Chemistry Joins Project to Transform Large Lecture Courses

Dozens of students in a lecture hall look toward a PowerPoint presentation

Large introductory lecture-based courses are a staple at most universities. But many of those classes at UW-Madison will be transformed into much more student-centered experiences over the next few years, thanks to a new project called REACH.

The aim is to improve student learning by increasing students’ engagement in these courses. REACH is part of the broader campus Educational Innovation initiative, and connected with the university’s reaccreditation process.

Three departments in the College of Letters & Science — chemistrymathematics, and psychology — were the first departments to commit to participating in REACH and others across campus are moving to join.

“REACH offers us the opportunity to get together with experts from across campus,” says Ned Sibert, chair of the Department of Chemistry's Undergraduate Curriculum Committee and a co-faculty lead for REACH. “These are experts in education, technology and the first year experience — experts who can help us redesign and improve Chemistry 103/104 so that they best serve our students.”

REACH will build on successful innovations across campus that strive to enhance the undergraduate experience through student-centered learning practices. It will not only reinforce the common goal among these efforts, but will extend their reach to encompass tens of thousands of first- and second-year students over the next five years.

While excellent examples of active learning already exist in many undergraduate programs, especially in courses with low student-to-instructor ratios, the logistics and sheer number of students in large, high-enrollment courses often inhibit innovation and experimentation.

Sitting and passively listening to professors remains the prevailing experience in these courses, but it is not the most effective way for students to learn. According to national research, students will not retain 70 to 90 percent of content delivered by a lecture within 48 hours of hearing it, unless the information is reinforced and revisited within that time frame.

“Active learning is more effective, and common sense tells us so,” says Greg Moses, professor of engineering physics and REACH project co-lead. “For instance, if you want to successfully serve a tennis ball, do you watch someone else do it for hours or do you watch and then try to do it yourself for hours until you get it right?

“Apply that same principle to calculus or Spanish or economics. In today’s world, graduates are hired for what they can do, not just for what they know; you must demonstrate that you can do something with what you know. That is what active learning is about.”

The REACH project team will partner with departments, including their faculty and instructors, to redesign large, introductory lecture-based courses to be more student-centered and inclusive. Additionally, the project aims to inspire greater student responsibility for learning by increasing student inquiry and engagement with the subject matter.

“Imagine a classroom where students integrate technology, research and their own curiosity to work together to solve real-world problems, which in turn encourages students to question more, develop abilities, build knowledge, and begin to take responsibility for their own learning,” says Sarah Miller, service leader for faculty engagement in DoIT Academic Technology and REACH project co-lead.

Grounded in the research, the REACH project will integrate evidence-based practices, effective technologies and ongoing assessment into the selected courses. Some of these practices will include increased student-instructor interactions, problem-based case studies, team projects, student-to-student peer evaluation and technology-enhanced assignments.

Large lecture courses have been selected in chemistry, mathematics and psychology. To ensure sustainability, departments form teams of faculty and staff to participate in the transformation, teaching and evaluation process, and commit to sustaining and enhancing the redesign in future offerings. A number of campus units are expected to play a role in the project including University Health Services, Undergraduate Advising and the Center for the First-Year Experience.

In partnership with schools and colleges, and the Office of the Provost, REACH is co-sponsored by Educational Innovation, an initiative supported by the chancellor and the provost that aims to engage and inspire students through enriched learning, and DoIT Academic Technology.

Story by University Communications

Photo by Bryce Richter, University Communications