Program in Course Redesign

University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Traditional Course

General Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin (UW)–Madison enrolls a total of approximately 4,100 students in the fall and spring terms (with some additional enrollment in the summer). This two-course sequence is required for large numbers of students as a prerequisite in most biological science and engineering curricula. About half of the freshman class at the university enrolls in the fall semester, and more than a third enroll in the spring semester. Enrollments in the fall are about 2,300, spread among eight sections, and in the spring about 1,700, spread among six sections. One professor, assisted by eight Teaching Assistants (TAs), teaches each section of about 250–350 students. Students attend two one-hour lectures, two one-hour discussions, and one two-hour lab per week. The course also includes weekly homework assignments and quizzes, an exam about every four weeks, and a comprehensive final examination.

The current General Chemistry course faces five specific academic problems:

  • Students' academic foundation in chemistry is inconsistent. Students come from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from excellent to nonexistent high school chemistry courses.
  • The large-class structure makes it difficult to track students’ experiences.
  • The current structure is not able to accommodate different learning styles.
  • Students interact with the learning materials inadequately. Students view chemistry as a difficult course and a hurdle they have to get over. They do not see connections between chemistry and their specific career goals, and the current instruction makes no explicit connections of this type.
  • There is a lack of connection in students' minds between chemistry and other disciplines, so that students do not retain material. Students often need to review chemistry concepts for other courses, but there is no good mechanism by which to do so. Also, there is no means by which faculty in other disciplines can tailor specific chemistry learning to their students' needs.

The high number of faculty and TA hours per section, the 35% increase in General Chemistry enrollment at UW-Madison over the past 10 years, and the availability of chemistry software and online material has spurred the use of technology in teaching chemistry. Although the Chemistry Department is hiring additional faculty, the number of available graduate student TAs is not expected to grow. Therefore, managing these large courses with the resources available is a problem. Given the broad range of interactive technology-based learning materials available in chemistry, it is logical to fully redesign the complete General Chemistry sequence to cut instructional time and improve learning

The Redesigned Course

Faculty have been steadily incorporating technology into General Chemistry since 1990 with computerized data analysis, lecture-demonstrations, and tutorials funded through a National Science Foundation "New Traditions" grant. Building on that experience, the redesign of General Chemistry will replace one lecture and one discussion section each week with Web-based diagnostic homework, quizzes, and tutorials. The objectives of the redesign are to improve productivity, students’ learning, and students’ long-term retention of what they have learned; to provide specific links between chemical principles and the subject matter of other disciplines; and to involve faculty from other disciplines in the design, development, and implementation of the technology-based system.

The learning goals for the redesigned course will require students to

  • understand the basic concepts of general chemistry;
  • use Web-based technology to diagnose, direct, and evaluate their learning;
  • choose appropriate application modules to work on, based on their individual career interests; and
  • use Web-based technology to review and retain chemistry concepts for later courses.

To achieve these learning goals, a typical week will have a single lecture designed to give students an overview of what they will be studying that week, relate the material to real-world situations and other disciplines, and motivate students to actively engage with the material. The lecture will not "cover material" or present worked-out problems or facts that can be better handled by technology, but it will provide students with perspectives from which to cover the material themselves.

Online homework problems will include diagnostic information that directs students to certain textbook material and computer-based tutorials in order to identify and address learning needs. Many tutorials will be constructed to give students a choice of pathways so that each student can tailor the learning process to his or her needs and interests. Discussion sections will be structured so that students will have already attempted to solve problems before the discussion. Students will have an opportunity to improve their homework score by redoing the assignment after discussion with their TA and other students. Quizzes will test students' mastery of concepts each week.

Course material and resources will be structured into interactive modules, designed to be linked together in various ways depending on the learning objectives identified by the faculty and the specific learning needs of each student. Supporting features will include the ability to track students’ progress and intervene when they are having difficulty, assess learning as it occurs, and identify a variety of learning resources to assist students.

This revised course structure provides students with a learning framework that structures their study and other activities on a weekly basis. Its flexibility is ideally suited to address the issue of students’ broad range of preparation and background. The revised course can assess students' knowledge in much smaller subject-matter chunks and can provide students with feedback and direction that will allow them to make up for specific deficiencies. It also has the potential to help students learn to identify their own deficiencies and do their own remediation and later to review content that needs to be retained for other courses. The initial set of modules will replace mainly lecture, discussion, and pre-laboratory aspects of the course.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 8 lecture sections of 250–350 students each in fall term; 6 in spring
  • 12–16 discussion/lab sections of 22 students each per lecture section
  • 6 contact hours per week: 2 (1-hour) lectures, 2 (1-hour) recitations, 1 (2-hour) lab, 1 (25-minute) quiz section
  • Full-time faculty (eight in fall and six in spring) teach one section of the course. They deliver two lectures per week, create assignments and exams, supervise eight TAs per section, and hold two office hours per week.
  • Eight TAs assist in teaching each section by holding two recitations and conducting one lab per week and by proctoring and grading exams. They also attend all lectures as well as orientation and staff meetings.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 8 lecture sections of 250–350 students each in fall term; 6 in spring
  • 12–16 discussion/lab sections of 22 students each per lecture section
  • 4 contact hours per week: 1 (1-hour) lecture, 1 (1-hour) recitation, 1 (2-hour) lab
  • Web-based, interactive modules
  • Online quizzes
  • Full-time faculty (eight in fall and six in spring) teach one section of the course. They deliver one lecture per week, supervise TAs, and develop content modules usable by all sections.
  • TAs assist in teaching each section by holding one recitation and conducting one lab per week and by grading exams. They also attend orientation and staff meetings.


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

  • Create a well-rounded course in which students interact with a variety of learning environments, each of which is intended to contribute to the students' overall learning
  • Reduce weekly lectures from two to one
  • Offer interactive, Web-based course materials
  • Provide collaborative and hands-on simulations and other learning experiences



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