights a week, 144 students. The class is a requirement for a number of applied science majors. Many students are nervous about taking chemistry, and some have put it off until their senior year.

This year, I’ve had some time to reflect on what has (and hasn’t) worked in the past, I’ve gathered ideas from many of you. I’m re-designing the course, with several innovations. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m planning to write in more detail about some of these. For new, here’s a broad overview of a couple of them:

Beta-testing the REEF clicker system

I’ve never used a clicker system before, but the evidence suggests it makes a big difference, especially for large classes. The REEF polling system is the next-generation of I>clicker, and is set to premiere for real in the fall. It’s an app-based, bring-your-own-device system. I’m looking forward to seeing how this works – if any of your clicker veterans have suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

Using my own book

I’m in the process of writing my own textbook, with the first 10 chapters (of 13) in the review stage. This semester, I’m making the chapters available to the students in PDF form. This will give me a chance to see how it works in-class, and polish the organization a little bit.

Rethinking the out-of-class content

The organization of the new text is a little different than what I used last year. As a result, I’m having to re-do and re-think some of the video content. One of the things I’m doing is giving students the option of reading OR watching the video – I think this appeals to different learning styles. For example, here’s my Canvas page for Wednesday:

With the video content, I’ve decided to focus primarily on big-picture topics, giving an overview of why the topic is important, then including the key ideas. Practice problems will be handled in class. For example, here’s a new video I prepared on units, precision, accuracy, and significant digits. It sets the stage for the in-class materials, such as calculations involving sig figs.

I’m going to have to come to grips with my perfectionist streak. The video above took way too long to produce. Moving forward, I’m going to have to be content with simpler formats, and non-scripted, tablet annotations rather than extensive PowerPoint annotations. I love producing these, but I don’t know if they’re feasible for the whole semester.

[originally posted spring 2015]


Heath Giesbrecht teaches at Houston Community College, and who has produced over 1100 videos for his classes.  His YouTube channel, ProfessorHeath, is a valuable resource for flipped classrooms in first- and second-year chemistry.  In the earlier posts in this series, Heath wrote about video production, and about tailoring class presentations to different learning styles.  In this final installment, we shift to a discussion of in-class procedures:


Which of your classes do you flip?


Introductory Chemistry, General Chemistry I and II, and Organic I can all be flipped solely with the video content I have created. I am also working on completing the set of Organic II videos and I envision that I will be able to flip it within the next couple of semesters.


How do you handle textbooks? Are they central to your class?


The textbook is definitely central to the class. I prefer the students to come to class prepared by having read the section in the text that we will cover beforehand. Usually, after a few weeks, the student will be diligent in reading the textbook, but they are often still having a hard time understanding how to apply the information. It is at that point they usually start to ask to increase the time allotted for problem solving and cut down on formal lecture time. Essentially flipping the class for me.



How do you handle the flipped portion of the class? Do you direct the problem solving yourself, or is it more heavily group work?  What’s the classroom dynamic?   


In handling the flipped portion of the class, I have written extra problem sets that are lecture specific. After formal lecture, for the 25 students in the class I put them in groups of 5 and give each a problem set; at this time I walk around and answer questions. It reminds me a lot of my recitation sections as a TA back in grad school, where the instructor is on the front-line helping the student actualize his/her potential.


It is this atmosphere of peer-to-peer idea generation and collaboration that is the most exciting part of the class period, and the students respond with enthusiasm. It allows students to bounce concepts off of their classmates before coming to a collective decision on a problem without the fear of having their grade marked down. It also allows me the opportunity to identify common student misconceptions and errors in logic, which are almost impossible to discover when holding a traditional lecture. Easily corrected problems are resolved, and the students feel more confident going into the exams. It is especially helpful because the student is immediately reinforcing concepts that they were recently exposed to in lecture, and previously through reading the text. The classroom transforms into learning space, for both the students and the instructor.


In the traditional format, we take that practice time away from the students when we lecture at them, removing the autonomy that is essential to human trial and error type learning. Traditionally, the only chance for students to get critical feedback with their work is through graded assessments, or attending office hours. Often this is too late, not only for the student to correct their errors, but for the instructor to recount the lecture material in full to the student. Additionally, a bad assessment is unforgiving when it comes to diminishing student enthusiasm. Giving the student the chance to learn because they got something right (the quintessential “light bulb moment”) or wrong in an environment conducive to learning is essential for their future confidence and autonomy.

[originally published 11/20/2015]


[Originally published November 20, 2015]


For the past year, we've been following the flipped classroom project at Marquette. The study used parallel classes taught by the same instructor, with students self-selecting into the traditional or flipped sections. The results of this study are now available electronically on the JCE site:

Their study showed very little difference in higher-level students, but a marked decrease in the DFW rates between the two classes. This seems consistent with other studies as well as personal observation: Some students can perform well in chemistry no matter how the course is taught, but lower-level students benefit most profoundly from structured, active-learning environments.



Despite much recent interest in the flipped classroom, quantitative studies are slowly emerging, particularly in the sciences. We report a year-long parallel controlled study of the flipped classroom in a second-term general chemistry course. The flipped course was piloted in the off-semester course in Fall 2014, and the availability of the flipped section in Spring 2015 was broadly advertised prior to registration. Students self-selected into the control and flipped sections, which were taught in parallel by the same instructor; initial populations were 206 in the control section, 117 in the flipped. As a pretest, we used the ACS first-term general chemistry exam (form 2005), given as the final exam across all sections of the first-term course. Analysis of pretest scores, student percentile rankings in the first-term course, and population demographics indicated very similar populations in the two sections. The course designs required comparable student effort, and five common exams were administered, including as a final the ACS second-term general chemistry exam (form 2010). Exam items were validated using classical test theory and Rasch analysis. We find that exam performance in the two sections is statistically different only for the bottom third, as measured by pretest score or percentile rank; here improvement was seen in the flipped class across all five exams. Following this trend was a significant (56%) decrease in DFW percentage (Ds, Fs, withdrawals) in the flipped courses as compared with the control. While both courses incorporated online homework/assessments, the correlation of this indicator with exam performance was stronger in the flipped section, particularly among the bottom demographic. We reflect on the origin and implication of these trends, using data also from student evaluations.

Congratulations to Michael Ryan and Scott Reid on the completion of this study.

I have been waiting to do this post so that I could look at my student evaluations in order to formulate my newest plan of action. For those of you who have been following this journey with me through my previous posts: Flippn' Biochemistry, In Defense of the Flip, and Flippn' Biochemistry Part II, I hope that you have discovered that completely flipping a course successfully can not be done in just one iteration. Instead, I have learned that it is a constant cycle of implementation, surveying and reflection, and adjustments.; and I am hoping by keeping a record of the challenges and strategies I have ran across in the last couple years, I can help encourage my colleagues to incorporate more active learning into their own classrooms while alleviating some of the stress. As I mentioned in my previous post, I implemented a number of changes the second time around including finding a TA, moving to a classroom that facilitated group work versus a fixed chair lecture hall, embedding quizzes into the lecture videos forgoing the online homework, emphasizing the learning objectives both in the videos and in class and directly correlating those objectives to the in-class activities; and redeveloping the exams such that they reflected more of the activities and less rote memorization. My main objective for this term was to overcome the student perception that a course "lecture" must be a lecture by stripping away the typical lecture environment and embracing the components of a laboratory that emphasis problem based learning.


I was also fortunate this year that two colleagues (Dr. Pete Van Zandt and Dr. Melanie Styers) and I were awarded a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South to assess the impact of blended learning and flipped teaching in our student's ability to think critically. For this study we utilized the Critical Thinking Assessment Test (CAT) developed and validated by Tennessee Tech in a pre/post test format in three of our classes that to some degree utilize flipped teaching. We also employed pre/post SALG surveys to assess student perceived gains in hopes of discovering correlations between categories in which the students believed they gained and in what the CAT test measured. While we are still waiting on the results from the CAT test, both my student evaluations, the technology survey that I utilize each year and the SALG responses indicate that we are headed in the right direction.


Technology Survey:


In 2014 (light blue) and 2015 (dark blue) students were surveyed about halfway through the term with the following prompt: Throughout the term we have utilized a variety of tools to help deepen student understanding on a variety of biochemistry related topics and to facilitate the development of critical thinking skills. To help further develop this course, please rate the tools that we utilized on a scale of 1 to 10 (1: you found this tool to not beneficial at all or even distracting and 10: you found this tool to be very beneficial). The results of that survey are found below (note that in 2014 I goofed and forgot to ask students what they thought of the textbook... so that result was not included for 2014).

As you can see, students' evaluations of each tool (except for the previous year's exams) all increased or stayed the same from 2014 (light blue) to 2015 (dark blue). Of particular note are the large gains in appreciation of the POGIL activities, the video lectures, and the lecture quizzes (which was compared to the online homework assignments through sapling last year). I believe these gains in appreciation are due in large part to stripping away the lecture environment to facilitate group work and communication while decreasing the expectation that lectures are for passive learning at the onset of the term (such as we do in the laboratory).


My other goal in the course this term was to redesign the in-class exams such that they better reflect the POGIL activities which is why we see a significant decreases in appreciation for the previous year's exam, because they were dramatically different in structure with short answer versus fill in the blank and multiple choice. But still we see that, the highest rated tool for "promoting critical thinking" again this year was the course management page on Moodle... which again makes me question whether or not students truly understood the question "Which tools did you find were beneficial in facilitating critical thinking". But I was happy to see that the POGIL activities and case studies came in close.

Student SALG Survey Results

In addition to the comparison of technology between the class in 2014 and 2015, I also looked at how the class of 2015 perceived their changes in the various skills tested by the CAT: (pre=blue and post=orange)



As we can see in the results above, all of the students felt that they made gains in all of the various skills and based on a two sample with unequal variance T-test, we found the majority of the above gains to be significant. Again, I am anxious to see if and how these results correlate with the CAT test findings!

Student Evaluations

In comparing my student evaluations between 2014 and 2015, I also have found significant improvements particularly in the categories such as "The course improved my ability to think critically and reason effectively", "The course was organized in a way that enhanced my learning", and "The instructor's overall teaching effectiveness"; which I also hope is a reflection of the adjustments I made in approaching the flipped class between 2014 and 2015. Below are some of the comments and feedback provided by the students:


Comments that made me smile:

"Pretty well organized for how much stuff was needed. Lots of thinking by the students that was then reinforced by the teacher". (2015) vs "I think the class should be more lecture based. While the flipped idea is fun, I think that for a class with this much information, we need a lecture." (2014)

"She has made students think critically every class period. She created a new spin to the science department at BSC". (2015) VS "A better focus on making sure students are learning rather than memorizing metabolic pathways" (2014)

"I liked how she supplement the videos with some in-class explanations. The activities were pretty solid too; very helpful. The objectives were AWESOME". (2015) VS "POGIL activities - some concepts, actually most, were too complicated for the score of this course" (2014)

"Forced us to reason through problems rather than simply memorizing facts"(2015) vs "More teaching in class" (2014)


Comments that demonstrate challenges still exist: (besides the "I learn better with straight lecture" comments)


"Narrow the learning objectives to better match the exams, make the exams have stuff on them that we learned in class before taking it, link the activities in class with the material more"

"I also never felt prepared for test despite strenuously studying"

"What was on the test always took me by surprise"

So while the above comments lead me to believe that the students do realize that the flipped model is improving their ability to reason and think critically, I think they are still very unsure of themselves when it comes to the exam and believe that they should still rely on rote memorization. Now I do have to defend myself, because in re-creating the exams, I pulled questions directly (and sometimes literally) out of their in-class POGIL activities. And from the first exams where the average test grade was a D, to the third and even the cumulative final exam grades averaged around a high B; i'd have to say that the students improved DRAMATICALLY on what are very challenging exams!


Changes for next year

In order to continue improving this course, I have came up with three modifications to test next year:


  1. In the first week of class try to better model how the group should work together and the pattern of the activities. I think if we walk through the first two activities as a larger group step by step, it may help alleviate some of the stress and give them a rhythm to work with the rest of the term.
  2. Consistently remind them that the videos are there to help introduce or explain course content while the in-class meetings are designed to help them see how that content is applied. (And they need not rely on just the videos, they have a text book and internet resources at their disposal as well).
  3. Instead of requiring students to complete the video quizzes for credit, I will now have students write out their muddiest points for each video lecture/topic and submit them online (either through facebook or moodle) for a muddiest point lecture at the start of each class. While I consistently tell my students that I will address questions in my "muddiest point" mini-lectures every class meeting, I rarely actually get questions. Then at the end of the term, my students always ask that I do this more. So this way, by requiring the questions for credit, hopefully I can increase the engagement and help better address their needs for clarity.


In terms of the exams, it is my hope that now, with the redesigned exam format from last year freely available to the students to analyze and study, some of the frustrations the students voiced will decrease. I have also implemented an objective alignment activity between the video learning objectives and the in-class learning objectives to help them see how they build and grow with each other to lead them to higher order thinking and then how those higher order critical thinking skills are what I test for in the exam.


Overall, I am really pleased with how that class has progressed and am excited to see how it goes next year!! Also, stay tuned for the CAT results soon to come!

[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 posted November 2014]


Doing the Impossible is Possible – Active Learning in Large Lecture Hall Facilitated by Peer Learning Assistants

Four years ago, a small team from the Department of Chemistry and the Center for Teaching and Learning at UT Austin was challenged to participate in a University-wide effort to transform large section gateway courses (including our two-semester general chemistry sequence) from static lecture format to more engaging learning environments supported by evidence-based teaching methods that included embedded learning strategies and metacognitive skill development. The call was broad – tell us how you can increase learning outcomes, and we will give you $300,000 and three years to do it.

Increasing learning outcomes meant clearly defining the course goals and learning outcomes and redesigning the course using backward design principles; and the result should be (and indeed was) better learners with lower drop and fail rates. We decided the best choice to reach our goals would be to adopt an active, student centered method.


Web Materials and Peer Instructors


Moving from the lecture format to active methods while teaching 350 to 500 students per section seemed, to many, an impossible task. Our solution was to develop solid out-of-class learning assets including web-based text, videos, formative assessment items and skill-building worksheets; and to meter those out via online learning modules. We also hired undergraduate peer learning assistants (PLAs) to facilitate the student centered learning activities during class time, and began to develop training models for the PLAs.


The first year we piloted our transformed class with one 350-student section supported by six paid peer-learning assistants, and a post-doc who managed the assistants and the training materials.

A Training Course for Peer Assistants


By the end of the second year, we had created a full curriculum to support a class called Peer Teaching Assistants, CH372, which included professional development lessons modeled after the internationally recognized Peer Leader Academy program, daily, small group content review session plans, and an assessment plan to help the peers develop their skills by both in training class assessments and rubrics for shadowing the peers during the actual active learning class room time.


Now at full implementation, the peer leader assistant class runs each semester supporting 60 peer leaders who in turn support 6 large sections of general chemistry. Of the students taking the class for credit we pay 10 of our more experienced peers using funds from the instructional budget for the large sections (we traded in a couple of graduate TAs over all the large sections to support 10 peer leader assistants). The paid PLAs have extra responsibilities such as grading, shadowing and leading the small group content discussions in the peer leader morning training classes.


Opportunities for Peer Assistants


This new peer course is considered a service learning or experiential learning course. The students are carefully selected to join the class. Each semester we have a wait list of students who would like to take our course. After participating in the course for one semester for credit, a student may be selected to serve as paid learning assistants. Once trained by us, these students are highly sought after to work out the university-learning center or to work as PLAs in other classes such as math or physics. We regularly write letters of recommendations for the gifted leaders who join our program. Our first group has started to graduate and is moving on to great careers as graduate students, professional students and teachers.

[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

RankResourcesScoreUse by Students(%)
1Worksheets & keys3.8100
2Daily quizzes3.3100
3Study with other students2.890
5Online homework2.7100
6Hard copy textbook2.388
7Chem tours2.080
8ACS Study Guide1.859
9Kahn Academy videos1.871
10Evening tutorial sessions1.863
11Self-identified videos1.456
12Office hours1.449
13Training Center1.244
14UC Davis Wiki1.249
15Thinkwell Videos1.146
16Online textbook1.049
17Office appointments0.934

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 usually 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.

If you have been following along with me during my flipping journey, then you are aware of a study in which two colleagues (Dr. Melanie Styers and Dr. Pete Van Zandt) and I wanted to assess whether or not flipped teaching promoted critical thinking within our students... but instead of me writing about it, we thought, in good flipped teaching manner, we would make some short videos to describe our project.. here is video one which describes who we are, and why we think critical thinking is important:


[Originally published fall 2015]


Last (academic) year, I wrote about our controlled comparison of lecture and flipped courses in our non-majors General Chemistry program, which I called the Flipped Classroom Project at Marquette. Our goal was to test the flipped classroom in a large enrollment first year chemistry course. Our approach pushed lecture content outside of the class using short (13 min on avg.) videos, and one 75 min face-to-face discussion was held each week, led by the instructor and TA. The results show that performance on 5 common exams was statistically similar (p < 0.05) in the two courses across every grade demographic save one – the bottom group of students, as measured either by pretest or by percentile ranking in the prior course. Following this trend, a significant reduction in the DFW (Ds, Fs, withdrawals) % was observed in the flipped course, as compared to the lecture-based course and historical data in the course.


Where do we go from here?


Given our interest in applying the flipped approach to large enrollment, non-majors chemistry courses, we are interested in scaling up the size of the sections. In our pilot, we kept the flipped discussion enrollment at 30/section, to match the discussion size of the control. This spring, we are piloting a scale-up, using a new approach. As shown in the figure below, our laboratory floor features three adjoining labs with space for 24 students each. We plan to offer a 50 minute flipped discussion immediately prior to the lab, to be held in the same room. A teaching assistant in each room will lead discussion, with the professor floating between the 3 rooms. By holding two of these each week, we envision that 144 students can be accommodated with two discussion meetings. Moreover, we anticipate that the timing of discussion and lab affords a greater opportunity for coordination of activities.


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The Low Down

My flipped chemistry experiment at Merced College continues.  Since learning about the flipped pedagogy in Spring 2015, I have flipped my General Chemistry II, Introductory Chemistry and Pre-algebra courses.  This coming Fall semester I will flip my Intro. Chem and Intermediate Algebra  and during the Spring semester, I will flip my General Chemistry II and Statistics courses.  Students have performed better in the flipped courses than in my previous traditionally taught courses.  Last Fall, in the flipped Introductory Chemistry class, the D/F rate dropped by 50% as compared to my 5-year class average at Merced College.  Of my General Chemistry II sections taking the departmental final exam, the students in the flipped class earned the highest average thus far.  Student response to the flipping has also been very positive.  The biggest complaint that I received was from students feeling like I placed the responsibility of learning upon them and that I did not give enough time to answer questions in class.  I now remind students daily not only to write questions down, but to make sure that they get answered either in class or during the lab.


I am currently in the middle of team-teaching three sections of Introductory Chemistry during the summer session.  My portion of the session will be completed soon, but so far (3 weeks into the term), students have not only kept up with the material, but have remained engaged and are performing well.


Going well 

The biggest benefit of flipping, outside of increased student success, has been the level of engagement students show during lecture.  My polling software of choice – REEF Polling.  An in-class survey given last semester indicated that 87% of students preferred REEF Polling over Socrative.  REEF Polling is not only requires little setup time for the instructor, but it also serves as a great study tool for students.  Students have a record of all questions asked during the lecture.  One student indicated that REEF Polling uses cellular phone batteries more efficiently than Socrative  students have reported that REEF Polling does not require much data.


Needs Improvement

Now that the first set of courses have been flipped, I am faced with the dilemma of when to start re-doing the content videos.  My first set of videos were completely hand-written and recorded ad-lib.   Many of the videos were recorded the day I asked students to view them.  Some of them turned out well, but others need updating.   I want to include more examples  and streamline the content, yet keep the videos under 10 minutes long.  I also want to tie in current course learning objectives to the videos and in-class problems.


Another aspect of the course that needs improvement is in terms of the campus infrastructure.  The Wifi networks at Merced College limit how many students are logged in at any point in time and many students are being  bumped during the class time.  I estimate that this affects about 10% of the class during each lecture.  In REEF, it is clear that something is going on, as the number of logged in participants is always changing.  The campus administration agreed to look into this matter and  I will be experimenting with allowing students to use either REEF Polling or i>clickers during this coming Fall term.  The Student Success office on campus has also graciously agreed to let me pilot an i>clicker loaning program for students without an internet enabled smart device. 

Stephen Habay

Flipping NMR

Posted by Stephen Habay Nov 16, 2016

[originally posted spring 2015]


We introduce nuclear magnetic resonance topics in the second semester of organic chemistry lab. During the first two weeks of lab, we spend time lecturing on proton and carbon NMR theory and spectral interpretation with some built-in time for students to work on practice problems, learn NMR processing software (ACD/Labs NMR Processor), and become familiar with our NMR instrument. In the past, I lectured for a little over an hour using PowerPoint, then had students work on several problem sets. This approach was less than ideal. Students got very restless over the lecture portion of the lab period and would later tell me that it felt like too much information coming too fast. Further, because I spent so much time lecturing, students didn’t have enough time to work through the problems and ask questions during the lab period. I began to look for a way to make the lab less overwhelming to students, more interactive and engaging, and incorporate more time for problem solving. I have been producing video lectures and flipping some topics in lecture for over five years now, with some success. Flipping a laboratory topic such as NMR seemed more and more appealing, so I decided to try it out this year.


I recorded my usual PowerPoint presentation, but instead of one hour-long video for students to watch, I broke up the lecture into five shorter videos (approximately 10-12 minutes each) focusing on NMR theory, chemical shifts, electronic shielding, integration, and spin-spin splitting. Students were given a week before the lab period to watch the videos and be ready to work problems. They were able to print the PowerPoint slides and bring them to lab to refer to them while working on the assignments. Students, while working in small groups, were given a graded multiple choice assessment to complete by the end of the period. This assessment was used to test the basic knowledge covered in the videos. Students were also given take-home assignments of spectral interpretation problems to be turned in the following week. One major difference I noticed was that students needed much more time to complete the multiple choice assessment than in the past, when I conducted the lecture at the beginning of lab. This could be a consequence of students not watching the videos (though nearly all students claimed to have watched them) or not having the information “fresh” on their minds. So next semester I plan to use this multiple choice assessment as a pre-lab activity instead.


Overall, flipping NMR worked out well for me because of the extra time I was able to spend with each small group of students, answering questions and discussing common errors/pitfalls. It was particularly nice in lab where the total number of students is much smaller than in a lecture class. The added benefit to students was that they were able to start and progress further through the take-home assignments during lab than in the past. As a result, students scored higher on the take home assignments, presumably because they were able to ask more questions and get extra help from me and from each other. The flipped approach seems to have helped me achieve my goals of making NMR more engaging and approachable to students. It was also enormously more fun than the traditional “lecture – then problems” approach used in the past.


One additional consideration in favor of flipping NMR is that the recorded videos can be made available to any lab instructor for use in their lab sections. This can benefit those lab instructors who are comfortable guiding students through problem-solving activities, but who might not be as experienced or comfortable with lecturing on the material. Moreover, flipping NMR (or other laboratory topics for that matter) could be very useful for coordination of content across the multiple lab sections.

Kevin Revell

What's in the Flask?

Posted by Kevin Revell Nov 16, 2016

One of the challenges of teaching organic is getting students to analyze chemical reactions based on the entire chemical system.  Let me give three examples, and share a technique that I’ve found helpful in helping students think through these systems.


1.  Free Radical Halogenation

Think about the classic mechanism for this reaction:


Students struggle especially with the second step of the propagation.  If Cl2 has already been used in the initiation step, how can it be present in the second step of the propagation?  Why not just write

CH3 + Cl• à CH3Cl?

To answer this question, students need to understand the chemical environment in which the reaction is taking place. When we introduce this in class, I ask students “what’s in the flask?”  I often draw a large flask on the whiteboard, and then ask students to name the different species that are present.  What results is a picture something like this:

This image helps students recognize that the reaction vessel is filled with CH4 and Cl2 – but only a small amount of radical is present.  This leads to the important follow-up:  What will the CH3 radical more likely to encounter – a Cl radical or molecular Cl2?  The drawing seems to help students understand the context of the reaction beyond simply the balanced equation.  It also helps drive home the idea that  the propagation sequence occurs until all of the starting materials are consumed.


2.  Mechanisms

As a second example, consider the acid-catalyzed dehydration of water.   As we talk through mechanisms, I sometimes gives students a sketch like this:



I usually get plenty of questions from my organic students, like "Why isn’t “H3O+” written in the products?" or "Where does the H2SO4 go?"   And then there’s the test.  Every year, at least one student writes hydroxide as the base that abstracts the H+.  Not in a sulfuric acid solution!


The “what’s in the flask” question is a nice way to deal with these questions and misperceptions.  I often lead with an acid-base equilibrium: 

Does this equilibrium lie to the right or to the left?  Based on this, what’s in our flask?



This leads to some great questions:  Where does the “H+” written in the first step really come from?  What base is most likely to remove the H+ in the last step?  Why is it wrong to show a hydroxide ion pulling off the proton?


3.  Write the reagent

Students are sometimes overwhelmed by the myriad of ways that a single reagent can be written.  For example, we want an alkoxide base for an elimination – do we write this as NaOCH3, or just CH3O-? Or how about NaOMe/MeOH, or KOMe/MeOH?  If we use ethoxide instead of methoxide, we double the possibilities.  For many of us who teach organic, the casual use of chemical synonyms can be problematic. 


In this situation, I again find the “what’s in the flask” technique to be useful.  I like to talk with my students about how these reagents are made, then sketch the components of the flask (i.e., methanol, sodium ion, methoxide ion).  Then we talk about all the different ways this might be written (on my test, on the ACS final, on the MCAT or DAT, etc.), and how to focus on the key features of the reaction.



I was pleased when a student recently asked me to draw a flask on the board and show what was in a solution.  It was an encouraging sign.  While hard to quantify, I think this little technique is positively impacting the way my students think about chemical reactions.