Program in Course Redesign

University of Iowa

The Traditional Course

General Chemistry I, the first of a two-semester sequence, enrolls approximately 1,300 students annually, between 550 and 750 each in the fall and spring semesters. Students in the College of Engineering, pre-professional programs (pharmacy, medicine, dentistry majors), and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (biology, geosciences, environmental sciences, exercise science, and speech pathology majors) enroll in the course to fulfill program requirements.

In its traditional lecture-recitation format, General Chemistry is offered in large lectures of 250-400 students each and discussion sections of 25 led by teaching assistants (TAs). Students attend lectures for three hours per week where faculty present lectures structured linearly to cover information in the text. Students also attend TA-led discussion sections for one hour per week where TAs often function as mini-lecturers. General Chemistry lab is a separate, one-semester course comprising one one-hour lecture and one three-hour laboratory session per week.

The current General Chemistry course faces three specific academic problems:

  • The course has a 30% Drop-Failure-Withdrawal (D-F-W) rate.
  • The traditional lecture-recitation format puts students in the role of passive learners. As a result, students who take General Chemistry as preparation for other courses do not retain knowledge.
  • Students from a wide variety of disciplines and majors do not learn material that relates directly to their interests.

The Redesigned Course

The prime objective of the course redesign is to use technology to create a more active learning environment and to provide a variety of opportunities for students to apply General Chemistry concepts and skills to real-world situations in their areas of interest. These changes should decrease the high D-W-F rate and improve students' retention of chemical knowledge and skills as well as the analytical reasoning abilities fostered by that learning. In addition, the redesigned environment will address students' different learning styles and background.

General Chemistry I will be reintegrated with the General Chemistry lab. The course will offer a modular approach to the material, chunking various types of activities together around a particular concept. For example, faculty will present concepts, apply them directly to demonstrations, ask students to participate in quick concept tests at intervals to test their understanding, and refocus the lecture based on student response.

The redesign relies heavily on technology. In lectures, faculty will use multimedia formats for demonstrations, and students will use personal response devices to answer concept tests. Small groups will use commercially-available, online materials and tutorials that promote active learning. Mastering Chemistry, a Web-based self-assessment and teaching tool, will help students practice problem-solving and help instructors monitor student performance as the course progresses. Additional Web tutorials for the math and calculation skills that support chemistry learning will address the different entry backgrounds of students by providing instruction as needed without the intervention of instructors or TAs.

Labs will be discovery-based, and group work will be emphasized. Discussion sections will link lecture content with lab experiments by using case studies focusing on real-world applications. Students will work in small groups of 2 to 4 with instructor or TA mentors, each organized according to particular areas of academic interest.

Traditional Course Structure (Lecture and Lab Courses)

  • 15-week term
  • 4 large lecture sections annually of 250-400 students each
  • 3 lab-lecture sections annually of 300-350 each
  • 42 discussion sections annually of 30 students each
  • 40 lab sections annually of 23 students each
  • 8 contact hours per week: 3 (1-hour) lectures, 1 (1-hour) discussion, 1 (1-hour) lab lecture and 1 (3-hour) lab
  • Two faculty members each teach one lecture section of the course. They prepare and deliver three lectures per week, coordinate TAs, and develop assignments and exams.
  • One faculty member teaches the lab-lecture course. He or she prepares and delivers two lab-lectures per week (each offered to half the students in the class), coordinates labs, develops lab assignments, and trains and prepares TAs.
  • Twenty-one and a half TAs per term conduct weekly recitation sessions, supervise labs, grade homework (over 16,000 assignments per term), and grade tests and lab assignments.
  • One Lab Director participates in weekly TA training, coordinates the grading of laboratory reports and supervises and enforces TA and student safety procedures.
  • Chemistry Center staff coordinate returning laboratory exams, quizzes, and reports to students; and duplicate discussion section and laboratory quizzes.

Redesigned Course Structure (Combined Lecture and Lab Course)

  • 15-week term
  • 4 large lecture sections annually with 250-400 students each
  • 42 (1-hour) face-to-face discussion sections (25-30 students) annually meeting every other week
  • 56 (1.5-hour) lab sections annually (20-24 students) meeting every other week
  • 3-3.5 contact hours per week: 2 (1-hour) lectures, 1 (1-hour) discussion section or 1 (1.5-hour) lab
  • Two faculty members each teach one section of the course. They prepare and deliver two lectures per week, prepare and organize activities for discussion sections, train and prepare TAs for lecture-discussion sections, update online learning materials, and monitor student progress.
  • Two instructors lead discussion sections, manage three to five lab sections, train and prepare TAs for lab sections and monitor student progress.
  • Seventeen and a half TAs lead discussion sections, mentor students in labs, evaluate tests and lab assignments, and hold any optional review sessions as needed.
  • Chemistry Center staff coordinate returning laboratory exams, quizzes, and reports to students; and duplicate discussion section and laboratory section quizzes.


In summary, the redesigned course will implement the following changes:

  • Reintegrate the lab course with the General Chemistry lecture course
  • Reduce lectures from three to two per week
  • Change remaining lecture sessions to incorporate demonstrations and concept tests for active learning that address various learning styles
  • Eliminate the lab-lecture
  • Provide students with various types of small group work opportunities: with TAs in discussion sections covering general course concepts, with TAs conducting experiments in the lab, and with an instructor and other students in their major working on special topic case study discussions
  • Alternate discovery-based, hands-on labs with case study discussion sections
  • Support learning with asynchronous Web tutorials on course concepts and related mathematical and calculation skills
  • Shift TA roles from "mini lecturers" to mentors who provide students with individual help as needed
  • Reduce faculty from three to two
  • Reduce the number of TAs by four because of automated grading of homework



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