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Undergraduate Education

Clearing the way for reform of general chemistry classes

Yearslong ACS project seeks to refresh the curriculum by drawing on the way high schoolers learn science

by Celia Henry Arnaud
May 18, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 19


Photo of attendees at a 2016 workshop on the development of performance expectations for general chemistry.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Attendees at a 2016 workshop on performance expectations in general chemistry.

The general chemistry course that college students take today doesn’t look much different from the one their parents took. A typical class switches from topic to topic at breakneck speed, with each disparate topic presented as a series of facts to be memorized rather than a way of thinking and approaching the world. The focus—particularly when assessing what students have learned—is often on calculations instead of chemistry.

“If you’re assessing math problems, you’re moving on people who can do math problems and not necessarily the people who have decided to learn the chemistry,” says Samuel Pazicni, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison involved in efforts to reform general chemistry. “If we assess chemistry, then we’re making sure that the folks who understand chemistry and our core ideas are moving on.”

“The vast majority of the chemistry curricula that exist across the country for gen chem are basically the same as this 1957-era arrangement a couple of p-chemists came up with,” says Ryan Stowe, also a chemistry professor at UW–Madison who focuses on curricular reforms in chemistry. He’s referring to a textbook by solid-state chemist Michell J. Sienko and inorganic chemist Robert A. Plane.

Some curricula break this mold. The best-known example might be the CLUE (Chemistry, Life, the Universe, and Everything) curriculum, developed by Melanie M. Cooper of Michigan State University and Mike Klymkowsky of the University of Colorado Boulder. It is now taught at Michigan State, but neither CLUE nor the handful of similar courses have been widely adopted.

The sluggish uptake might be due to faculty hesitance to import someone else’s curriculum.

“Implementing something that I didn’t create and didn’t know exactly where this is going hasn’t been an idea for me,” says Adrian Villalta-Cerdas of Sam Houston State University. “You have to create it in the context of your institution, with your students, with the mix of abilities that you have. You cannot just copy and paste.”

Pazicni agrees, saying, “The very nature of a curriculum is local.”

That’s where the American Chemical Society General Chemistry Performance Expectations Project comes in. (ACS publishes C&EN.) The multiyear effort, which included two workshops and follow-up collaboration, was meant to support chemistry faculty members in their efforts to reform general chemistry curricula.

If you’re adopting these ideas and really not making difficult decisions about content, especially the stuff that you know and love, you’re not doing it right.
Samuel Pazicni, chemistry professor, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Pazicni and Villalta-Cerdas were both involved with the project—Pazicni as an organizer, and Villalta-Cerdas as a participant. Pazicni and his co-organizers envisioned it as a route to a consensus process that would enable faculty to reform general chemistry one classroom activity at a time (J. Chem. Educ. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00986).

The project grew out of task force set up by the ACS Society Committee on Education (SOCED) and Division of Chemical Education (DivCHED). The team’s assignment was to figure out how to extend the principles of a framework originally developed for K–12 science education to undergraduate general chemistry courses.

That framework, which was published by the National Research Council (NRC) in 2012, is built on 3D learning, so called because it weaves together disciplinary core ideas, concepts that span disciplines and can help students connect what they learn in different disciplines, and the practices that underpin what scientists actually do. In the K–12 framework, disciplinary core ideas from chemistry include such fundamentals as chemical reactions. Concepts that crosscut disciplines include cause and effect, energy and matter, and structure and function. And the practices expose students to the ways scientists work, such as developing and using models, planning investigations, and analyzing and interpreting data. These same strands would be explored more deeply at the undergraduate level.

Activity for chemistry class
Description of an activity for general chemistry formatted using a consensus activity structure.
This entropy activity for a general chemistry class incorporates a disciplinary core idea (DCI), a crosscutting concept (CCC), and a science and engineering practice (SEP). The evidence of learning specification is an example of how students will show their understanding of the material.
Source:J. Chem. Educ. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00986.

Implementing the framework and 3D learning also requires a different approach to writing homework and exam questions—one that allows students to demonstrate that they understand the concepts and can use the practices. Assessments must be about more than rote memorization. Students have to show that they can use their knowledge.

What might that look like in a general chemistry class? Justin Carmel, a chemistry professor at Florida International University who studies the implementation of 3D learning at the undergraduate level, offers boiling points as an example. Instead of asking students to identify which compound has a higher boiling point, a 3D question would tell them which compound has the higher boiling point and ask them to explain why. “That completely flips the question on its head,” Carmel says. “Now the students need to know something, and they’re constructing an explanation. It really starts to get at that deeper knowledge.”

But students have to be taught how to use the practices. “If you ask students to construct an explanation and that’s something that they’ve never done, they’re not going to be successful because that’s not in their vernacular,” Carmel says.

Cooper, the codeveloper of CLUE, often gets pushback from people who accuse her of spoon-feeding students by teaching them how to write explanations. “It doesn’t seem to bother people that we expect students to practice calculations,” Cooper says. “If we want them to write explanations or construct models or arguments, they’ve got to practice that too.”

At the K–12 level, the NRC’s framework was the basis of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are the content standards that are used in constructing K–12 science curricula. Nothing like the NGSS exists for undergraduate science education.

To fill that gap, the SOCED-DivCHED task force asked professors to develop their own 3D learning activities that are appropriate for their courses.

“We weren’t going to write another CLUE curriculum—that way of doing this is being well developed and is being disseminated,” says Donald J. Wink, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who was a member of SOCED at the time, chair of the task force, and co-organizer of the performance expectations project. “We were looking and saying, well, let’s seed the community with ideas and methods that they can start using these things and see what happens.”

To accomplish that seeding, the project organizers held two workshops, at which attendees wrestled with what performance expectations should look like and started writing their own. After the events, the project organizers worked with interested attendees to develop activities to bring 3D learning into their general chemistry courses. The product has been a “consensus activity structure” that educators can use in developing their own activities. Models of four activities were recently published in the Journal of Chemical Education.

Rachel A. Morgan Theall of Southeast Missouri State University, who participated in the second workshop, brought what she learned home. She worked with colleagues to develop a unit about entropy that incorporated 3D learning. Whereas in the past, professors gave a lecture on entropy models, the new unit calls for students to practice using models of entropy and analyzing data.

Faculty members had to adapt some of their test questions to account for this approach. “We learned that the types of questions that you ask on those assessments mattered. You had to get the students to understand the language,” Morgan Theall says. “They were still trying to give you something that they had memorized instead of actually looking at the data and analyzing what was there.”

Joshua P. Darr, a chemistry professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, says faculty members were already working on improving student retention in general chemistry before he and two colleagues attended the workshop. They’ve since incorporated multiple activities emphasizing 3D learning into their general chemistry courses—almost one activity per week.

Project participants continue to work together. “We have examples and exemplars of faculty work,” Pazicni says. “Now we just need to build out that library.” The project team members hope to assemble a database in which faculty can share and find activities that follow the precepts of 3D learning. The team wants to continue advancing this work but has not yet succeeded in securing the necessary funding. Pazicni hopes the project will also inspire people to rethink how general chemistry courses are organized and what material is included. “If you’re adopting these ideas and really not making difficult decisions about content, especially the stuff that you know and love, you’re not doing it right,” he says.

And maybe 3D learning will move beyond general chemistry to the rest of the undergraduate chemistry curriculum. UNO’s Darr, for example, is already thinking about how he can take the approach in other classes he teaches, such as physical chemistry.

“We want an integrated chemistry curriculum over the course of a 4-year sequence,” UW–Madison’s Stowe says. “We want students drawing consistently on big ideas to make sense of things, using models that draw from all different subdisciplines of chemistry, phenomena of interest to those different subdisciplines, as they go throughout years,” he says.


This article was updated on June 25, 2021, to correct the description of Michell J. Sienko and Robert A. Plane. Sienko was a solid-state chemist, and Plane was an inorganic chemist. They were not physical chemists.


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