Instructors, students find benefits in virtual learning

By Tatum Lyles Flick
Department Communications

This year’s pandemic-induced online instruction did not stop students from enrolling in chemistry courses, but it did give instructors and teaching assistants (TAs) experience using a different instructional medium.

“Teaching CHEM 344 online was definitely a unique experience,” said TA Maggie McEwan. “Teaching online requires a different set of skills compared to teaching in a classroom or lab, so I think I learned a lot this summer right along with the students.”

McEwan added that she missed face-to-face interactions, but appreciated how students were engaged with the material and discussions.

Two chemistry courses made the top ten list, based on number of enrolled students over the summer. Introductory Organic Chemistry Lab had the highest enrollment of any class and Intermediate Organic Chemistry had the second highest. General chemistry courses also maintained pre-pandemic enrollment numbers.

The general chemistry instruction team, which used videos, pre-class readings and quizzes to increase student engagement, focused on synchronous instruction.

“Most of these elements were already created during the REACH curriculum revision,” explained Dr. Theresa Pesavento, director of teaching and learning. The REACH initiative, which started in 2016, focused on interactive and inclusive learning with increased student engagement.

Though online instruction presents challenges, many students responded positively.

“Instructors reported that one benefit to the online environment is more direct and meaningful exchanges with students in large problem-solving/Q&A sessions (whole-class/lecture) where it is easier to interact individually with students via BBCollaborate video and chat, respond to their questions, and identify where they might be struggling with concepts,” Pesavento said, adding that students agreed, citing positive interactions and a sense of community.

The organic chemistry instructional team, comprised of organic lab director Dr. Nick Hill and assistant lab directors Dr. Aubrey Ellison and Dr. Brian Esselman, decided that their program should focus on videoed experiments and opportunities for students and TAs to connect.

Cameras are set up to record laboratory components of general chemistry for instructional videos.
Cameras are set up to record laboratory components of general chemistry for instructional videos.

“Transforming the CHEM 344 organic laboratory course to remote instruction was an immense logistical and pedagogical challenge,” Hill said. “How do you convert a practical course that relies on students recording observations, performing lab techniques, and generating and analyzing their own data into an entirely online experience yet maintain authenticity and a sense of discovery?”

Hill performed and narrated each experiment, as if leading a group of students through the procedure. Starting with the addition of reagents to a flask, students observed all steps in the experimental and chemical disposal procedure. They also focused on finding authentic and meaningful ways to assess student learning of hands-on material taught by video.

“The instructors heavily emphasized the development of skills which enable students to make coherent arguments about a chemical reaction based on experimental data,” Hill said. “Maintaining these learning outcomes in an online course entailed significant changes in the type of questions included in the lab report for each experiment and the course exams.”

“I saw TAs and instructors go above and beyond to do much more than what was required,” said one of the students. “The organic lab was one of the best run courses I have taken at this university!”

Most large organic chemistry courses were mainly asynchronous with some synchronous elements, enabling each student to work through material at their own pace, while staying connected through virtual office hours and group review sessions.

Both programs plan to use the videos in future semesters as preparation material for students and TAs.