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Why the ChemWiki?


Joshua Halpern, Dept. of Chemistry, Howard University, Washington, DC 2002


Discussion about textbook price is anchored to cost.  Here I argue that cost is a relatively minor issue in the choice of books by instructors but rather ancillary services offered by the publishers dominates.  Thus, any attempt to replace published textbooks with open on line educational resources must pay careful attention to providing these.  This drives the current transformation of the ChemWIKI into a Stem Hyperlibrary

The discussion about on-line textbooks revolves around cost, and indeed, this is an important and vexing problem.  The costs of textbooks has grown faster than the cost of drugs.  As Joseph Weissman at the Atlantic has shown this has indeed become absurd. [Weissmann, 2013]

The first part of this essay will describe the roots of dysfunction in the US textbook market and the role of faculty. Students, of course, are increasingly burdened by these costs.  Recently, faculty, administrators and even legislators have become more aware of the pressures this is putting on students. Still, the question remains, are no-cost on line textbooks sufficient motivation for faculty to actively participate in creating and using them.  That question will be addressed in the second part of the essay in the context of my own experience and the ChemWIKI project.  While growing textbook cost was Delmar Larsen’s initial impetus for creating the ChemWIKI [Rusay et al., 2011], it is my opinion that cost to students alone is not sufficient motivation for faculty to use open on line educational resources (OOER) in their classes.  The third section of this paper will discuss how this will require building out OOERs to become fully capable educational systems, not just online textbooks.

Who ordered that?

If it is a college textbook, the professor.  Publishers market their books to faculty, rather than to students who purchase them.  In 2005 the GAO issued a report on the costs of textbooks requested by David Wu (R) Representative from Oregon.[Ashby, 2005]  This report was heavily influenced by the publishers who insisted that the increase in cost was driven by the enhancements that competition forced them to incorporate.  Textbooks are marketed and in great part selected based on the services that the publishers offer to faculty including such “traditional” features as publishers representatives, desk copies, solution manuals, test banks and slides and more modern apps including online homework systems. 

Interestingly textbook cost is a non-partisan issue in the US.  Both right [Perry, 2015] and left [Farrell, 2015] are considerably dissatisfied with the status quo but neither side goes much beyond the cost issue.

The economics are simple. At a large university the GChem course might have 1000 students or more. At $250 for the book (more if the students are offered the "package") that is $250,000 about 75% of which goes to the publisher and the rest to the bookstore. Of course, this has been less and less the case with the textbook market moving on line. To an extent this explains the changing attitude of administrators as bookstore profits have disappeared.  Bookstores have been increasingly outsourced and are now regarded more as services and less as profit centers. 

The cost of tuition at community colleges is of the order or $100/credit hour, and the cost of a textbook is $250 for a three credit course.  The situation is negatively affecting higher education in the US as students seek to escape economic thrall by not buying books, and selling them back as soon as they can.

There is increasing awareness of the textbook cost problem as an important component in the cost of higher education.  The Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission for example came up with a list of best practices [Workgroup, 2014]

  • Alter the tuition and fee formula at OUS schools so that fees include the instructional materials for the course.
  • Creation of Open Educational Resource web archive or wiki or portal.
  • Create a cost of instructional materials index.
  • Review and strengthen existing textbook affordability policies created by OUS and the Board of Higher Education.
  • Perform a cost-benefit analysis of the use of library reserves of required texts.
  • Explore cost savings from promoting the production of instructional materials, not just textbooks, with both Creative Commons and traditional copyright and licensing rights.
  • Negotiate statewide licenses, not for individual textbooks, but for full access to a publisher’s library.
  • Investigate the possible abuse of “custom editions” by faculty and publishers.

Individual colleges within Oregon are responding to this initiative with their own studies and programs to reduce textbook costs [Moody et al., 2015] as well as at many other universities. [Waltz, 2015]. 

Yet given issues of academic freedom in higher education associated with a faculty member’s absolute responsibility for the courses that they teach, OOERs will have to provide significant advantages to faculty beyond cost to be broadly adopted. 

My experience

Let’s start with teaching, in particular my teaching.  Over the years I concluded that the Atoms First approach is superior.  Most General Chemistry texts and courses teach an historical sequence of many simple models for chemical bonding and reaction. As each model is stacked on the next to extend them and handle myriad exceptions to each, students struggle. Why each of these simplifications works and their limits of applicability is not obvious, or at least not so until the course reaches the last few weeks when instructors rush through the quantum basis of atomic and molecular structure.  At that point, perhaps in the last lectures of the term, when it is explained how each of the historical models is an expression of quantum mechanics, everyone, hopefully, nods their heads and says "Oh yeah".

For a number of reasons, including the unwillingness to reorganize their course, a contract with a publisher to provide a cost break, and issues about timing of teaching stoichiometry and thermochemistry, none of my colleagues were willing to go to an Atoms First book.  At first I used the traditional textbook but simply varied the order in which the chapters were taught.  This was not very well received.  Frankly it confused the students, so I was attracted to the ChemWIKI, where I could with some effort build my own text that students could use without having to invest another $300 if they moved out/into my section at the end of the first semester.

I made two discoveries.  First that the medium allowed new and useful messaging using videos, applets and other on line resource.  Further, in Henry Pence’s frame by inserting links, applets, videos and more, I could, to an extent, control the direction of the student’s multi-tooling.

Second, an on line text is never perfect and never done.  The aim in the first pass through was to provide a useful text that could be improved.  The first chapters I put together, were different than the last, as new bells and whistles were added.  Student feedback is also important.  For example, in the next rewrite, I will be adding explicit links between the textbook and my lecture notes, which I also distribute. 

Another example of the flexibility of the ChemWIKI is a new text that I am writing with colleagues at Prince George’s Community College.  Many engineering students, EEs, MEs and CEs only take one semester of General Chemistry.  This is a problem, because many topics important to engineers are not covered in the first semester, including equilibrium and kinetics

The atoms first text is being rewritten to serve a one semester Chemistry course for Engineers that includes kinetics, equilibria and materials science, nuclear chemistry, etc.  Because most general chemistry courses are oriented towards student who are interested in health science careers, supplementary materials are often not very interesting for engineers.  Our approach is to strip out of a one semester general chemistry for engineers material that the students will cover elsewhere, and to assume that engineering students are more mathematically sophisticated than the average general chemistry student.  This will allow PGCC to cover key subjects not usually taught in the first semester.  

This flexibility is inherent to the design of the ChemWIKI and the developing Hyperlibrary.  It is a key feature for faculty looking to extend their course “beyond the book”.

 Beyond Textbooks - The Future

Science is a gift culture where discoveries and help are freely given and those who contribute the most are the most highly valued.  A key to establishing high quality OOERs will be extending this ethic to educational resources so the effort of all who participate is rewarded.  A perplexing cultural issue is that research intensive universities have more problems with this than non-research habituated ones. The rise of chemical education as a separate area of chemistry has improved this situation, but it will also be important to attract those working and teaching in the traditional chemical divisions to creation of materials, and some systematic rewards, including released time and credit for step raises and promotion should be instituted by departments and schools.  This is justified by efforts at controlling student costs locally and on state and federal levels.


The Hyperlibrary of the Future

Delmar Larsen of the University of California Davis started the ChemWIKI project provide open, no cost, on line chemistry textbooks of high quality.  Integration of other areas including physics, math, biology, and geology are growing the ChemWIKI into a StemWIKI Hyperlibrary.  Currently the ChemWIKI with over 7.5 million page views by over 5.3 million visitors per month is a powerful mechanism for dissemination of content, a new NSF IUSE grant supports development of digital evaluation of the on line material and inclusion of complementary ancillaries that will transform the StemWIKI Hyperlibrary into a complete Open On Line Educational System.  

Key to this will be the development of a Student Advancement Rating and Inquiry System (SARIS).  SARIS will be open-access and can be closely integrated with STEMWiki pages providing formative evaluation of students, teaching methods and the STEMWikis. SARIS is being developed with advanced assessment infrastructure leveraging "big data" applications such as stock market analysis.

SARIS will be forked from the existing Qoll system ( that is in the initial stages of testing with Hyperlibrary content. The Intelligent Homework System underlying SARIS departs from existing homework management systems by developing knowledge structures that continually evolve in a Bayesian fashion to fit the progress of individual students, thus supporting diversity in learning styles as well as their pre-existing biases.[Gelman et al., 2004]  Bayesian statistics build on the idea that modelers of a real world phenomenon should keep updating their views of the world (i.e., model parameter values change as new information comes in). This idea introduces variables in the model of knowledge structures that will put the student and teachers at the center of the estimation and adaptive feedback methods. Bayesian statistics are formative, [Neal, 1995] with each new piece of data used to update the model, while frequentist statistics require enough data to form a distribution against which new data is compared. Thus, Bayesian methods provides usable estimates from relatively smaller data sets.[Baker and Yacef, 2009]

Quoll functions as an open-access Bring Your Own Device classroom response system.  Instructors will be able to couple the response system to SARIS for in-class individual assessment and have the option of including the in class assessment into the course assessment.

Robert Belford, one of the co-PIs on the IUSE grant is integrating ChemCollective Virtual Laboratory (VL) simulations into the Hyperlibrary where they can be used not only as laboratory exercises, but also as lecture simulations.  For graded assignments at the University of Arkansas Little Rock and other participating schools (this will require IRB approval) student will have separate logons that will generate maps of how the students use the VLs resulting in a better understanding of how students learn the material.

With the integration of evaluation and homework systems, a sign on application is needed.  The proposed system will feature centralized authentication across all Hyperlibrary applications. While the SARIS features will not be accessible without sign ons, all other features will be universally accessible.

Jason Shorb at Hope College will port ChemPRIME into the ChemWIKI.  ChemPRIME was originally developed John Moore at Wisconsin and absorbed by the American Chemical Society, however they have not maintained the site and it has been attacked by spammers.  Integration into the Hyperlibrary will revive this pioneering effort and make it available to large numbers of students.


Textbooks are chosen by and marketed to faculty for whom price is not a controlling concern.  Open, on-line electronic resources are a promising response but have not really met the challenge of providing ancillary resources for instructors associated with modern texts.  This limits market penetration.  The migration of the ChemWIKI to a STEM Hyperlibrary will provide an integrated Open On-Line Education System controlled and created by faculty for the benefit of educators and students.


Ashby, C. M. (2005), College Textbooks: Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases, 51,

Baker, R. S. J. D., and K. Yacef (2009), The State of Educational Data Mining in 2009: A

Review and Future Visions, Journal of Educational Data Mining, 1(1), 3-16.

Farrell, H. (2015), College textbooks are a racket,

Gelman, A., J. Carlin, H. Stern, D. Dunson, and A. Vehtari, Rubin., D. (2004), Bayesian data analysis, edited, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL

Moody, M. K., et al. (2015), Reducing Student Costs: A Report on Textbooks and Course Materials., Portland State University PDXScholar, Reducing Student Cost Intiative I,

Neal, R. M. (1995), Bayesian Learning For Neural Networks, in Computer Science, edited, Computer Science, Totonto, CA.

Perry, M. J. (2015), The new era of the $400 college textbook, which is part of the unsustainable higher education bubble, edited, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, Dc,

Rusay, R. J., M. R. Mccombs, M. J. Barkovich, , and D. S. Larsen (2011), Enhancing Undergraduate Chemistry Education with the Online Dynamic ChemWiki Resource, Journal of Chemical Education, 88(6), 840.

Waltz, A. R. (2015), Open Textbooks and Beyond: Access Affordability, and Academic Success, edited, p. 51, Virginia Tech, Blackburg, VA,

Weissmann, J. (2013), Why are college textbooks so absurdly expensive?, The Atlantic,

Workgroup, T. A. (2014), Adopting Best Practices for Textbook Affordability, edited by H. E. C. Commission, p. 17, Portland OR,


 A Brief (and Probably Unnecessary for Most) Introduction to the ChemWIKI

The ChemWIKI is divided, like Gaul, into three parts.  The first, the core, is composed of modules, which either can be organized as texts,,
or as single subjects,,

These texts can be used free standing or linked together for instruction.

The second is a series of textbook maps (many of the maps are not yet finished).  The idea is to present material that matches the content and order of various textbooks.  While not identical with a particular textbook these are especially useful in the case where a student cannot afford the textbook.  An example would be the map for McQuarrie and Simon, Physical Chemistry

The third part includes teaching material for various courses.  These range from complete texts

to texts under construction

and textbook maps

The ChemWIKI is growing to cover more areas of science, including biology  geology statistics physics  and math .

Individual modules in these daughter wikis may be interesting to chemistry students, for example the section on biochemistry in the biowiki

11/19/15 to 11/21/15


Thanks for presenting this important paper. Because my own project provides a low-cost option for chemistry classes with no chemistry prerequisite, it's a topic that I've often considered.

I think that the ChemWiki is a great project, but I worry about some things that I think are extremely important. I think that beginning chemistry students should be presented a coherent, consistent, and interconnected package of text and tools, and I worry that when several or many people are involved in the creation of the text and tools, the presentation might end up being too disjointed. It can end up more like a series of separate topics than like a coherent story that flows from one interconnected topic to another. It's important that the language is consistent throughout and that terms are not used before they are defined. It's also important that concepts are carefully presented after the background necessary for truly understanding the concept has been presented, and that these concepts are presented in a logical manner that smoothly builds the students' understanding.

When a traditional textbook is created, there's a team of folks making sure that these things happen. When my text was in production with Benjamin Cummings (Pearson), I had two developmental editors who checked the whole package for clarity, consistency, and interconnectedness. I also had reviewers, copy editors, layout experts, artists, and others. I greatly appreciated all of these people. Does the ChemWiki have people volunteering to perform these roles?

Is there a primary author that acts as person who ties the different sections together and makes sure that they are consistent with the tools?

I'll describe the history of my project because it shows another model for providing a low-cost text and tools, and it might show one way that contributors to ChemWiki can be identified. As I mentioned, my text was first published by Benjamin Cummings (Pearson). I've been told that only one in ten book contracts that are signed lead to published books and many of those do not make it past the first edition. Because Benjamin Cummings picked up two books written for the same market after I signed my contract (Russo-Silver and Timberlake), they decided not to publish a second edition of my text. It had a non-traditional order (it's what I now call the chemistry-first version of my text), so it sold the fewest copies. It's common to have a clause in the contract that says that the publishing rights revert to the author if the publisher decides not to bring out a second edition, so I got the publishing rights back. I didn't want to let the project go, so I decided about ten years ago to create an online form of the book that I would provide for free. After that, it was one thing leads to another. First, I created a second, atoms-first version of my text to provide an option to the chemistry-first version. (In fact, I'm pleased that my text is once again top of the list when one Googles "atoms first".) Next, I launched into doing all of the things necessary to have viable text and tools. There's a lot more to creating a text than writing text and problems. It needs images illustrating concepts, photos for interest and examples, and a coherent and aesthetically pleasing layout. I've been blessed (cursed?) with a mildly compulsive spirit, so I learned how to do all of these things and did them myself. Are there people working on the ChemWiki who do these things?

Instructors didn't want to adopt a text without a physical book available, so I started printing and selling physical books. I created Chiral Publishing Company to distribute them. The books evolved from soft-cover, black-and-white, digitally printed books to hard-cover, full-color, offset printed books. Although physical books will only be of historical interest in a few years, I think for books to get wide adoption, they still need to be available in physical form. Does ChemWiki have a plan to print some form of a physical book?

Although few (if any) people would want to take on a project as huge as mine has been (I've often said that if I knew how much work my project was going to be, I never would have started it), it seems to me that books for which the rights have been returned to authors would be a great resource for projects like ChemWiki. Because of the work that the publishers did to create the text, hey would provide the coherent core for a wiki project. Has there been any attempt to find these books and authors? It seems like they could be very useful for the ChemWiki project.

If anyone wants to know more about my project, check out the following links.

Mark Bishop

Wonderful comment. We owe thanks to the many people such as yourself who have created content for teaching their students. The Stem Hyperlibrary is, in my humble opinion, an effort to bring much of this content into a unified database with appropriate linkages. Given the diversity of content out there, developing the "card catalog" is going to be an important, major component for building the Hyperlibrary. The Hyperlibrary puts me in mind of a science fiction story that I read many years ago, when all knowledge was held in a small, dense, shoebox sized data base, around which catalogs and catalogs of catalogs and so forth grew. Sadly one day the shoebox of knowledge was lost and civilization collapsed.

Let me reply to the single voice issue.

The textbook section of the Stem Hyperlibrary does contain several textbooks that were written with a single voice by ne person or teams. Moreover, since all of the material is under a Creative Commons Copyright, once you have arranged with Delmar Larsen to get authoring privileges you can modify the material to meet your needs, either by altering a textbook in the library or by altering/combining individual sections. The Stem Hyperlibrary (of which the ChemWIKI is the foundational part) offers faculty the ability to modify content to meet their needs. All content is available for copying AND modification AND distribution under a Creative Commons Copyright.

The structure itself supports team development. Delmar uses students as well as colleagues for this. I have not yet gone so far, although the PGCC engineering text is being developed with two colleagues at PG. So you can have the team, but you have to build the team. I have stabbed at this a few times. One of the problems I ran into was that people wanted to be paid. The gift ethic only goes so far. One way out of this would be to get grant funding, another would be to get released time/raises based on your work.

In setting up my textbook, making sure that concepts were defined before being used was a challenge. One of the most troublesome was the need to define moles early on before doing stoichiometry. My answer to that was reprising the concept at the beginning of the molecular structure component and then when stoichiometry was introduced.

Finally, I would encourage you to think about moving or linking your content to the Hyperlibrary.

Josh Halpern

Do e-books and wikis improve learning compared with textbooks? What particular attributes do these ways of learning have that differ from the usual textbook to help students?

Hi Brian,

I think the answer to both of your questions is situation dependent. Is one better than the other? Well, there is a place for both, but which is better in the sense of improving learning? I think that is a consequence of the interplay between where the student is, where the teacher is, and where/how the text connects them.

As for your second question on particular attributes, that is deep, and I hope to have time to chirp in, and I do look forward to hear/see what others say. But in my eyes, we are talking 21st century literacy. Personally, I like the thought of “Beyond Gutenberg”, in the sense that the printing press enabled a form of intellectual revolution when it brought the printed word to the hand of the masses, … to such an extent that the United Nations now considers literacy to be a fundamental human right. … but that is old….

In early December there is a very interesting symposium at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto on the Future of Text, , and I hope some of the talks (like mine), approach your question. But you have a very good question. The FOT symposium is open to the public, and all the talks should be available online for free (at least in the past they have).

But part of the answer to your question is; What is the future of text?


rpendarvis's picture

The book "The No Significant Difference Phenomenon As Reported in 355 Research Reports, Summaries and Papers" Paperback – 1999 by Thomas L. Russell, summarized the effect of different technologies in distance education. This was a compilation of a good many studies by various people, including the military. The results are pretty well summarized in the title. Much comes down to motivation and it appears that technology in itself does not motivate. Who will bother is what it really distills down to. Assuming that anything done will bring about any particular results violates my 2nd Law of Educational Thermodynamics 'All of your work can be wasted".

Some of the technologies used in distance education are not successful for simple practical reasons. Most students take distance learning classes for the simple reason that their schedule is chaotic. Things like simulated real time class meetings are rarely useful because there is no way to work within everyone's schedule.

Best Wishes

Richard Pendarvis, Ph.D.
Brenau University

DelmarLarsen's picture


I think they can, but I think things are still immature to demonstrate significantly that ebooks/wikis augment learning. We need to learn how to take full advantage of them

What I can say is that they can be as good as conventional texts. We did a pilot last year where I taught two 500 student classes; one with the ChemWiki as the text and one with the current commercial text (Petrucci) at $240 (new). The results of this pilot were published in both a CERP paper and an Educause Brief

Based on results from the assessment tools implemented in the 2014 spring quarter ChemWiki pilot, no statistical differences existed in either class’s performance or in changes in thinking like a professional. Each class performed equally well on the in class exams, had similar normalized learning gains. Student performance was measured using common midterms, final, and a pre/post content exam. We also employed surveys, the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS) for Chemistry, and a weekly time-on-task survey to quantify students’ attitudes and study habits.


Tom O'Haver's picture

Even if it turns out that the entire wealth of the global Internet is no better that $250 printed textbooks for *formal* education, I think there can be no doubt that it has immense value for the millions of students, instructors, researchers, and science workers around the globe who need help with a particular subject, concept, or method, even if they don't have access to that textbook.

If the stuff that we write is on the open Internet, people will find it, and a fraction of those will think it relevant, and for a fraction of those it will be useful, and a fraction of those might even be motivated to write to you and thank you. This mostly goes unreported and unappreciated.

And anyway, Larsen is right - it's too early to judge and certainly too early to stop trying. The next technical development may be the one that changes it all. Or not.

In September the UC Davis team published a paper comparing the ChemWIKI to textbooks in class. the long and the short of it was that there was no measurable difference, but this was the raw ChemWIKI text, so the planned enhancements may make a difference. In any case the lower cost and the future availability of the ChemWIKI may have downstream effects!divAbstract
.....The effectiveness of using this OER was assessed by comparing two general chemistry classes, one using ChemWiki and one using a traditional textbook, during the spring quarter of 2014. Student performance was measured using common midterms, final, and a pre/post content exam. We also employed surveys, the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS) for Chemistry, and a weekly time-on-task survey to quantify students’ attitudes and study habits. The effectiveness of the ChemWiki compared to a traditional textbook was examined using multiple linear regression analysis with a standard non-inferiority testing framework. Results show that the performance of students who were assigned readings from the ChemWiki section was non-inferior to the performance of students in the section who were assigned readings from the traditional textbook, indicating that the ChemWiki does not substantially differ from the standard textbook in terms of student learning outcomes. The results from the surveys also suggest that the two classes were similar in their beliefs about chemistry and minimal overall study time. These results indicate that the ChemWiki is a viable cost-saving alternative to traditional textbooks.

SDWoodgate's picture

Non-inferiority and cost may speak for e-books, but in my view the real advantage of e-books is the variety of learning opportunities that can be integrated with the text such as the animations that have been mentioned. BUT even this scenario is not a particular advance on the text book plus lecture format where the same animations could be done in a classroom setting. The thing about e-books which is distinct to either lectures or physical text books is that they can provide a variety of question opportunities which probe in a detailed way the concepts at hand. Computer-generated feedback associated with user responses provides great learning opportunities for the students. Furthermore if the text is set up properly so that it is linked to a database, it provides great learning opportunities for the teacher to discover through the usage data how the students are handling the questions and how they are using the textbook. Reading static pages is not an advance over reading a textbook. Interacting with the system and receiving feedback from the system is! It is not technology per se that enhances learning. The technology has to be used in a pedagogically effective way.

I must respectfully disagree with my colleague that animations in e-textbooks are similar to , ". . . the lecture where the same animations could be done in a classroom setting." One of my guiding principles was that a student never really sees a demonstration or an animation the first time it is presented. Even if you carefully explain in advance what the demo or animation is going to do, the amount of visual information is often too much for students to absorb at one viewing. For example, the classic case that convinced me of this was a molecular simulation of a simple chemical reaction. I carefully explained what was going to happen, then performed the animation, then summarized the main points from the animation. After class, one of my better students came up to me with a question. He said, "It looks like most of the molecular collisions don't produce any reaction. Is this true?" This was a point I had emphasized before the animation, during the animation, and in the summary afterwards. I agreed that he was correct. AS Oscar Wilde said, "There is a difference between looking and seeing."

One advantage of etextbooks is that they not only show animations but also allow students to repeat each animation as often as they want until they are thoroughly familiar with it. For the same reason, I used to encourage students to take videos of demonstrations with their cell phones. I accepted the fact that taking a video during the class meant they didn't really see much of what went on, but I hoped that this was compensated for by their ability to review the process as often as they wanted later on. With an ebook, this comes with the territory. Students can dedicate their full attention during class, knowing that their textbook allows them to repeat the experience as often as they want afterwards.


Using animations and interactive animations including self tests on the material seems to be a place wheree learning would be superior to just reading a textbook. I agree with Harry that just showing an animation isn't too effective. I've used animations in class after explaining a given phenomena, say the photoelectric effect. The animation would be interactive so I could change some parameters, explain and answer questions. Then put it on automatic, and asked the students to take out sheet of paper and write a description what's happening in the animation. I would collect the papers with no names on them shuffle them and then just read a few of the descriptions. We discussed in class how accurate the student description was. Generally a very high percentage of answers were incomplete or just wrong. Questions on the Photoelectric effect on subsequent tests were answered very well by the class as a whole.

We spent a lot of time on the topic so you would expect to get good results.


Brian asks the question.

"Do e-books and wikis improve learning compared with textbooks?"

I wonder if we even need to debate the broad question of eBook vs. physical book. I think the question about eBooks is more "When?" rather than "If?". eBooks have so many advantages over physical books that in just a few years, they will be the primary tool and physical books will only be for those without access to devices for eBooks. The educational, political, and social questions of the future will be related to how we get Internet-connected devices into the hands of students around the world, not whether it's better to have eBooks or physical books.

I think that the more important questions are, "What are the best forms for eBooks?" and "What attributes do we retain from physical books?"

I think we shouldn't lose sight of the importance of the second question. For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, I think that one thing we need to carry over from physical books is their ability to present a logical, consistent, stepwise development of a way of thinking.


Is there any research that indicates particular aspects of elearning or e-books such as animations, that are impossible to do in textbooks, have a real advantages for learning. In a previous post it was indicated that there seems to be little difference between using regular textbook or in a etextbook for overall Learning. If we know what type of student interactions with the e-books is most effective then perhaps we can make learning more effective.


DelmarLarsen's picture


I would bet solid money the PhET and ChemCollective guys have data for their visualizations. I am unaware of animation arguments, but that doesn't mean much since I am new to this field.


Roy Jensen's picture

What if there is no benefit?
Richard reminded us of the book, "The No Significant Difference Phenomenon ..."
What if what we are really doing is catering to expectations without enhancing learning. The students are happier, our ratings go up, but the learning is the same.

I am familiar with the use of Concept Inventories to assess learning. Are there any other validated methods of assessing learning?

DelmarLarsen's picture

Even if we eventually only match current learning levels, we still have made an impact in reducing student education costs. While this is not a priority for many of faculty, but it is to most students.

SDWoodgate's picture

That is the point that I repeatedly make - collecting data about student responses does give us clues. Students have to be engaged with the content to learn. Engagement for a particular activity can be measured by the percentage of students who begin the activity and finish it. There is no measure of learning involved here, but the first step to learning is engagement.

If content is developed systematically, do we see an improvement in student performance as the activity progresses? Are there lots of give-ups in frustration? Maybe (it is even likely) that what is systematic to us is not systematic to them. Transfer questions at the end of the activity can also give us clues. These are all only clues, not a magic bullet, but I can assure you that I know a tremendous amount more about what students can cope with than I did when I started working on BestChoice 13 years ago, and the best part is that the data comes in all of the time (even when I sleep).

I'll try not to be too cynical, but is there much evidence that textbook choice has much of any bearing on student performance? I wonder if the conclusion to draw from "there was no statistical difference in performance" between open-access and traditional textbooks isn't that they are equally good, but rather that textbooks, regardless of format, just aren't being used by students.

My experience is that a small fraction of students dig into the text but the majority either never buy the textbook or rarely crack it open. Even advanced undergrads will generally Google or watch a Youtube video before opening the textbook. I often feel like the textbook is mostly for me (the instructor) and not for the students. That's why things like online homework system and ancillaries seem more important that the particulars of the text itself.

Then there is the advent of "active learning" and "flipped classrooms" that seem to, in practice, downplay the textbook almost entirely. I don't think students really know what to do with a textbook and if there isn't anything motivating them to use it I can't imagine why it would matter what textbook is used, or even if a textbook is used.


Yep, totally happening in my classes (I'm a student so I don't know about how is used to be, but textbooks just feel like an overload of information, IMHO the things we really need to know could fit on a much smaller number of pages, even if you include background information)

Roy Jensen's picture

While there is debate amongst academics on the merits of wiki's, ebooks, physical books, I submit there is one thing we do agree on: STUDENTS DO NOT KNOW what information they need to know for their future career(s). Your statement falls into the category of ignorance and laziness, and can be summed up with the following quote
"Education seems to be the only commodity of which the customer tries to get as little he can for his money." -- Max Leon Forman
Institutions that accommodate this demand to stifle student whining are setting students, and society, up to fail.

One meta-objective of textbooks is to inform you that of what you do not know, and probably need to know for your career.

DelmarLarsen's picture

I presume Herman was referring to "need to know" in response to his class performance rather than a professional evaluation. Whether than fits long term interest for his career can be debated upon a more thorough inspection of the syllabus and notes for this class.

osrothen's picture


I’m a sequential learner, and it drives me crazy. I could do so much more if I could follow the path of a problem without having to fill in all of the sequential steps to my starting point of a problem.

Over the years, I have known students who are non-sequential learners. They generally share two characteristics: They are brilliant, and they are driven! They are also far from lazy - naive maybe, but not lazy.

I’ve know Herman for some time now because we share an interest in cheminformatics and molecular visualization. Despite his youth, he has in many ways become my teacher. He is a driven work horse.

Stay tuned for paper nine in this series!


Roy, I might have far, far less experience than you, but I have read textbooks, occasionally. And often they are not compact, and not straightforward (IMO). But that makes sense because everyone processes data differently. But I often feel that after I have read 10 pages, I could create a condensed 2 pages which would explain all that was in those 10 pages to my younger self. And so far all students I have met agree with me. A textbook with tell information story-like might be perfect for someone who wants to learn it all without going to college, but I believe you can get all students back to really reading textbooks (although many of my fellow students tell me they already do) if the information is concise. In this internet era I find get more in depth information about a very specific thing myself without a textbook. But let's say 80% of the time I don't need this and I can understand stuff without a funny story.

And when I said what you need to know I of course meant what you need to know to pass the course. Really, I have so much other things I like to do (I'm a programming addict) that I won't spend twice as much time on a course than I need to only not to miss those things I might also need to know in the far future. So far my programming hobby has also learnt me many useful things for my future career which is something to take note of. If the requirements to pass the course are not in line with what you have to know for your future career, well, then there seems to be another sort of problem.

Also I am a advocate of active learning (I just made that term up). I don't think you should feed information into students for five years and then hope they will be able to apply that in the rest of their career. Instead you should constantly challenge them with new problems so they learn to solve problems. And luckily, this is already the most important part of what we do! (at my college) But for some reason we don't need a textbook to do so...

I wonder what folks calling for more concise textbooks are asking for: no descriptions of applications, fewer examples, no learning objectives, no glossary, fewer end-of-chapter problems, no history, no images to illustrate concepts,???? If this is what folks want, my general chemistry text (Mahan) would be perfect. I think it was awful.

Or is it just "too many words"?

osrothen's picture


It's just too many words or possibly so many words. In many ways, this could all be about the irrelevancy of the classic textbook. Here is the most important event of my college chemistry experience:

Dr Michael Dymicky walked into lab. He held up a test tube with some crystals. He said, “This is a new molecule that does not exist in the entire world - only in this test tube.”

The inevitable question from Robert Cullen, fellow student, “Dr Dymicky, how do you know that?”

Dr Dymicky with a smile, “Because I know what I’m doing.”

That was it. I wanted to be a chemist. I wanted to make molecules that only existed in my test tube. I wanted to be a man who knew what he was doing. Eventually, I did just that.

Our textbook at the time was Fieser and Fieser. I don’t remember much about the text other than the fact that Louis and Mary liked cats. I also remember a rather verbose advanced section in the back of the book that explored the real world of chemistry. Dr Dymicky ignored it.

We forget our textbooks, but we do not forget our teachers (story-tellers):

I should mention that Dr Dymicky was an immigrant from war torn Europe. Sigh, I'm that old.


Roy Jensen's picture

I also remember a rather verbose advanced section in the back of the book that explored the real world of chemistry. Dr Dymicky ignored it.

My experience has been the exact opposite. I am writing a textbook. The latest draft is available at
Note that the last ten chapters are about Applications of Science. Not all these chapters are complete. When I first used this book with students, I had several students at my office complaining. Their complaint? "Dr. Jensen, we were reading the Table of Contents and saw all the cool applications, but when we went to the chapter, there was nothing there!! When are they going to be finished?"

For clarity: the Applications chapters were NOT being taught in my course.

For a second instance of this, I mentioned to my current students [last week] that I was editing the Forensic Science and Medical Science chapters during fall break. I've had three students ask me when the chapters were going to be done, because they were interested in reading them.

Take home message: some students desperately WANT to know the applications, but every student wants different applications. That is why Exploring Chemistry is over 1300 pages.

DelmarLarsen's picture

Well, if we want to consult our students on that question we would easily get the answer (or set of answers). However, it biased toward the goal of class performance, not necessarily future success (as Roy comments on this morning).

I have never asked my students this directly, but the affirmations I get commonly on the ChemWiki (at least for the student contributed parts) often involve a straight to the point aspect. However, many students also argue the ability to "roam" the site to complement their reading when they want a break. It is a bit of sweet-N-sour aspect and clearly dependence on individual students.

I guess, I am trying to say is that teaching to the mean or to a mean and not having the flexibility to allow students to follow their unique study habits is a trait of existing hardbound books (even if they are great books like Mark's). Online resources like the ChemWiki can be constructed (and are) to address this. Now, I can theoretically get that sort of information from student reading habits via our online tracking... but figuring out how to extract that information is hard.


Roy Jensen's picture

I agree completely: what YOU needed to learn the material, YOU could condense down to two pages. GREAT!! Create you condensed notes so that you have shorter notes. But THE NEXT STUDENT -- one of the students you have talked with -- will condense DIFFERENT MATERIAL, and may require one, two, or six pages of condensed notes to study from. Have you ever compared with your peers what you perceive to be important in those ten pages?

Others on here have jumped to your defense. Great. You're different. You're one of the 10 % of students who "will learn the material despite the teacher". I suspect you are a "self-directed learner" in computing. Self-directed learners learn for the pleasure of learning. You read additional resources, search about it on the internet, and challenge yourself in your computing classes. You are probably not self-directed in other subjects. In first-year, less than 10 % of the students is self-directed. (NOTE: there are no good assessments of learner level, and it is subject dependent. 10 % is my estimate, and will vary from institution to institution.)

I have to teach to everyone, including those that don't want to be in my class. This is the remaining 90 % of my class; 10 % of them are only there because their program requires it. These students need a hook, something to make them want to learn the material. For many, the hook is a story -- something to relate the concepts to their existing knowledge. For most people, this is critical to learning. I suggest you read page 223 -- specifically the story -- of the book at
(Full disclosure: I wrote the book.)

I laughed reading one sentence in your post. You did not make up 'active learning'. It has been around for decades, with a significant increase in utilization after 1980.

You might also want to read the updated Chapter 3 in Communicating Science

Before I respond to the remainder of your last paragraph, perhaps you wish to read it over and ensure it convey's the message and tone you intend.

rpendarvis's picture

One relatively recent activities is the writing of "study guides" by college faculty. This is intended to reassure students by limiting what they learn to a list or in some cases to the exact test questions. I have seen some of them. This is more common outside the sciences but as a result has become a student expectation.

If we limit what they study, it is logical that they will learn less.

Best Wishes

Richard Pendarvis, Ph.D.

DelmarLarsen's picture

It it worse, in my opinion. Many of these "Readers" not only cut down on the content that students must master, but also some faculty only use problems from the reader for their exams. In many classes, students get upset if they do not have their cheat sheet (or pamphlet) of possible exam questions to study from (and forcefully express their feeling of being cheated).

I fear that Jordan and Herman are correct. Many students don't use the text. My worry that is that the students who subscribe to the Google-when-you-need-it approach to learning may be learning how to do the tasks necessary to do well on exams, but they might be missing out on the big picture. I'll tell you a story from my week to illustrate my point.

Being an indulgent father, I bought my soon-to-be 16-year-old daughter a car. Not being a wealthy father, it's a older car with a cassette player. Because Claire tells me that one cannot have a car without easy access to music on a cell phone, I also got her a cassette adapter to connect her phone to the cassette player in the car. The adapter kept popping out, interrupting the music, so I used Google to search for solutions. The first three suggested solutions that I found didn't work (illustrating the potential for misinformation on the Net), but the last suggestion did work (open up the case, move the wire to the opposite side, close the case, and insert the adapter upside down). Although finding the solution was a time-consuming task, I was able to complete the fix successfully. If it was an exam question, I'd get full credit. I still have no idea how the cassette adapter works or why the fix was successful. I have no new conceptual understanding that might help me solve other related problems. In fact, I have no way to even recognize that other problems might be related. I can live with that for cassette adapters, but I have missed out on a chance for a broader education. Is this the kind of education some of our students are getting?

The problem is likely to get worse as students who have found it works to avoid textbooks become teachers. My daughter's physics teacher is an example. Claire was having trouble with something, so I was trying to help her. Being old-school, I suggested that she get her textbook, and we'd find the section on the topic and see what it says. (I was a little annoyed that there wasn't an electronic version of the text available so we could do a text search for the topic, but that's a different topic.) Her response was that they don't use the textbook. Suspecting that what she really meant was, "I don't use the text.", I emailed the instructor to find out where she could get help in the text, and what do you think his answer was? "We don't really use the text." Ugh. I can't decide whether to worry that our students aren't getting as good an education as they might or worry that I'm getting old and out of touch.


DelmarLarsen's picture


I concur. We are transitioning into a culture that a "I got the right answer for the wrong reason" trumps "I got it right or partially right for the (or a) correct reason." This is a consequence of our testing culture and being forced to teach growing number of students with less resources. Many faculty are simply forced to give multiple choice exams, which favor this attitude.

I like to believe that a smart online homework/exam system (with AI or machine learning behind it like ALEKS, but freely available and integrated into the textbook) could address this need. I hope when we test out our homework system this Winter (three classes at UCD), it will be a start toward this goal (and the Hyperlibrary development team needs feedback from any and all of you on how to do this properly, by the way).


bmccollum's picture

I agree with Mark that too few students are reading their textbooks. Part of that is because they don't have sufficient training and practice at academic reading, and part is that they don't need to read. There is good access to video tutorials that run them through example problems.  Now, whether they know how to properly learn from videos is another question.

I was at the Symposium on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning last weekend in Banff. An entire track of talks had unintentionally developed around flipped learning. I was the only presenter that wasn't using videos to support their flipped class.  Most had abandoned using textbooks, and this is in Higher Education.  Instead, I adopted ChemWiki for my class and run weekly ARCs (Academic Reading Circles). Within two weeks of the start of term, my learners had begun to understand how to read ChemWiki, take notes while reading, prepare questions for class, craft their own interpretations of accompanying images and equations, and more. There have been challenges along the way, but the impact has been throughoutly satisfying.

Using ChemWiki and flipping my class with ARCs, textbook reading before class has gone from 3% in my regular sections this year to 95% in my ChemWiki flipped class (sample sizes about 130 and 35 respectively).  I wouldn't say that ChemWiki is what changed their reading habits.  It's the way I run my class that has encouraged better reading.  However, ChemWiki has facilitated the reading, as ALL students have the common text. Student finances are no longer a barrier for my students to have the common text.

Roy Jensen's picture

I'm wondering if you could expand on the "It's the way I run my class that has encouraged better reading." and how ChemWiki has facilitated that. Specifically, what is it that you do (run your class) that has encouraged reading? Would the ARCs work with physical textbooks or ebooks? Was ChemWiki causal or correlational?

What are your thoughts on the document at

You might also want to check out
It is a platform for collaboratively reading textbooks, and promoted by Eric Mazur.

bmccollum's picture

I like the advice in the your document Roy. Similar to the portion about "actively read the chapter", I had my student adopt specific duties in their reading that they would fulfill in the reading circles, adapted from the roles suggested by Tyson Seburn:

I'm going to be expanding things next term to look at how flipping with ChemWiki as compared to a print textbook qualitatively affects student practices.

DelmarLarsen's picture


Do you have a report of some type outlining your flavor of flipping? Can it work for larger classes?


bmccollum's picture

I credit the excellent series of presenters at BCCE 2014 and CSC 2014 for setting me on the flipped instruction pathway.

I have two classes per week (80 minutes each) with a 60 student enrollment. My classes run as follows.

Day 1:
15 minutes - Questions on the assigned ChemWiki reading (usually two sections worth)
10 minutes - Classroom Polling with 'standard' questions on the topic
35 minutes - Activity on more challenging problems
20 minutes - Introductory lecture on next assigned reading

Day 2:
15 minutes - Questions on the assigned ChemWiki reading
25 minutes - Academic Reading Circles
20 minutes - Activity on more challenging problems
20 minutes - Introductory lecture on next assigned reading

Between classes students read ChemWiki (take notes and prepare questions for class and/or prepare their ARC role), and complete a ~45 minute assignment in OWLv2 (by Cengage/Nelson). Feedback from the students has been much more positive and academically mature than I was expecting.

To help support students in the room I have one TA per 30 students. They move between groups during the ARCs and activities. We don't have graduate students at Mount Royal University, so I'm using 4th year students in our BSc program. This is the first use of TAs in the university, but my Provost is very supportive.

Even with a much larger class, I expect this approach could work. If you use tutorials in your course delivery, I see shifting the TA resource from the tutorial into a flipped class a good resource reassignment. My flipped class students are already indicating that they don't see value in the tutorials, as compared to the regular section students who use tutorials as almost the only practice time in their week.

Is the problem that our students are unwilling or unable to read their textbooks? Or is it something else?
Try this experiment. Read this passage and report “who won.”

#1 --When Sarwan and Chanderpaul were going on strongly, England were looking down the barrel. But they came back with Broad removing both of them within 8 overs of taking the 2nd new ball. It was always going to be difficult to survive with that kind of a batting line up and England then seemed to be on top. But the last pair hung around for ages to ensure that light is offered and they walk off. (Times, New Delhi)

Who won? Which words in the passage are unfamiliar?

Now read this (now historical) anecdote, answer the questions below.

#2 - With the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, Jeter scored on a sacrifice by Rodriguez to the warning track in right.

What happened? What does “sacrifice” mean? How many “outs” were there? Where are those answers supplied?

One of the great insights of cognitive psychology is that we speak and read in code -- and we assume our audience can understand.

Gen Chem textbooks are great reference books to refresh your memory and expand your knowledge -- after your long-term memory (LTM) is filled with background information on chemistry. But students during initial learning may need something a bit less overwhelming to them, even when it looks like inside baseball to us.

- rick nelson

bmccollum's picture

Thanks Rick. I totally agree. Similar to what Harry and others are saying, the mass of content and the level of disciplinary language affects comprehension. In my opinion, that's one of the great values of ChemWiki! I know what topics are valued by my department and can tailor the WikiText accordingly. I can adjust the language to align with the way we describe content. Although this freedom can reinforce deviations from the norms found in commercial texts, it calms arguments over specific images or presentations of concepts that department members may disagree with.

I love the example of hybridization. Do the fluorine atoms in CF4 use 2p orbitals or sp3 orbitals to form the C-F bonds? Some books includes images of a fluorine 2p orbital overlapping with a carbon sp3 orbital. Some label the carbon hybrid orbitals as 2sp3. A few hybridize the fluorine atoms. Others avoid the question by using CH4 instead. ChemWiki allows me to tailor my book to the way my department discusses hybridization, and even lets me discuss the various opinions, and include additional perspectives that VB Theory and hybridization are a model of bonding and that no hybrid orbitals exist in reality.

I've looked at ChemWiki several times over the years and I poke around at pages here and there, but I've never really understood how it's supposed to be used. How flexible is it to customize? What things can I change? How would one put together a custom text? Can I add my own supplemental material?


DelmarLarsen's picture


We need to do a much better job at explaining this and we will prepare guides to address these sorts of questions soon.

There are two ways a faculty member can use the ChemWiki as a textbook alternative (or supplement):
(1) they can use existing Textmaps designed to follow commercial textbooks (e.g., Brown and LeMay, the most expensive book out there, is here,_LeMay,_%26_Bursten_%22Chemistry:_The_Central_Science%22. These textbook maps are still under construction by the way.
(2) construct a Wikitext for their class, e.g., Brett's Chem 1201 class ( or my current Quantum Mechanics class ( or Josh's Atom's First WikiText (

Unfortunately, there is not a simple API to make a WikiText so for those faculty with little or no web page skills, it may be a little daunting at first, but it is quickly mastered and it not necessary to know HMTL to workup a Wikitext. Up to now, a few of the development team faculty and myself have been helping interesting faculty in building their Wikitexts. Fortunately, The new NSF grant we just got allows supports an team of students at UCD (my "Hyperlibrarian Army") that once trained can not only build content on the entire Hyperlibrary, but can work hand-in-hand with interested faculty in building what they want. We want to run a BCCE workshop this summer that will promise 5 hours of these students (or faculty of the development team) to build personalized Wikitexts for those that attend (although in practice we will help forever as needed).

What can be done? - Almost anything you want. You can use existing pages in any order you want. You can add any content you want. Take advantage of the future homework system or future visualization systems. We also intend to integrate SageMath into the site to aid in data visualization and analysis (useful in the StatWiki and physical chemistry labs). The only caveat in adding new materials to the site is that you release them under the creative commons license (3.0-BY-SA-NC) so that others can use your materials (with proper credit) to augment their class Wikitexts. The ChemWki and greater Hyperlibrary is very much a socialist endeavor, but so is public education that include many of the colleges and universities we teach in.

The starting point for building a custom Wikitext is to get your current syllabus (to see level and organization) and for one to ask if they want to follow their current cook structure or design something different. I typically suggest following the existing book organization and then modify to ones interest, but certainly a Wikitext can be constructed from scratch.

If you are interested, please contact me directly as we can chat more ( or any of those that have adopted Wikitext for more information (a new Newsletter will be available in a few days with emails of those).


Thank you for the interesting paper and project. I had a similar set of questions that Jordan just posted in terms of making my own ChemWiki textbook and maybe the following are questions that will be addressed in your newsletter and info pages.

Is it possible to edit existing ChemWiki pages to use in my own text, so that I can use problem solving strategies that I prefer?
Can I edit existing pages to reduce some of the words on a particular page or add hyperlinks to other content?
Or, is the customization only adding my own content in some way?

I also had questions about organization. I am interested in the ChemWiki for general chemistry only. I can follow the outlines in the Textmaps, but is there a general directory of pages related to gen chem content somewhere too? I'm sure the Brown/Lemay Textmap is pretty comprehensive, but it did seem to have different content than what I saw in the Zumdahl Textmap. Looking in the "Core" I just see higher level pages about P-chem etc.

Thank you,

DelmarLarsen's picture


Answers are given below inline for your questions:

Is it possible to edit existing ChemWiki pages to use in my own text, so that I can use problem solving strategies that I prefer?
* Yes, You have full control over your wiktext.
Can I edit existing pages to reduce some of the words on a particular page or add hyperlinks to other content?
* Yes, You have full control over your wiktext.
Or, is the customization only adding my own content in some way?
* You have full control over your wiktext. You can remix or add content as needed.

The repetitive answers above is meant to emphasize that there are few limits that faculty have with the system, not to be glib.

We do not have a large scale coherent organization of the 18,000 pages on the system, which I requires the adoption and implementation of an effective ontological scheme. As I mentioned earlier, this is going to a painful process. So, faculty currently find the pages they like by either surfing the site's organization or via searches. The latter works reasonably well, in my opinion and I haven't hear any complaints about this. Perhaps ChemWiki adopters can chime in if I am incorrect here.


Roy Jensen's picture

And to confirm, is all added content licensed under the CC-BY-NC-SA license?

DelmarLarsen's picture

Not all content, but that is our preferred license. We have not looked at 4.0 vs. 3.0 to tell if the version number must be upgraded. Some contributors desired different protections and they are indicated on their pages.

DelmarLarsen's picture


I think you are correct, but it is not 100% of the observation. In the CERP paper that both Josh and I provided the URL for, we found that students do not use the book as much as we would have liked: 2.03 hours /week for the ChemWiki and 1.64 for the normal textbook (N=~400 for both stats). There was another 1.5 hours/week in problems solving. The normal textbook studying was self reported, but the self-reporting on the ChemWiki class matched the actual reading statistics that we can extract from the ChemWiki itself, so these are like solid numbers.

The question is the textbook matters is a valid question. I do not think it matters a lot if the students are not required to study greatly to pass the class (or achieve their target grade) and can get all the information they need from lecture and homework (with peer or faculty or TA support). I favor a more robust expectation that students take an ownership of their education and hence are required to extract information from outside effort. I think flipping classes provide this nicely (I haven't not taught a flipped class yet by the way).

As for verbosity; textbooks are typically (but not always) way too verbose for today's "busy students". The ChemWiki has two "types" of content: student contributed and faculty contributed (notes or existing textbooks). While the latter forms the lion share of the established Wikitexts, the former is more popular with students (based off of our traffic statistics). I think this because all the commentary is removed and the gist is given quickly (the downsize is that effort is needed to hone that content).

In short, we should either convince our students to read more of the textbook or cull our textbooks down to more manageable sizes. "Feature creep" or at least expanding exposition (that is the natural result of our textbook edition cycle system) is often more of a negative than a positive. But that is my opinion.


I think faculty must share the blame for verbose textbooks. Almost always, faculty pick the books and students (sometimes) buy them. Unfortunately, few faculty pick textbooks on the basis of how concise they are. More often faculty reject a text because it doesn't have their pet topic in it. Thus, textbook writers try to make sure that they include every topic that might be near and dear to the heart of potential adopters. My impression is that publishers have attempted to sell stripped=down books with little success. If only one potential major user insists that they won't adopt a book unless it includes Schroedinger's equation, Every textbook author will be told that this topic must be included no matter how silly that might be at the freshman level.

I'm afraid that too many faculty teach students to ignore the textbook. I remember a number of years ago (just after the second Punic War) a campus started a program where they paid faculty to take courses outside of the discipline in order to better understand what students had to put up with. The usual faculty response (regardless of the course) was that every course seemed to think that this was all the students were taking, and it was impossible to succeed unless you cut as many corners as possible. In this environment, including "fascinating topics that won't be on the test" only made things more difficult for students who had to find the information to study for the test.

Most students rapidly figure out what material will be tested on, and that is almost all they want to (and need to) study. Thus, about 50% of the material in a modern text is not just extraneous but unnecessary confusion. The Internet provides narrowly focused information that doesn't require a student to wade through a lot of chaff to get to what he or she needs to know. A well-designed wiki text can do the same thing.

As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and it is us."


Do you remember the line from the movie Amadeus when the Emperor is commenting on Mozart's work? The Emperor says that there are "too many notes...Just cut a few and it will be perfect." Do you remember Mozart's response? "Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?" Mozart felt that there were just the right number of notes. I agree with Harry on almost everything he wrote. When we were making the first edition, we did a poll to try to find out what we could cut out, and although pretty much everyone agreed that stuff should be cut out, there was no agreement about what specifically should be removed. Some of the things I did cut out have come back to haunt me. For example, one of the major reasons a large college in Chicago dropped my text after one semester was that it didn't have a section on heat capacity and specific heat. With that said, I suspect most textbook authors would, "There are just the right number of words, not too many or too few."

Perhaps one solution to this issue is to have a core text of essential topics with access to supplementary topics on the Net. The core topics could be chosen based on which topics are necessary for the understanding of later topics.

DelmarLarsen's picture


The question I have is what is essential? Are you suggest this be a community issue or a faculty level issue. Both has complications when implemented within the existing textbook system. Both options are handled well within the Wiki system (providing faculty want to spend some time in deciding their curriculum; I hope they do).


Roy Jensen's picture

I suspect most of us have sat on curriculum revision committees. As Mark has expressed: everyone agrees that material needs to be cut, but no-one agrees on what needs to be cut. So there are no changes to the curriculum. One thing that people will agree on is that everyone must teach the same topics in multi-section courses, so it is a department issue.

The word "essential" does hide some interesting issues, doesn't it? In the past, the decision as to what's essential has been made by a blend of the community, the textbook authors, the publishers, and individual instructors. Projects like ChemWiki make it possible for individual instructors to play a greater role. It seems to me that it's more of a change in degree than of kind. Individual instructors will still need to consider what the essential core is because they will need to provide adequate preparation for later topics in their own class and in the classes that students take later. Students have started their General Chemistry at Davis and completed it in the summer at MPC. I assume that the Davis instructor would be careful to cover the core topics that would allow this to be possible.

The word "essential" does hide some interesting issues, doesn't it? In the past, the decision as to what's essential has been made by a blend of the community, the textbook authors, the publishers, and individual instructors. Projects like ChemWiki make it possible for individual instructors to play a greater role. It seems to me that it's more of a change in degree than of kind. Individual instructors will still need to consider what the essential core is because they will need to provide adequate preparation for later topics in their own class and in the classes that students take later. Students have started their General Chemistry at Davis and completed it in the summer at MPC. I assume that the Davis instructor would be careful to cover the core topics that would allow this to be possible.

DelmarLarsen's picture

One can assume; whether that occurs is a different matter. ;)

bmccollum's picture

Good point. I've wondered which parts of ChemWiki are most effective and which need to be expanded or shortened. Student reviews of my ChemWiki text have been interesting. A few feel the length of each section is a little long with outside examples, fewer are asking for more details, and most say the length of each section is just right. With Delmar's tremendous help I've been able to add a subtle element of expand/contract portions in each page so that example question answers are not immediately visible (a click to view button essentially).
See exercise 3.5.1 on

I'm thinking about using this feature to add additional content to some pages that wouldn't be required reading, but permits the interested learner to view the extra content without navigating away from the page. This is clearly a feature that ChemWiki can provide, but not a print text.

DelmarLarsen's picture

Brett: That is an interesting idea. We can "hide" these sections and see how often students click on them to get a better idea of their studying habits.

SDWoodgate's picture

Chemistry is not a set of isolated concepts. As you all know, concepts build. It is very tempting for us to divulge through a Wiki everything that we know about a particular topic WITHOUT having giving the students to digest the basics. I have just read, for example, the section on Electron Affinity which, while it was useful for me was too much all in one go for novices. This is why I advocate building concepts not by hiding parts of pages, but by having the pages shorter and then having lots of questions with feedback to give the students the chance to acquire the basics before they go to the exceptions and complicated explanations. Again collecting data from these questions can inform whether the development is too slow or makes quantum leaps.

Roy Jensen's picture


Is it possible to create layers of information? starting from something simplistic for novices, and allowing students to peel back a layer after confirming understanding at a given level? Instructors would be able to say which level students are expected to understand information, and vary that level from concept to concept.

Consider electron affinity. The first layer could be a definition and table of common EAs. The second could look at how EA varies on the PT. The third could look at how EA and electronegativity are related, and how EA and IE are related. (Maybe not the greatest example.)

This would, in theory, mean that one textbook could be used for an entire undergraduate program. P. Chem student delve deeper into certain concepts; organic students into other concepts.

DelmarLarsen's picture


Yes, that is possible. We do not have any pages that have done it in that way though, but I see no reason why it cannot be done.

I prefer a different way with multiple pages addressing a specific topic at different levels and/or different backgrounds and let faculty select the ones that address their needs. The pages on a specific topic can be linked to gether (both hyplinking and meta data) to eventually (not fully implemented yet) enable a student to shift to an easier Module with a discussion to fill in holes before going back to the Module that is formally assigned or go to a harder topic. Since we target general to graduate level topics, once completed (if that is even possible), the Hyperlibrary can handle all need levels of instruction for all possible classes. This is a Herculean task, but one that my development team and extended developers feel is worth the effort to attempt.

I prefer to not view the ChemWiki as a textbook, but a "textbook foundry" capable of generating an infinite number of textbooks (specifically Wikitexts) depending on faculty and class needs and interests. Naturally, these Wikitexts can be printed out to be conventional, but are available online for easy access and reduced (no) cost.


SDWoodgate's picture

Your objective appears to be generating low cost textbooks which are collections of pages chosen by the professor to meet his or her needs. That is lovely for professors who wish to provide customized static content for their students, BUT is this really an advance as far as providing learning objects for students. The students are still going to be involved in a passive learning activity. Furthermore, reading pages (even if there are animations on the page) does not provide any data (other than possibly number of hits and how long a user spent on a page) that is really useful for determining how students learn.

None of us like reading screeds of text without putting the information in that text into practice. You have said nothing about incorporating interactive questions into your wiki, and I suspect that is not part of your scope. I continue to maintain that a model which blends text with interactive questions is an advance on the conventional textbook.

There is also a lot of merit in having a log in system where students have accounts so that they have a record of what they have done and of their own progress. Can one do either of these things with a wiki? I also can't find any place for users to provide feedback. I guess that I believe that learning objects are more than a collection of information, and the best learning objects are set up so that the developers can learn from usage of these objects by students.

DelmarLarsen's picture

Well, there are a series of goals for the project, but they are better discussed in detail outside of Josh's discussion. Taking control of the class textbook was the first step since if we do not do that, then I am unconvinced we can proceed with the next stage of goals. We have a team (thanks largely to NSF support) that is focusing on the homework system that is to integrated with the textbook content (that would be established and used by students). This system will provide adapted homework that is integrated in the pages to assess student understanding as they read. We will pilot this system this winter quarter.

What we envision building is similar to the advances that you have established and demonstrated nicely. We have already started with integrating PheT and the ChemCollective visualization systems and we hope to couple the latter's system into the homework and study analytics of the text into a unified assessment/profiling system. We actively decided to make a static version of the ChemWiki first to make it look as much as possible like a normal text so that it would be somewhat familiar to faculty and to help establish widespread adoption and use. Now that we have that at 60-70 million visitors per year, we can do the more advanced features like those that you have beautifully established.

We have a log in system and accounts are freely available (see upper right hand corner of site). These accounts enable feedback and we can track pageviews and access times; via Google analytics we can get a lot more information. However, editing the pages requires a professional account that we give out as needed. From the information linked to these accounts we can track study habits to individual performance (both individually and collectively). For example, we can show with solid numbers how bad cramming is for student performance and enable feedback on how reduce cramming. Interestingly an initial review of student study habits in Layne Morsch's flipped o-chem class suggest his approach discourages cramming; this observation was corroborated by the study habits of students in a second flipped classes (taught six times) at Sacramento City College (Dianne Bennett). I think Brett's class at Mount Royal University had the same result, but I need to revisit the statistics to refreshen my memory.

In short, we want to milk this platform for all its got and we are trying hard to do so. If you have ideas on how we can do it better, I would love to chat more with you. No one is dogmatic on the development team and clearly there is a lot we need to learn.


DelmarLarsen's picture

Good point. I may mention that a personalized Wikitext can use all or part of existing pages. Furthermore, more sections can be constructed from the pages or from existing materials that faculty have. This flexible nature is cultivated at all levels of our development.

SDWoodgate's picture

To be fair to textbook authors, the reasons for the thickness of the textbooks are (a) the number of words in the basic information part of the text (b) all of the interchapter examples and problems and (c) the end of chapter problems. In today's world, professors would not consider a textbook which had only (a) with no (b) and (c). So the thickness of textbooks has been driven by what the market wants. The textbook format is limited in that all of that has to be printed on paper.

Another model (which I have been using for several years) that could be considered for an e-book is to put limited concise information on Information pages. Follow these with question pages that explore and expand the concepts introduced on the information page. Bring in the detail in the feedback for right answers for the questions. This then develops the topic in a systematic way, drip feeding information along with capturing student attention by getting them to enter answers. The feedback for the right answers extends the topic. The feedback for the wrong answers addresses shortcomings of understanding. AND, as I have said, and will continue to assert, the usage data from the student answers gives us clues on how to improve them. Go to the BestChoice web site ( to see this in action. Click on Demo (bottom right yellow box). There are heaps of activities available. For an example with JSMol and video animations go down to Bonding (click plus to expand the menu) and then choose Solid Properties.

The same concept applies to animations. Viewing an animation once or twice or three times is not necessarily seeing the points which the animation is trying to make. However accompanying questions which get students to examine the animation more thoroughly can develop understanding, and again examination of the usage data for these can let us know whether we are asking the right questions, whether they are too easy or too hard.

DelmarLarsen's picture

Spot on.

I would add that, connecting to the math aspect discussed earlier, a lot of verbosity is added to overcome poor math skills. Students often cannot see an equations and naturally get the underlying result of it... so they need to be walked through it with words. As Shaul Mukamel (UC Irvine) likes to say "a picture is worth a thousand words and an equation is worth a thousand pictures."


osrothen's picture

Harry and Delmar,

I think you’re both right on target. Big name textbooks must be verbose. They are driven by publishing companies that need attract as many teachers as possible. They don’t tell one story. They must tell many stories. They must be encyclopedic, or they do not make money.

The case of MORRISON vs SOLOMONS is relevant here. One way of viewing this 1980 decision is that you cannot copyright a pedagogy. I think that’s good, but what’s left? Sheer mass.


Bob Belford's picture

Hi Otis and everyone,

I was not aware of this case, and did a quick Google, and found this rather complicated brief.

I have several questions:

First, does anyone know of a "cliff-notes" interpretation of the above decision?

Second, are there other cases of textbook authors suing textbook authors (I suspect it is the publishers doing the suing).

But I did not realize this kind of stuff was going on.

DelmarLarsen's picture

We try very hard to avoid anything that looks like plagiarisms in any aspect. We follow the US patent office argument that tables cannot be copyrighted (e.g., table of contents) and the results of this lawsuit is also supportive of our efforts. We have a minor shield in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act if something gets through our aggressive filters and is caught since we are associated with the university, but that is a one time per year protection and is not something to rely one. We have not had any problem to date with the exception of copying flat world knowledge content that was under CC-SA-NC-BY, but they didn't have permission to give that license out of some of their images. It was an easy fix to address and we did so promptly.


rpendarvis's picture

In this case, Morrison was the first of the best selling authors to leave this life. Morrison's family was adamant about not publishing another edition, leaving the popular text as a sort of memorial. The last I heard about it, the publisher was trying to get the family to agree to an new edition. I am not sure what happened after that; the publisher's representative did not know either.

Best Wishes

Richard Pendarvis, Ph.D.

There was a recent case in the pop music world of an artist (I don't remember who) accused of copying an earlier song. As I recall it, the artist acknowledged the similarity and gave credit to the original artist but also claimed to have done it unconsciously. This sparked a discussion of the degree to which music is derivative. My feeling is that all of what we consider good music is derivative to some extent. What we consider good music is shaped by our experience. It's how the brain works. If new music didn't have elements of older music, we probably wouldn't like it and may not even consider it music.

I wonder if, for similar reasons, for us to consider a textbook good, it needs to have, to some extent, been derived from other familiar books.

Bob - Thanks for all your work putting this together. You're a superstar in the chemed world.

DelmarLarsen's picture


I thought I'd add a bit more to my last message.

I totally agree that for a book to be widely adopted, it must have a collection of supporting tools: animations, tutorials, online lectures, PowerPoint presentations, online homework, a student study guides, an instructors guide, a solutions guide, etc. I think it's extremely important that these tools are specific to the text, using the same language and presenting the same concepts at the same level. Does ChemWiki or any other non-academic publisher projects have people working on these things?

Mark Bishop

Hi Mark,

There will be a set of tools (for example Bob Hanson is in the process of porting JSMol), and the SARIS and single sign on tools will be across the platform, but consistency in a particular component is something that the author teams will have to (and can) impose if they wish. There will not be a uniform style guide, but there should (again IMHO) be a set of best practices. Part of the IUSE project is to evaluate the material in the Stem Hyperlibrary to determine what the best practices are, but it is unlikely (Delmar can comment here) IMHO that a style guide will be imposed.


The OpenStax chemistry book also has resources available including solutions manual, links to animations/sims, and instructor resources.

DelmarLarsen's picture

By the way, we have imported the OpenSTAX text into the ChemWiki (and 5 other of their STEM textbooks into the other STEMWikis) and are working on its formatting and integration (1/3rd done): I find the material decent, but not at the level for my university teaching. I am unsure if others share that opinion, but it is a nice complement to our existing system and no doubt fits in with other faculty and other campus' needs.


DelmarLarsen's picture

Dear Mark and all:

A few comments:

We have those supporting tools either under development or in part included in the system. The only component we are probably not going to do is the "instructors guide" unless there are explicit request for one. It would naturally have to be tuned for the specific course wikitexts. I am unsure of the merit of this effort though as I have never found those to be overly useful and my campus colleagues have expressed a similar sentiment.

While I understand the interest to have a single "voice" that unites text and other ancillary components, I am quite unsure of the merit of trying to force such an approach as students have access to many different flavors of content on the web and class notes and student notes etc. (and they take advantage of each of them constantly since no student learns the same day as we all know) and as they develop in their career they get exposed to different books with different flavors. I favor a more realistic approach the focus on organization and consistency rather than tone and writing. That said, anyone can construct or edit their Wikitext to suit their needs, so there is no need for others to adopt my perspective or that of the developing team.

We do have a style guide and try to maintain a consistent format across the entire Hyperlibrary so that students do not have to "relearn" how to use the site as they move from class to class. I agree with Josh that we are still neophytes in "effective" cyberlearning and are learning how to do things. However, I must emphasize that the flexible nature of the project allows use to learn how to do things better as we hone the style guide and learn from our colleagues in the ChemEd community (including all those subscribed to this discussion) to develop an "effective best practices".

This is an organic process (chemistry pun intended) that I think will get us to where we want to go. The only question is how long it will take and that is a function of how many people join the community.


Hi Delmar,

It's nice to get a chance to exchange ideas with you again.

I understand how you feel about the instructors guide. The instructor CD that's available for my text contains a variety of things, including the PowerPoint files and answers to all of the book's problems. These are the things that instructors find the most useful. Next in line for usefulness is that at the beginning of each chapter in the guide, I list the sections that can be skipped without causing problems later. It's rare that someone covers everything in a textbook, and I suspect that it's also rare that instructors are familiar with everything in a text the first time they use it. Therefore, it can be useful to provide some guidance in choosing the topics to cover. Some topics are what might be called terminal, i.e. they don't lead to other topics, so they can be skipped. I wonder if doing something like this for ChemWiki would help head off problems of having students read a topic that requires previous knowledge of a topic that might not have been covered.

I think we probably disagree to some degree on the importance of what you're calling the single voice. I think that especially in beginning courses, it's really important. I recognize that it's very difficult to get with a project like yours, but I still think it's a worthy (if unachievable) goal. The abundance of information available on the Net has positive and negative implications for learning. It's great to have information and learning tools readily available, but the risk is that students can end up jumping from one topic to another without ever getting a sense of how it's all connected. Picking and choosing among a plethora of resources would be fine if chemistry was just a collection of separate skills to master, but I think it's more of a continuous story that provides a coherent way of thinking about the physical world.

Thanks to you and to Joshua for all the work you've done.


DelmarLarsen's picture


Also nice to chat more with you. I am very impressed with what you have done with your text and the significant dent you have made in the market. I don't want to hijack Josh's discussion too much here, but a few comments are below.

One goal that we will do is to build a concept map of sorts for the 18,000+ pages on the ChemWiki with clear dependencies for successful understanding of material. This Herculean task would give a better idea about how students move to fill in holes in their education among other aspects of improved cyberlearning. Naturally, this would identify your "terminal" pages, but I argue that since faculty can construct their own organization which does not require external support like an instructor guide (although one is very much needed to help faculty along in making their wikitext). The powerful aspect in doing so is that the textbook can be merged into a sort of Learning Management System where new content can be put into place as one see fit and presented in an organized approach. For example, consider the Reading assignment page for Gulacar's Chem 2A class at UCD ( These pages are the most popular page typically of any Wikitext.

Perhaps I phrased things differently. I feel that is not important that the "writing style" of the pages be the same in a book. However, the pages (sections) must certainly build upon itself and we do to. However, it is important that faculty have access to identifying different ways to present material to suit their needs, which will have different dependencies. For example, I generally dislike the presentation of equilibrium constants theses days and feel a lot is lost in removing (or hiding) activities with ad hoc "rules" that do not have physical sense. My honor gen chem class next quarter will use an "activities first" approach to discussing of pH and other Keq, which requires a difference set of pages than the average gen chem class. Swapping the pages requires swapping the dependencies to make it work, but that is not hard when you have a sufficiently robust database as we a building. It may also require some editing from the faculty to suit his/her needs.

I may make a final comment a central goal of the Hyperlibrary project is to enable faculty to take charge and take control of our classes. This is where "charge" means money for obvious reasons and "control" means taking control of our curricula from the textbooks and publisher houses. A second goal is that when our homework system get online we can do a more powerful assessment of student capabilities based on homework performance and study habits in a self consistent manner. That tuned on that aspect as we are excited about where we are going.

Regards and sorry Josh for interjecting,

Delmar - There's no doubt that creating a concept map for 18,000 pages is a huge task, but it's also a great idea. Do you visualize all of these pages on one humongous map with point size 0.001 or would each general topic have its own separate map. Are you planning some sort of color code that would chart various approaches to a particular course? I do something similar on a much smaller scale for each of my chapters. Each of my Chapter Maps shows the connections to earlier material and connections between topics within the chapter. You can see an example at

Joshua and Delmar - Do you have any sense of what percentage of instructors actually want more control, or perhaps a better question is, do you have a sense of what percentage of instructors have the time and are willing to spend the time to create their own coherent package out of the many options available? Do you have a sense of how many instructors want to make ANY significant changes in what they do? I suspect it a quite a few but maybe not a very high percentage. I think the assumption of many of the folks at the large academic publishers is that one cannot stray too far from the norm without losing a large share of the market. To some degree the first edition of my text supported this idea. Briefly, the central idea of the chemistry-first version of my text is that for chemistry courses that do not require a chemistry prerequisite, it's best to postpone the math and more challenging concepts related to atomic theory and bonding and get to the description of chemical changes early in the course. Although I think the atoms-first approach has real appeal too (thus two versions of my text), I still think that for many students, the chemistry-first approach works best, leaving them with a better early attitude toward chemistry, improving the retention rate in the early courses. Reviewers liked the chemistry-first approach a lot, but adopters not so much. I think it was because the chemistry-first version requires a significant amount of time making changes in both lecture and lab. I always suspected that the thought was, "maybe next year when I have more time". Do you expect to run up against a similar problem? I'm not sure how answering these questions would change what you're doing, but I'm curious to know whether you've thought of this.


As implied in the paper, the issue is that not many faculty will expend the effort needed, but the Stem Hyperlibrary has the goal of packaging enough material to make it competitive, if not better, than commercial publishers. Given a core of truly obsessed (or administrators who will provide released time or granting agencies who will support) the effort, this can work.

DelmarLarsen's picture


I doubt we will make each page on our site (and we want to extend the map over all STEMWikis) together on a single 2D image as commonly presented. I have ideas how I want to use the map, but still am learning how to use connectivity maps properly (if the is a proper way). I want the map to aid in building a profile of a student by recognizing dependencies in the content we teach and for that to not be limited to only chemistry, but to look at the entire picture of STEM education (across the entire Hyperlibrary). The example I typically give is to master enzymology in the Biowiki, a student must master chemical kinetics in the ChemWiki, which to master requires mastering simple differential equations in the mathwiki. There many of these sorts of examples out there and making sense of how STEM topics are interconnected is arguably our goal as educators. One the side though, I like your maps.

As for percentage of instructors that want the control we offer. I have no idea about that either currently or the future. However, as Josh alluded to, given the many thousands of chemistry instructors in English speaking countries (and more in those countries that English based texts), only a small percentage is needed to effect meaningful change. That said, apathy, disinterest, overworked, competing interests, and general dislike are all aspects we (and all OER projects and probably non-OER project) have to handle. As Dori's mantra says, "Just keep Swimming..."


Mark has raised the issue of the atoms first approach in chemistry, which seems to be gaining popularity. There are data that indicate some potential downsides to this approach.

NSF data show that between 1984 to 2011, as a percentage of all US bachelor’s degrees awarded, degrees in chemistry fell 33 % and overall degrees in the physical sciences and engineering fell 40%. This occurred at a time of increasing employer demand for employees with scientific and engineering skills.

There is also substantial evidence that the decline was due to declining student skills in math computation during this period, when calculators undermined mental math skills, and computation was de-emphasized in the NCTM math standards, state K-12 math standards, and textbooks marketed to support those standards.

Further, studies of student success in college general chemistry have found many correlations, but among the highest have been algebraic fluency and mental math skills, both areas where testing has indicated a substantial US decline since 1980. In a recent study of 22 first-world economies by the OECD, in the youngest cohort studied (ages 16 to 24), the US was found to be “ranked dead last in numeracy.”

Given these facts, do we want to delay introducing math in chemistry courses? Chemistry is a quantitative science. Students are not going to be allowed to successfully major in any science unless they can solve scientific calculations. The fact is that students need a good K-12 background in computation to succeed in first year chem and physics, both required for most science majors.

My concern is that putting “atoms first” in first-year chemistry only very temporarily increases retention in the course. When students who, due to K-12 math standards, were not prepared for a quantitative science, do reach the math that is necessary, many will not survive. Personally, I question whether it is fair to those students to delay making clear what the difficult part of the course will be until after the drop date. In most cases, their deficits in computation were not their fault.

My own beliefs have come to the view that, rather than delay a reckoning with computation, students hoping to major in science should be tested in computation at college entry and offered a course focused on math computation if they have deficits. Most don’t need Prep Chem. The pre-req for Gen Chem is only one year of chem. Their much larger deficit is in their 12 years of math that science expects but this generation was not taught. Primarily they need “Prep for the math of the sciences.” Putting the required math first in chemistry may help to convey that reality. The reality is that K-12 math policies pushed teaching computation out of K-12 math -- and on to instructors in the sciences if we are going to address the decline in students majoring in STEM fields.

- rick nelson

In our Tuesday Thursday sections there are 26 lectures, give a midterm, 25, and give three tests 23. What we have done at Howard is established an algebra pre-req for General Chemistry. We use of Math Department's placement exam (MPE) to place incoming freshmen and transfer students and this has helped a great deal.

This grew out of a study I did many years ago correlating the MPE grade against grades in GChem. It was interesting. There was no strong linear correlation, but there was an MPE grade below which the probability of DFW (not Dallas Fort Worth, a worse place to get stuck) was very very high. We interpreted this to mean that there was a minimum of math that the students needed to pass, but once one got above that level the grade in the course was roughly math independent. This motivated our introduction of the pre-req.

One surprising advantage of atoms first that I came across is that by the time you hit stoichiometry the students have had a month or more of math class.

Thus, I would agree about making an appropriate math course a pre-req or using the SAT Math grade as a pre-req.


rpendarvis's picture

When I was teaching at the College of Central Florida, we experimented with a math prerequisite for the nursing chemistry classes (which had always had a high DFW rate). Just one semi remedial course made a huge difference. On a practical level, there is barely time for the students to learn the chemistry material and math concepts, like those in chemistry, take some time to sink in. It is just not practical to do both simultaneously. Oddly this was not popular with the nursing department (NLN accreditation) because none of their courses required it.

For General Chemistry we tried to push a minimum score on the Toledo College Chemistry placement exam. Our research showed that students with a raw score below 27 would generally be in the DFW numbers but the administration would not approve it. Nothing which might reduce enrollment is popular really.

Best Wishes

Richard Pendarvis, Ph.D.

Exactly the same experience when I was teaching gen chem at the U of KY in the 1990's. The single biggest predictor of success in first semester freshman chemistry was the ACT math score. Likewise, the single biggest predictor of success in the second semester was the grade from the first semester. We ended up enforcing a minimum requirement of a C or better in the first semester in order to take the second semester. This had measurable impact on the rather large drop/fail rate.

In my mind, both these observations find their roots in the way students try to study. They inevitably cram too much, focusing on one class and then another, neglecting all others when there is a test in math, for example, and then scrambling to make up lost ground on other classes while ignoring math now that the exam is past etc. Hyperkinetic effort applied flailingly in an attempt to keep up with the demands of multiple classes.

The big problem with respect to chemistry is that if you skipped/neglecting the section on molarity when you "studied" in this fashion, you are totally lost and sunk when you return to paying attention in chemistry and are trying to learn equilibrium constants. After you get your D or F on that exam you think "OK, I can drop one exam or make it up on the final", but then your attention is diverted to your social studies class. When you finally get back to chemistry again and they're doing solubility, you are completely lost because you never learned molarity or equilibrium constants and hopelessness prevails. Freshman chemistry is set up for students to fail if they don't keep up AND master the material as it presented. I remember being in office hours one day, deep in the middle of a Keq question with a student, when I had to stop and ask "What do these little brackets mean in [H+]?" And she didn't know. It's not that she hadn't been putting in efforts trying to learn (or learn how to learn), but that key fundamental piece of information was missing, and everything that followed in the course depending on knowing it!

My approach to solving these sorts of issues was to slowly build up a list of the top 5 or so concepts that students got stuck on like that in each chapter of the text (or had as errors on exams and homework) and adding them to the course web site as they presented themselves. A simple list of errors followed by a paragraph of discussion. Stuff in the list looked like this (omitting the paragraph of discussion and tips for each):

1. The little brackets around something mean "concentration of".

2. (x)(x) = x^2 It's surprising how many people think (x)(x) = 2x. I think it's because they test the latter it in their head putting in 2 for x and it works, so it must be true for everything else (without trying 1 or 3, for example).

3. (2x)^2 = 4x^2, but a lot of people write (2x)^2 = 2x^2. When you're rushing, or forget to check your orders of operation, this is an easy mistake to make.

4. Don't worry about memorizing the weak acids. Just memorize the six strong ones listed in the book. Anything else is weak. Other tips for identifying a weak acid are x, y, z...

I haven't poked around the Chemwiki much at all since I'm not currently teaching, but lists like this could be a valuable addition if they are not already there.

Sadler and Tai showed that there were two things in high school that positively affected college grades in STEM courses. The first was taking courses in a particular science (bio, chem, phys). The second, and strongest was the number of years that students took math. Amusingly taking physics in high school negatively affected student grades in college chemistry.

DelmarLarsen's picture

Cool. That would be a quicky basic skills guide for each chapter. Care to share them (if they still exist) with the ChemWiki and we can see them in action?

I certainly agree with Rick that math is very important, but I think that Rick misunderstands what "atoms first" means. In the atoms-first version of my text, the math-related topics of chemistry are presented early and often. Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from my description of the chemistry-first version of my book. When I said it postpones the math, I certainly didn't mean until later classes. For better or for worse (instructors can decide), for the instructors using this version, the math topics fall mid-semester, rather than at the beginning. There are pros and cons to this, but it's important to recognize that all of the same math-related topics are covered. It's just a matter of when.

I suppose we could debate the pros and cons of atoms-first vs. chemistry-first (I would be very interested in folks opinions), but it seems a bit off topic. The important point is that I think the question of what degree should math be emphasized is a separate question.


osrothen's picture

Hi Mark,

I’m not sure it is off topic. I think we spend way too much time searching for THE way (pedagogy) to teach chemistry, particularly general chemistry. Repeating a thought that I offered in a previous post, many things work. Ultimately, teaching chemistry is a dialog between teacher and student. Teaching is story-telling at its best, even in a flipped class!. And the story-teller must be comfortable with the story.

My teaching task at Illinois State University was teaching the non-science major chemistry course. I refused to accept the prevalent view that this course should be what I call Chemical Civics. At the time, Chemical Civics dominated the textbook market for this group of students. So I did what many profs do. I turned my class notes into a textbook. I would have preferred not to do this, but a story-teller must be comfortable with their story!

The Wiki has the potential to solve the problem of the reluctant text book author. With the Wiki, any teacher can potentially construct a learning path consistent with their story. They can also contribute to Wiki components related to their story.


PS off topic because you asked:

We cannot see atoms and molecules in the concrete way that we see objects in our daily lives. In this sense, there is an abstract quality to them. Stoichiometry was our first window for looking into this abstract world. It is with stoichiometry that human minds saw atoms and molecules for the first time. And wonder of wonders, we did this using mathematics that most adult humans understand intuitively - simple direct proportion. Atoms fist? Of course, but with the math foundation.

Not THE way, but MY way. Many things work!

It is a little dated (1996), but one of my favorite commentaries on this topic is "The Future of the Book" edited by Geoffrey Nunberg. One of the chapter authors in this book, Carla Hesse, suggested (pg. 31) that in the future there will be no fixed canons of texts and no fixed epidemiological boundaries between disciplines, only paths of inquiry, modes of integration, and moments of encounter. For many years I have tried to visualize what that would be like. We are not there yet, but each year it looks to me as though we are moving further in that direction. I won't limit the discussion by my interpretation, but it may ignite some interesting comments?

DelmarLarsen's picture

That sounds like an interesting read. It also sounds a bit like Josh's science fiction story/nightmare at the top of the comments.

Layne Morsch's picture

I have been using the ChemWiki in my organic chemistry courses for two semesters. I teach a flipped course where lecture videos and the ChemWiki are linked for every topic. I think I have too many interventions in the course to state that the ChemWiki has improved performance, but performance has not dropped since incorporating the ChemWiki.

I wanted to address Harry's comment (and a few others) on the future of the book. My thinking on this relates to how we are training students to find information for the future. My question is "If our students need to find some piece of information 5 or 10 years after graduating, where will they look?" I can't imagine that the answer to that will be "in a textbook". If the answer is "on the internet" then shouldn't we be teaching them to do that during their education as well?