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Support for Experiments in Flipping: Timesaving Resources Aligned with Cognitive Science


Dr. Judith Ann Hartman, United States Naval Academy
Dr. Donald J. Dahm, Rowan University
Eric Nelson, Fairfax County Public Schools (retired)

05/09/14 to 05/15/14

Recent research in cognitive science has revolutionized our understanding of how the brain solves problems.  This paper will review how characteristics of “working memory” favor a model of instruction in which students “automate the fluent retrieval of elements of core knowledge” during study time.  This frees class time for instructors to guide active learning:  Inquiry, demonstrations, and discussions that move students toward the conceptual framework of experts.  Evidence will be offered this alignment of instruction with human cognitive architecture results in improved student outcomes.

Instructors deserve time-saving support for experiments with “flipped” lessons.  This paper will describe available materials that support flipping in both “college preparatory” and general chemistry courses.  By applying research in reading comprehension, these “notes with clicker questions” move a portion of lecture content to homework - a convenient alternative to videotaping lectures.  Also noted will be instructional strategies that encourage students to complete homework in a timely manner.

Work will be described that remains to be done in cataloging activities that build conceptual understanding in different first-year levels and instructional settings.  Readers will be invited to participate in suggesting and testing proposals for active learning that ease the burden on instructors during their initial semesters of a cognitive-science-based flip.


Time-Saving Resources -- Aligned with Cognitive Science -- To Help Instructors Flip

If students are given lecture notes that they can read with comprehension during homework, can faculty gain time during lecture for activities that build conceptual understanding?  Could this lead to measurable gains in student achievement?

In our experience, under the right conditions, the answer has been:  Yes and yes. 

For several years, the authors have been working to develop materials that would make it easier for faculty to “flip” instruction in first-year chemistry -- without having to videotape lectures.  We will discuss our experience and then suggest factors to consider whether you choose among existing resources to assist in flipping or create your own.



Our interest in flipping grew out of necessity.  In 2006, engineering curricula nationwide began to move to a single semester of first-year chemistry.  At Rowan University (NJ), Dr. Don Dahm was encouraged develop a course which covered all the topics normally covered in two semesters of general chemistry in a single semester course.  After a semester in which 30% of lab time had to be utilized for lecture, Don and Eric Nelson began a collaboration aimed at transferring a part of lecture content to study time. 

From research on reading comprehension, we learned that during initial study, students need reading materials with a different design than a comprehensive text.  “Lecture notes with clickers” were recommended as a format for homework:  systematic instruction with frequent questions that require students to think about what they have read. 

After two years of writing, re-writing, and assigning “lecture/clicker” tutorials, Don’s engineers scored at the 63rd percentile on the two semester ACS General Chemistry Examination (at the end of one semester), with all time for labs restored.   In subsequent teaching of “two semester general” and “preparatory” chemistry, Don found the homework tutorials, if adapted (see below), provided more class time for demonstrations, discussions, and problem solving.

In 2010, Dr. Judy Hartman joined our project to help in researching cognitive studies on ways to promote conceptual understanding.  The recommendations of cognitive science differ from some of the reform strategies that have been the proposed in science education for the past 20 years, as we describe below.

Our tutorials now cover most topics in both general and “college preparatory” chemistry.  Posted on the ChemReview website for free student use, the lessons received 220,000 “visits” during 2011-2012.  Evaluations by both faculty and students can be viewed in the results section on the ChemReview site (with student spelling corrected and references to their inability to understand their textbook, etc., deleted, but otherwise shown as received).  We believe this response is evidence that students can learn traditional lecture content during homework.

In 2012, W. W. Norton offered to handle publishing (which we found to be not for amateurs) of printed texts instructors had requested.  Reviews of the “prep chem” text are  available on the Amazon listing for the book.  General chemistry tutorials are also available in both ebook and paperback, and inspection copies of all are available to instructors (details at the end of this document). 

The first two chapters of the ebook are permanently posted for free student use (and for possible homework assignments) at  the ChemReview site.  Readers may find that viewing one or two lessons in that file at this point will help in providing points of reference for the issues discussed below.


Flipping Issues

In our experience, whatever method you choose to flip a part of lecture to homework, these questions will arise.


1.   What knowledge does the student need to solve problems?
2.   Why do so many students have trouble with calculations?
3.   How do you get students to read or watch anything?
4.   For already overworked instructors, how do we ease the burdens of flipping?
5.   How can we keep up with research on flipping?

What follows are our views on these questions, based on our experiments and research.


Memorization and Working Memory

Cognitive science is the study of how the brain works and how it learns.  During the 1990’s, when technology to study the brain was less developed, researchers in cognition often disagreed on whether students were better able to solve math and science problems by learning reasoning skills or by memorizing facts and algorithms.  Since 2001, however, cognitive science has reached a consensus on this issue.

Research has now measured and verified that when solving a problem, “working memory” (where the brain solve problems) can utilize all information that can be recalled automatically from long-term memory, but only about 3-5 elements of knowledge, for a brief time, that are not well memorized.  One goal of initial learning must therefore be to “memorize to automaticity” the core knowledge of a discipline.  Fluency (fast, accurate recall) overcomes the brain’s bottleneck:  the severe constraints in working memory when manipulating information that is not well memorized (see Clark and NMAP references below).

Experts in a discipline have constructed a vast web of relationships among elements of knowledge in their long-term memory:  a deep conceptual framework:  That knowledge is called into working memory automatically by cues during problem solving.  For a student to learn to “think like a scientist,” the first step is to move new knowledge into long-term memory. Then, as relationships are discovered by applying memorized knowledge in new contexts, conceptual understanding is constructed over time.  Cognitive scientists generally agree that to become an expert in a technical field requires about 10 years of study.

In the references listed below, researchers describe why initial memorization is essential for learning math and science.  Although we might prefer not to have to ask our students to thoroughly memorize material, cognitive experts emphasize the necessity that we do so in order to guide students in learning. 

Cognitive science also offers strong support for “flipping.”  Memorization of facts and procedures can be accomplished during study time, so that more of the limited time when instructors are with students can be devoted to active learning.  Inquiry guided by instructors can create vivid links between elements of knowledge that books and videos cannot match, and those associations are the substance of understanding. 



Another impetus to flip, supported by cognitive science, is to build student skills in math.  Chemistry is a quantitative science.  General chemistry assumes background knowledge including one prior year of high school chemistry -- plus 12 years of mathematics including arithmetic, fractions, algebra, exponents, and logarithms.

Between 1990 and 2012, before working memory was widely understood, K-12 math standards in most American states (and some other nations as well) discouraged math memorization (see BCCE in the references).  Because automaticity is critical in problem solving, the result has been, as you have likely noted, many students in the current generation have difficulty with the math of scientific calculations. 

The solution we adopt in our lessons is to review math topics during homework, just before they are needed for chemistry.  Math both with and without a calculator is included because mental math understanding is critical in retaining what is learned.  We have found that pretests help to individualize instruction:  students can skip past topics they know and focus on review they need.


Math and Prep Chem

For general chemistry students, in our experience a brief structured review of the math required for a chemistry topic suffices to “refresh the memory” in the skills needed for calculations.  However, math test score data (see BCCE) indicate that it is likely that a significant percentage of students in the current generation will need more than a quick review to attain the automaticity in computation that the pace of general chemistry requires.

Many colleges offer sections of “preparation for general chemistry.”  Our suggestion would be that “prep chem” include a strong component of “prep for the math of chem.”  As one example, if “prep chem” includes a thorough base 10 and natural logarithm review, it will build skills that are essential when working with the equations of second semester general chemistry.


Homework Completion

OK, reality check.  How do you get students to complete homework on time, so you can conduct higher-level activities in lecture?  In our group, Don Dahm has experimented with tutorial flipping in engineering, general, GOB, and “prep chem” both at Rowan and community colleges.  Don’s advice:


1.   Students need a system that rewards “distributed practice” (working on homework several times a week), with frequent quizzes on homework that count substantially.  Quizzes should be easy if homework has been completed, but quite difficult if not.

2.   Classes with weaker backgrounds need more frequent quizzes and quiz questions closer to the content of the homework assignments.

3.   In strong classes, you can assign the homework, quiz, and go directly to higher level topics.  In less-well-prepared classes, homework may need to be a “second lecture on content.”

4.  If homework problems are gradually more challenging, but can be done with help from the text, research predict students will find them motivational, and they seem to do so.

5.   Online homework, due before each class, can help -- but is no substitute for “closed notes” quizzes requiring that fundamentals be memorized (but I permit a student-made “formula sheet” on a comprehensive exam).

6.   In flipping, be prepared to adjust your structure for each course -- each year.  Students react better if you move from initially high to lower structure than the other way around.



To move parts of lecture to homework, students must have time for study.  College students working part-time may need to be advised that 2-3 study hours per class hour is expected for science majors, but with financial aid increasingly limited, equity is a real concern.

In high school, students from low income families may have less access to individual computers or spaces for quiet study.  For all high school students, who are “in-class” for more hours per week than in college, some “flipped homework” may need to include work done in class at the end of a long “block.” 

If you have experience with solutions to equity concerns, we hope you will share them this forum or, at a later date, in posts on flipping on our blog (see below). 


Reducing Costs

Reducing course-materials cost is one way to assist students financially.  We consider our ebook to be a non-ideal combination of text and computerized tutorial, but the simplified format results in a low cost PDF.  For instructors writing their own materials, this “screen and print” ebook method is one way to produce “on-screen PDF tutorials” with a “paper to keep or hand-in” option. 


Easing the Burden on Instructors

When evaluating materials that move lecture content to homework, key factors are effectiveness, time required from instructors, and cost.  Choosing activities for class time is more complex.

A vast quantity of excellent active learning materials exist, but among them, which fit the level of your students, motivate, and develop conceptual understanding?  Which are practical and safe given your teaching space, class size, class length, prep time, re-prep time between classes, recitation and lab availability, access to an assistant, and stockroom?  What do other instructors say in evaluating the activity?  For your particular situation, answers will take time to gather.

So -- pace yourself.  If you can move a part of lecture content to homework, and spend more time in class guiding students in solving tough problems, or get in a few additional wet chem demonstrations, or try any new activities during a semester, that’s real progress.


Keeping Up and Sharing

As more instructors flip and share their learning, flipping will become easier.  As one resource, for instructors interested in flipping and cognitive science issues in first-year (all pre-organic) chemistry, we have set up a blog (see below) with an invitation to you to discuss, debate, and share your experiences and views.  The ChemEd-L and AP Chem bulletin boards are marvelous resources, but we hope a space with a more specific focus may also help in flipping.


Summary:  Why Science Favors Flipping

In “well-structured” domains such as chemistry, studies in cognitive science favor the following instructional sequence:

1.   To introduce each topic, instructors guide activities that create student interest.

2.   Instructors identify background knowledge, facts, and algorithms needed to solve topic problems.  Students commit these to memory so that they can be recalled automatically. 

3.   Students automate problem-solving procedures by extensive practice that applies new knowledge in a variety of contexts.

4.   As instructors guide activities that highlight relationships among memorized elements of knowledge, students construct a conceptual framework that promotes domain fluency.

By moving parts of steps 2 and 3 to study time, flipping speeds learning.

No matter what methods you choose for instruction, our recommendation would be:  Embrace the gift of cognitive research.  When teaching and study become better aligned with our new knowledge of how the brain works, our students and their society will benefit.




1.   Blog:  More on flipping and cognition in first-year chemistry (with comments and questions encouraged!) will be posted at  CogBlog .

2.   Tutorials:  Inspection copies of our lessons, as paperbacks or ebooks, for both general and preparatory chemistry, are available to college and high school instructors from W. W. Norton. 


For high school and AP chemistry, licenses are available for class sets of ebooks.

3.   Quizzes:  For instructors using the tutorials with classes, editable weekly quizzes are available on the content of both the preparatory and general chemistry lessons.

4.   Activities:  Challenging problems that can be worked in class with instructor guidance are available for all chapters of the general chemistry tutorials.  Contact for samples and details.

5.   BCCE:  On math computation skills of the current generation, see BCCEmath .

6.   References on how the brain solves problems:


  • Clark:  The Human Brain – Learning 101: ”  A 4-page non-technical summary of research in cognition, on pages 8-11 of Putting Students on the Path to Learning at  Brain.
  • NMAP:  On math (but applies to chemistry, too):  Pages 4-xi and 4-2 to 4-8 in The Report of the Task Group on Learning Processes in the Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2008) at  NMAP .
  • Willingham:  For summer reading, Why Don’t Students Like School by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a 240 page paperback for under $20.


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The general consensus among "flippers" is that the class face-to-face time is critical for engagement and clarification. In your classrooms, what are a couple examples of activities that are generating the best engagement of your students? Are they similar to prior homework, multi-layered, problem-based, etc.?

Another aspect mentioned in your paper is related to having students focus on testing and developing working memory fluency. Are your students using the testing (quizzes prior to class) as tools for assessing their learning progress or are they completing them in order to "just play school" and get the points? Have you noticed a change in student's fluid intelligence with the memory "training" you've described?



Cognitive scientists make a distinction between "fluid intelligence," which is roughly correlated with IQ and/or working memory capacity, and "crystallized intelligence," which is roughly how well you can solve problems because of what you have learned and remember.

Nearly all of the research says that fluid intelligence and its corollaries are difficult to change by effort. The many commercial products that have you "exercise your brain" by playing games to increase your working memory are generally judged to make you better at playing those particular games.

The good news is that in problem solving, what matters most is your "crystallized intelligence," which is how much you know in memory based on what you have learned in life (and as you age you can remember). Crystallized intelligence generally increases until you are about 65 (I alas am past that) as long as you continue to "refresh your memory" on occasion by practicing problem-solving in a domain.

"Memorization to automaticity" of facts and algorithms is the "central way" to get around the limits in working memory that kick in quickly for all of us when we try to solve problems: What you "know" determines what you can do when solving science problems.

Crystallized intelligence depends on your experience but also your focused effort to improve the breadth and the organization of your long-term memory.

A new book summarizing recent research on how to help students learn is "Making It Stick" by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014 - Harvard University Press), reviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month at this link:

(Judy sent me the review link, which inspired me to drive a substantial distance to get one hard copy of the book in my metro area. After the review came out it was on quickly on backorder online, but having finished reading I will advise: even if you need to wait, it's worth it. Great book for instructors at all levels.)

The book authors emphasize that the data say that the key to success in education is for students to work hard to increase what is in memory. They suggest that we as instructors convey to students what is true: That in learning, how long, how often, and hard you study counts more than "innate ability."

Layne Morsch's picture

I really like the idea of "distributed practice". The part of it that I struggle with is the complicated student schedule. I always feel that if I give them a week to complete a larger assignment, then they can work around that schedule. However, I would love to give them many smaller assignments. Do you have any suggested methods that may make this "distributed practice" work well?



I teach at the Naval Academy where we require all of the students (including the 30+% who major in the humanities) to take a full year of chemistry their freshman year. As a result, the majority of my students do not want to take chemistry and do not see the relevance of learning chemistry to their major or career. They are interested in hearing how chemistry explains macroscopic phenomena and in my stories about the practical aspects of chemistry in industry. But, in general, they are most engaged by activities that they see as directly relevant to learning how to solve problems. I have found that the top students enjoy working out complicated "case study" type problem (i.e. can a partially empty aerosol can blow up a trash compactor) but most of my students find that interesting details in a problem overload their working memory. I teach classes of 20 students and spend much of my lecture time asking the class questions (both qualitative and quantitative). For the qualitative questions I encourage them to answer in chorus if they are short answers. For the quantitative questions, I write the answers on the board as people finish then we work the problem together to see which answer is correct. I have done group work activities and have had mixed results. We have a very ambitious syllabus with common exams that all 1100 students take at 6 and 12 weeks so I don't have control of the pace. The group work has worked in classes that are dominated by stronger, motivated students and not in classes dominated by weaker or less motivated students. I've found that working as one big group gives the stronger students practice in solving problems/grappling with theory but still benefits the weaker students by showing them examples of how to solve problems/see connections between theory and observation.

I quiz my students in class every other lecture. I stress the need for memorization constantly and specifically point out things they need to memorize. In addition, I give the weaker students extra remedial homework focusing on the basic skills. This work is worth 3% of their final grade. The stronger students get the 3% without doing anything, the weaker students get 3% if they hand it in. Some students do "play school" with my extra assignments, but students who are trying to raise their grade soon realize that it works and begin to take it seriously. My stronger students often hand in the assignments even though they are not required to do so because they see their effectiveness.

I have noticed definite improvements in my students who work diligently. They begin to be able to answer the questions in class and they do better on exams. This semester, I had two students who had F's at 6 weeks (one had a 6 week common exam score of 32%) get scores in the 70's on the final exam which was cumulative over the entire year.

Hope this addresses some of your questions,


This is something I really struggle with since my students have very full schedules. They all have about 18 credits, are required to do a few hours of physical activity every day, and often have scheduled activities in the evenings. As a result, I give them lots of time for all assignments and I am probably too lenient about accepting late work. I try to keep them on schedule with quizzes on alternate lectures. I have in the past had them hand in assigned homework every lecture and that did work well although my stronger students did not like the lack of flexibility.


I enjoyed reading this study. The ACS exam scores you report for students at Rowan are very impressive! Did they take the ACS exam for the two-semester course? Or for the second semester course? Can you tell us what their scores were like on the ACS exam before this curricular change was implemented, so that we can make some comparisons? What is the chemistry background of the typical student in this course? Perhaps you have some statistics about the ACT scores for the middle 50% of students at the institution or number of students in this course who took AP chemistry in high school that you would be able to share with us.

To Jennifer from Don on Rowan chem for engineers:

Rowan is a regional University, drawing the majority of its students from New Jersey. The Engineering program is about 25 years old, and is highly regarded as a “Regional” program. (We are not being compared to MIT in ratings.) The Engineering College desires to get students, who remain in good standing, out in four years. Students are admitted to the College using different standards than those used for admission to the University. The exact standards change from year to year, but it is fair to say that the Engineering students have good SAT scores.

Most recently, approximately 40% of the students have had an AP Chem course and took the AP Chem Exam. This number has grown since 2006. Of these the most often encountered score was a 3 (out of 5). The majority of the students had more Chemistry in High School than the normal 10th grade course. The pre-requisites for the Advanced Course(the chem for engineers) are: High school pre-calculus or calculus, one year minimum of high school chemistry and physics.

Many students who desire to be admitted to the Engineering College, but were not accepted on the first go round, will sign up for the Advanced Course thinking that will help them get in. (and if they do great in it, it will.) It was necessary for me to let the Advisors assigned to such students that this was a strategy that was not a success for most students. As students signed up for my classes, I would write them a welcoming e-mail that let them know just what they were in for, including some of the above statistics.

Ten years ago, I did not know that I was embarking on an enterprise that would become dubbed as ‘flipping the classroom”. I did not do it to get a better outcome on ACS tests. I did it to get an equivalent outcome while covering more Lecture material in less time, without shorting the Lab time. (I didn’t want to water down the course the way I saw many one semester Chemistry for Engineering Student type textbooks had.)

The ACS Exam we give in the engineering chemistry is the standard ACS General Chemistry Examination that covers both semesters of General Chemistry content (this is not the "second semester only" exam.)

In the five years from 2006-2010, the mean results on the Full year ACS Exam, given after one semester have gone from 67.3% to 77.5%. Simultaneously, we added more topics and more Laboratory Experiments. [The percent numbers are after conversion to my Grade Scale. I think of this as going from a D to a C, and don’t consider the results all that impressive. On a nationwide basis, I think we are settling for pitiful performance as “average” or “expected”.]

For more detail on the background of the engineering chem classes and the changes we made in the program, see our 2009 CCCE report:

The procedure I described in my earlier answer to Layne was the one that I developed this year for my sections of regular two-semester General Chemistry. Students in those sections are primarily interested in health/med tech/biology majors. The procedures I described to Layne were more structured for these students, who on average did not have the math and science background of the engineers, but covered the general chemistry curriculum at the standard two semester pace.
(Sorry about the delay -- rick had to find and post the 2009 report, which may also be in the CCCE archives)


For the ACS exam "do you permit a student-made “formula sheet” on a comprehensive exam" as stated in the article? If not, how do the students transition from that crutch on the in class exams to the final? If so, can your results be compared to the national norms?


to Dave Finneran from Don Dahm

In my answer, I said the following, but I should not really have used the word “mixture”.

“The Topics are grouped into Units and at the end of a unit there is an Exam which is a mixture of tough problems (designed to separate the students who really understand what’s going on from the others), and easier questions that come from ACS sources (like the ACS Guide and Olympiad Tests).”

I give the test in two parts, in two different sittings. (We usually give the Exams during the "double Lab” period.) They get to use their self constructed “crib sheet” when the are doing the tough problems, and I give them an ACS Examinations Institute General Chemistry Data Sheet when they are doing the part I get from ACS sources. Which Data Sheet I give them changes as we add topics to the tests. Our General Chemistry Coordinator insists that we hold rigidly to the ACS Instructions for the Final Exam itself, so this gets them used to what they will have to know, and what the ACS will provide.

Incidentally, our General Chemistry Coordinator (Dr. Michael Miller) handles the electronic grading of Final Exam and converts the number correct, using the ACS National Norms, to a Grade Point Average for each class section. The idea then is that each instructor in the course assigns Course Grades consistent with that Average.

To Layne from Don and Eric:

From Don:
I believe in giving the students control over their learning schedule, and also how they learn the material.
The “Distributed Learning” comes in the schedule on which they are tested. I try to break down the material into a “Topic a Week, and give them a predictable, repeating sequence.

I produce a "packet for students" that I call Concepts in Chemistry that has my notes from previous years. (I add to it every time I teach a course.) For every Topic, there are about 10 problems that tend to be harder, multi-concept problems. I call these the Required Homework.

Ahead of time, I publish a “schedule” that has the places they can learn about the Topic.
1) The sections in Concepts in Chemistry that contains material related to the topics. (The same sections may show up more than once during a semester.)
2) The Module numbers and names from the Workbook series Calculations in Chemistry.
3) The Textbook Chapter (by Section).
4) Various websites (that I have examined for quality) that discuss the Topic.

I define Lab Day as the Last Day of a week, and there are two lecture periods between Lab Days.
Every week, on the First Day of the week, there will be a 20 minute quiz on the first meeting consisting of problems taken directly from the Modules (with the numbers changed a bit). If they did the Modules, they should get a perfect score.
On the Second Day of the week, the twenty minute quiz has concept problems (that are a bit harder than the ones in the Modules) that I get from the Text Book Test Bank.
On Lab Day, before they leave the Lab, they must turn in Required Homework. They must show their solutions to the problems. I grade it like it is a Take Home Test, though I encourage them to get help, like they would on Homework. That includes coming to Office Hours for help.

The Topics are grouped into Units and at the end of a unit there is an Exam which is a mixture of tough problems (designed to separate the students who really understand what’s going on from the others), and easier questions that come from ACS sources (like the ACS Guide and Olympiad Tests).

The last element in the Distribution is correcting every Quiz, Test, or Exam Question that they got wrong. They don't have to show their work the first time, but on corrections they have to write a short paragraph telling me what the correct answer is and why.

From Rick:
On distributed practice, two good articles by Daniel Willingham are:

1. “Allocating Student Study Time: Distributed vs. Massed Practice” at

2. “Practice Makes Perfect, but Only If You Practice Beyond the Point of Perfection” at

SDWoodgate's picture

What an admirable effort at putting together a course using cognitive science principles and making available the two very interesting papers on distributed learning and practicing. I note the following statement in one of these papers: "Practice, therefore, requires concentration and requires feedback about whether or not progress is being made." What type of feedback processes have you incorporated into your activities? Is that the purpose of all of the assessment? My understanding of the use of the word tutorial in North America is that it is a read-it activity. Is that correct? Do you have any electronic systems for giving students immediate feedback? When the students are told to get help, what sort of help is available?

From Eric Nelson to Dr. Woodgate:

Thanks for the kind words! Let me try to answer each of your questions.

>"Practice, therefore, requires concentration and requires feedback about whether or not progress is being made." What type of feedback processes have you incorporated into your activities? Is that the purpose of all of the assessment? <

For every problem in our text, we provide a “worked out answer.” Many reports show that students who do well in General Chemistry are those who buy the “solution guide” to the problems, so -- we made our lessons a combination of the text and the solution guide for everyone.

Recent research has found that while “worked examples” help guide student learning, a particularly effective variation on worked examples is the “completion problem,” where students are at first supplied part of the answer and fill in the rest, and then do a second problem with less scaffolding, and then move to “solving on their own.” In our later lessons with more complex problems, that is how we teach problem solving. A variation is to “walk them through the problem in steps, with feedback at each step.”

I have posted examples of how this works from one of the later chapters here:


Note that we include non-whole-number natural log calculations even in our “Prep Chem” lessons, but we teach the math of base 10 and natural logs first in both Prep and General Chem versions. This is because in the US, computation with numbers has been de-emphasized in the” K-12 math standards” in most US states for the last decade. We find that as a result, unless we teach the computation math needed for chemistry, students have substantial difficulty with calculations, including the logarithms found in many second semester Gen Chem topics. So, we “review” and essentially teach the math (as homework) whenever it is needed for a chem topic.

> My understanding of the use of the word tutorial in North America is that it is a read-it activity. Is that correct? Do you have any electronic systems for giving students immediate feedback? <

Our lessons are “read-it” homework: Designed to work “off-the-shelf” without requiring extensive instructor preparation time. Students get extensive feedback as part of each solution in the paperback or in the ebook. There are more sophisticated “computerized feedback” systems available, but in General Chemistry they will be expected to buy a reference text at a cost of over $100 even if “used,” so one of our goals was to keep our “calculations-focused tutorials and solution guide” inexpensive. For our lessons covering most of the math-oriented topics in both semesters of General Chemistry, the cost of our “low-tech” ebook to students (which is 1,200 pages with all those worked out answers) is $30. The Prep Chem ebook is less expensive, putting it within reach of most High School budgets for “college preparatory chemistry” software, and helping high school teachers put more “math of calculations” into their courses was another one of our goals. Students need the math of Gen Chem before Gen Chem to have success in Gen Chem.

We've gotten nice reviews from instructors and students, and we think following the recommendations of cognitive science is what has made the difference: High structure, completion problems, make clear what students need in MEMORY to solve problems.

> When the students are told to get help, what sort of help is available? <

The lessons are intended to reduce, but by no means eliminate, the time that instructors need to spend on each topic in class. For example, this might involve starting class by putting up a tough problem based on the homework, then going over the solution with class, to provide opportunity for questions.

Hope that helps!

SDWoodgate's picture

All of that is very nice - like the whole set up and the principles behind it - asking lots of questions - scaffolding and removing the scaffolding - great stuff. The piece of the puzzle that is missing is data collection to see whether the questions are appropriate. That is the bit that takes us into the new age of connecting our pedagogy to the needs and requirements of our students. Although we always focus on data collection to identify student problems, it is equally important to use data to finding out which bits they find easy. Because then one can adjust one's teaching AND questioning appropriately. For example, knowing that they actually do not have a problem using the logarithm button on their calculator means that one does not spend valuable contact time on this. It is better for students to be doing all of what you described in a system where their responses are recorded automatically in a data base instead of on pieces of paper. I can assure you from my own experience that a move to this technology creates a learning experience for both students and teachers.

Thanks for the detailed question. There are a number of different points in here and I will address them individually.

I agree that time is limited (for both faculty and students) so we both need to determine what material needs to be covered in detail. I start the process with an assessment on the first day of the first semester class that covers the first five chapters of the text (i.e. until the first exam). I then require students who get lower than a B to do and hand in my "drill" assignments. The A,B students are encouraged to do them as needed but do not need to hand them in. The last few years I have been using our study guide (modules). Since the students do not have time to do unnecessary work, I explain to them what it means to memorize something to automaticity then I tell them to only do the modules they need, I give them full credit if they hand in anything. To help them decide what they need we have pretests at the start of the modules so the students can see if they already know the material.

After each common exam (i.e. preliminary exam given to all 1100 freshmen at 6 and 12 weeks), the requirement to hand in the "drills" is reset to only the students who got less than a B on the exam. At the start of the second semester, I use the grade on the first semester final. I have tried assessments on the untaught material after the first 6 weeks, but too few students got above a C. I figure the A,B students know enough to study effectively and, in fact, many of them hand in the drills even though they are not required to.

In addition to the drills, all students do electronic homework. We currently use WebAssign and that does allow a breakdown of which students understand which questions. I am not a big fan of the electronic homework because I find too many students spent too much mental energy trying to figure out the formatting, but it does make grading easier and gives the students immediate feedback. I do not use the WebAssign data to decide what questions are appropriate for 2 reasons. First, I have been teaching this for awhile and have a good feel for student misconceptions and for the subjects that students have the most difficulty with. Second, I use a lot of "Socratic method" in the classroom and use the feedback from that to decide what areas I need to focus on each day.

Finally, your comment about them not having a problem with using the log button suggests to me that we have been unclear about what we mean by computation. Almost all of our students can get the answer to log(0.569) using the calculator and the ones that can't learn quickly and easily how to by asking a classmate. This does not worry us. What they almost universally cannot do is easily use the rules of logs to solve problems. This really hurts them when we do pH problems (especially calculating the concentration of an acid from it's pH) and when we do first order kinetics problems. In addition, they do not really know what logs are so they cannot calculate answers to problems such as the pH of a 0.01 M HCl solution without a calculator. Sometimes in "real life" it is important to be able to get answers, or ballpark approximations, without using a calculator.

As an anecdote to illustrate this, a few years ago one of my research students (a chemistry major in his senior year) asked me if we could review some freshman chemistry to prep him for his interview for an assignment in the nuclear service. Since I knew that nukes are big on being able to mentally get "back of the envelope" mental math solutions to problems (during a crisis you need to make fast decisions), I asked him the pH of a 0.01 HCl solution. He could not solve this without a calculator so I showed him how you see the answer immediately from scientific notation. It was news to him and he was thrilled with the "trick". He came back to me after the interview even more thrilled since they had asked him to give the pH of an acid solution and because of our session he was able to do it and as a result passed his interview.

SDWoodgate's picture

With respect to your comment about electronic homework - what I had in my mind, but did not express clearly, was that, based on my experience with such web-based learning and instructional design in this area, your workbooks would translate beautifully to a web-based system where students entered the answers in the exact same format as they would on pen and paper (especially for the short-answer ones) AND they could get instant feedback where they are going wrong AND you could monitor their activity. The system would be one where the problems and the information are integrated just as on the sheets you provide.

All of us believe that we know (because we are experienced teachers and we talk to our students) their weaknesses and strengths. BUT just like we tell our students to take advantage of any resources that are available to them to help them learn, we as teachers should also take advantage of any resources that are available to us to help us guide them in their learning. I have access to a lot of data entered as electronic homework using a system like your sheets, and I can assure you that we do not know it all. For example, I did an experiment to see how well students could do (a) calculating pH from acid concentration (2) calculating acid concentration from pH. In both cases one pH and one acid concentration were given at the top of the page with four examples where students had to enter the answers. There was no method given for getting between the acid concentration and the pH. Based on 600 high school students (none of whom I taught and from lots of different schools) in 2013, the results were 85%+ right first time. They had more trouble getting pH from hydroxide ion concentration, but even then it was 70%+.

What system are you using? We've used 4 or 5 different systems over the years and get negative feedback from too many of the students on all of them. I'd love to find a system that did not have formatting issues. WebAssign is pretty good and does show the students what they've entered--but they still have problems remembering things like where you put spaces when you type in equations. They are just too sleep deprived and over scheduled to deal with the details.

I believe that high school students who have recently learned pH can do those simple calculations. Our students are about 3 years away from chemistry and have forgotten much of it. Most can do the simple calculations for strong acids and bases when taught to them again, but then we go into weak acids and bases then buffers. At that point most of them can't keep the memorized pH algorithms straight and since they are not solid on the basic math they can't just solve them like a math problem.

I certainly don't know it all and I do find new sources of student difficulty every year (and would find it interesting to know more details about what they struggle with), but my quiz results and class questions confirm that I am not teaching much that most of them already know. One major difference between my school and most colleges is that our mission is to teach enough chemistry to ALL of the students (even the varsity athletes majoring in political science) to pass the course. We teach a standard 2 year course and often use the ACS 2 semester exam for our second semester final exam. In addition, we add many Naval Applications (water treatment, corrosion, submarine air, explosives, bio and chemical warfare, and nuclear reactors) The students are not allowed to drop the course and it is a big deal if they fail since they are required to graduate in 4 years. So, we have to teach to the bottom half of our classes. If anything, I know more things that I should teach them than I have time to teach.

SDWoodgate's picture

BestChoice - search for BestChoice chemistry and the URL will come up. There is lots of free stuff accessed through Demo (link just under the SIGN UP box). No marks are saved for that section, but signing up is free, and if you sign up as Other there is a free General Chemistry course where marks are saved for a particular user. In my experience you cannot expect students to type in things with spaces - anything that has to be typed in MUST be unambiguous in its formatting. There are other ways of doing things that are equally pedagogically sound and less frustrating.

As this first period for discussion draws to a close, the paper #2 authors would like to thank readers for the questions and comments we received during what was a very busy time (exam week or post-AP test) for always busy people. For my part, I look forward to quizzing the authors of the upcoming papers (though it's not so bad being quizzed).

IF in the future you have additional questions or comments on our paper or its discussion, please leave them as Comments at Post #5 of the “Cognition and Chemistry” blog at www.ChemReview.Net/blog .

Our thanks to Jennifer, Chris, Bob, and all of the CCCE volunteers for the many hours that go into planning (and adjusting plans to accommodate the beast that technology tends to be).

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Do you have a comparison of how students in a regular classroom versus a flipped classroom do?
How did your engineers do on the ACS exam when they took 2 semesters of chemistry?
Have you found any techniques that seem more efficient- that is students seem to achieve better mastery putting in the same amount of time?

There is detailed data, and a link to additional data, here:

There is additional "before and after" data posted in the initial slides at the BCCE link at the end of our paper (which takes you here):