Reinventing the Basics:
Madison Chemistry Department Receives Pew Grant for Course Redesign
by Jennifer Smith
Large, introductory courses are notorious for posing problems for undergraduate students. Students come to these courses with wide variations in their high-school backgrounds, level of academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and interest in the subject at hand. Because of these disparities, some students excel while others have trouble keeping up and may begin to skip class, withdraw, or simply fail. As educational technology becomes more prevalent, many are seeking computer-based solutions to these perennial problems. On the Madison campus, the chemistry department has received a prestigious $200,000 grant from the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign -- an undertaking of the Pew Charitable Trusts -- to tackle these very issues.
The grant was awarded in the summer of 1999 to aid the chemistry department in revamping the Chemistry 103/104 sequence, General Chemistry I and II. These are high-enrollment courses, with Chem 103 drawing about half of the freshman class in fall semesters (roughly 2,300 students) and Chem 104 drawing about a third of freshman in the spring, or about 1,700 students. Currently, the course is made up of several components: lectures (2 per week), discussions led by teaching assistants (2 per week), and a lab. Typically, there is also a quiz each week. In the redesigned version of the courses slated for testing, none of these types of components will be dropped, but an online course module in WebCT will be added. The WebCT element will provide homework, tutorials, and quizzes. Also, the course components will be weighted differently; to "make room" for the online part, lectures and discussions will be reduced. The number of labs and quiz sections will be unaffected.
Although the planning for the Pew proposal began only about a year and a half ago, Prof. John Moore had long hoped to improve chemistry education through computers. As long ago as 1989, he wrote on the possibilities of computer instruction. Now, with the help of Pew grant support and a team of faculty and staff in the chemistry department, these long-held wishes will finally see implementation.
However, all will not be changed right away. In fall 2000, when the first redesigned version of Chemistry 103 is taught, only one out of seven sections will be delivered in the new format. The other six sections will still be offered the "traditional" way. Offering both versions simultaneously will afford the department an opportunity to compare student outcomes between the two versions. According to a paper from the Pew Symposia in Learning and Technology, "Improving Learning and Reducing Costs: Redesigning Large-Enrollment Courses" by Carol A. Twigg, several evaluation methods will be used to measure the new course's success. (Twigg's paper is downloadable at www.center.rpi.edu/PewSym/mono1.html) Students will be compared based on course tests, final grades, a national exam to assess their understanding of concepts, completion and retention rates, and their subsequent performance in related courses. The "traditional" version of Chem 103 and 104 will be offered at least until there is sufficient data collected to compare the existing and redesigned versions.
This will not be the chemistry department's first venture into web-enhanced courses. All lecture sections are currently using web-based, pre-lab tutorials and pre-lab quizzes via WebCT. However, the new 103/104 sequence will take computer instruction to a new level, letting it replace some course sessions. In addition to strengthening the course and reducing the percentage of students who fail or withdraw, one wished-for outcome is that the workload of TA's will be reduced. Once students can do homework assignments on the web, TA's will not have to spend innumerable hours grading assignments. And not only will the assignments be completed on the web, the WebCT module will be designed so that students are given tailored feedback, letting them know what their weak points are and directing them to appropriate resources to beef up their skills. At this time, there are no plans to reduce the number of TA's affiliated with the courses. TA's will still be crucial to the course, but their duties will shift. They will help manage and update the online course module and will most likely supervise some exercises done in a computer lab. Some quizzes given online will need to be done in a secure environment, and a TA present in a computer lab with the students provides that.
The developers of the new Chemistry 103/104 have included Professor John Moore, two post-doctoral fellows (one supported by the department, one by the National Science Foundation), and several graduate students. WebCT technical support will be provided by DoIT, the Madison campus' information technology division, and chemistry faculty assistant Ed Fedosky. Through the Pew financial support and reduced course costs, the chemistry department expects to recoup its investment in course redesign fairly quickly. According to Pew literature, the cost of offering the course will be reduced by 28% on a cost-per-student basis. Given the large enrollment of the general chemistry sequence, this should result in an annual savings of roughly $295,000. Although there are not yet plans to redesign other chemistry courses, it is possible that other basic, large-enrollment classes may eventually be transformed.
Although the real adventure has yet to begin -- the actual delivery of the new General Chemistry courses -- hopes are high that the project will produce the outcomes behind the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign: improved student learning and reduced costs. With success, the chemistry department will serve as a useful model for other large-enrollment courses on the Madison campus and throughout the UW System.
For more information, please contact John Moore, Professor of Chemistry.