Engineering Course Success Through Interactive Engagement

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2016

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

The learning environment in higher education has morphed from a lecture-driven paradigm to an amalgam of experiences that utilizes collaborative and interactive engagement pedagogies enhanced by technology. Such learning strategies are believed to result in deeper learning, with students taking control of their educational experiences, and improving cognitive ability and confidence through the application of course-related concepts. Here, we focus on learning strategies utilized in first- and second-year chemistry courses. It is believed that targeting students’ cognitive development as it relates to scientific thinking at this level translates into a skill set that is useful in upper-level courses. In addition, we also describe various ways in which chemistry instructors utilize interactive engagement activities (inquiry-, problem-, case-, and team-based learning, etc.) synergistically to promote improved learning outcomes. Finally, we highlight assessment strategies that provide student feedback and measure content mastery and skill proficiency. Specifically, this paper provides an overview of these approaches, of their impact on learning outcomes as determined by standardized and rubric-graded assessments, and of the supporting role of technology in their implementation.

General Chemistry for Majors Sequence

Since 2009, Spelman College’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has offered a majors-only general chemistry course section in addition to three non-majors’ sections each semester. While the majors-only section is open to other science and pre-health professional track majors requiring the course sequence, all incoming, first-year chemistry and biochemistry majors are required to enroll in this section. The goal of the majors-only section is to explore new teaching pedagogies while creating a community of learners for the new majors. It was the intent of the department that this section would aid in the retention of first-year majors while providing insight into the best practices for developing a student-centered curriculum.

In 2012, the general chemistry for majors section was revised from a more traditional lecture-based course into a semi-self-paced course that utilizes a flipped learning pedagogy. The flipped learning classroom is based on the Community of Inquiry (COI) learning framework that is supported by web- and technology-enhanced communications (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). The COI framework is based on the overlap of online learning, face-to-face teaching, and social interactions that enhance the learning of content, promote peer-to-peer and peer-instructor discourse, and support a climate of learning. In the flipped learning environment, all course materials are available to students via a learning management system (LMS) with the expectation that students prepare for each lecture period before attending class (Bergmann & Sams, 2012). In this way, the course may be considered semi-self-paced since students can work independently in their learning of course content. Due to the amount of pre-work expected of the students enrolled in a flipped learning course, the number of face-to-face classroom sessions are typically decreased. For the general chemistry for majors course at Spelman, this means the class met three days per week, as compared to four days per week for the non-majors sections.

Student class preparation in the flipped format includes the viewing of and taking notes on instructor-developed pre-recorded lecture videos posted on the college’s course LMS (in this case Moodle), completing pre-lecture textbook reading assignments, and reviewing POGIL (Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) worksheets. The flipped structure permits class time to focus on peer and student-instructor engagement through team-based active learning and question and answer sessions. Most classroom sessions involve teams of 3-4 students working through POGIL worksheets, many of which incorporate online simulations, with students taking on specific roles (manager, presenter, recorder, and facilitator). In addition, teams work on problems included in the narrated lectures, group challenge problem sets, and mini-projects. The purpose of this style of pedagogy is to actively engage students in the mastery of new knowledge and to allow students to take ownership of their learning. While class time primarily focuses on student engagement, active learning and peer engagement is not limited to the classroom. Students are required to engage in post-class skill building activities by working on daily adaptive learning assignments through the McGraw-Hill LearnSmart platform. Peer engagement also continues outside of class through assigned group projects, including case study analyses.

Student performance assessment in the semi-self-paced flipped course is based on the “three P’s”: Preparation, Participation, and Performance. Student preparation is quantified through the use of in-class individual and team clicker quizzes and daily notebook checks. Students self-evaluate and peer-evaluate their team participation through rubric-based evaluations and POGIL manager evaluations. Summative assessment of student learning is measured through performance on online homework assignments through the McGraw-Hill Connect system and gated chapter exams (“gates”). In accordance with the “semi-self-paced” nature of the course, students are allowed multiple opportunities to successfully pass a chapter gated test with a minimum score of 85. The structure allows students to progress through the course material based on their preparation and rate of comprehension while allowing those students who struggle with chapter concepts the opportunity of learning from their mistakes. The focus on the improvement of learning skills and content knowledge is supported through the department’s Chemistry Learning Center (CLC), where peer tutors specifically assigned to the course assist students in reviewing their gated tests. The intent of this iterative form of concept knowledge assessment and support is to promote subject mastery. Finally, student performance and knowledge gains are measured at the end of each term using standardized American Chemical Society final examinations, which have been used for many years in the department.

From the use of these assessments, we begin to uncover the benefits associated with the semi-self-paced flipped classroom in this course (Hibbard, Sung, & Wells, 2016). In particular, a five-year evaluation of ACS-examinations scores for the majors-only course (pre- and post-flipped learning format) indicates that students perform better under the flipped learning pedagogy. While this teaching strategy is not the sole contributor to increased standardized test scores, we believe that the semi-self-paced flipped learning environment has increased student responsibility and improved preparedness. Additionally, we observed that this strategy increased retention in the major, student-teacher engagement, and student confidence. Overall, this teaching method has proven to be advantageous. Future work will focus on long-term knowledge retention.

Organic Chemistry Workshops

The learning community established in the general chemistry course is maintained by providing a majors-only section of Organic Chemistry I. The course is taught using a blended format. Similar outcomes were observed for the organic chemistry course as were seen for the general chemistry course. Therefore, we have expanded collaborative learning to impact students enrolled in the Organic Chemistry II course (Winfield, 2015).

Both chemistry majors and non-majors enroll in the same section of Organic Chemistry II. On average, the course accommodates 40-60 students. It is in this mixed majors/non-majors course that we further explore collaborative learning through peer-led, team-based, structured study. Such a learning opportunity is afforded through the Organic Chemistry Workshops offered by the Chemistry Learning Center. Students enrolled in the organic chemistry course receive course content through traditional 50-minute lectures that meet three days per week. In addition, students attend the weekly, 1-hour workshop session described below. The department offers six sections of the workshop in a given week. Each section follows the 7-week workshop schedule of topics. In this way, the workshop covers the same concepts in each section for a given week. The sections are limited to 10-12 students to ensure close student engagement. Students self-select a workshop section and can only complete workshop activities during the selected time for the duration of the semester. They are also required to attend five of the seven workshops offered and are not allowed to make-up missed sessions. Students receive credit for attending the workshops, which counts towards 5% of the student’s lecture grade.

Peer-tutors, known as Chemistry Learning Apprentices (CLAs), facilitate each workshop. CLAs are upper-level chemistry majors that have successfully passed Organic Chemistry I and II. CLAs contribute to the development of workshop materials and provide feedback on student learning and workshop outcomes. To ensure consistency in how the CLAs present workshop information, CLAs meet once a week with the current organic chemistry lecture instructors to discuss materials, potential student concerns, and solutions to practice problems that they will present. In addition, CLAs assist with data input and provide first-hand observations on how students engage in the workshops and on the success of the initiative.

Each workshop is structured to ensure students have ample time to assess their knowledge, collaborate with peers, and discuss any difficulty encountered with the topic. The timeline for workshop activities is given in Table 1. Upon arrival at each session, students complete a pre-assessment, after which CLAs outline the session objectives and provide a brief overview of the concept and problems that the students will practice. The introduction is based on the script developed during the weekly planning meeting. Students work problems individually before discussing their answers and approach to the problem in small groups. Following small group discussions, the CLAs present the worksheet solutions and then administer the post-assessment, which concludes the session.

Table 1: Timeline of workshop activities
Workshop ActivityTime to Complete
Pre-assessment5 minutes
Introduction10 minutes
Individual work10 minutes
Group work15 minutes
Presentation of the Solution15 minutes
Post-assessment5 minutes

The content of the workshop consists of the core skills needed to facilitate students’ mastery of the broader lecture materials. The course instructor first introduces students to the details of the concepts during the normal lecture period. In this way, students enter the workshops with some degree of knowledge of the topic. This course-workshop relationship allows the CLAs to provide a brief review of the subject and supplemental assistance to promote students’ mastery of fundamental organic chemistry skills. In the workshops, students receive an information sheet that outlines the fundamental concepts needed to complete the accompanying worksheet. The worksheet contains a set of traditional practice problems that can be completed within the allotted time. The problems are not graded, but are used to guide skill development and conversation during the workshop.

Workshops are assessed based on three categories: changes in students’ perceived comprehension of and confidence in a given topic, accuracy on pre- and post-assessments, and reported value for the workshops. All assessment tools are developed in-house. The workshops have been assessed for two academic years during the spring semester.

Overall, evaluation of the workshops resulted in positive outcomes. Pre- and post-assessment analysis illustrated apparent gains in student knowledge across all seven topics covered. Also, students demonstrated gains in confidence after completing the worksheets. Participants reported value in attending the workshops, noting that the workshops provided an opportunity to practice concepts taught in the lecture and increased their knowledge. Assessment of the workshops is ongoing and additional workshops are being developed.


Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. International Society for Teacher Education.

Garrison, R., & Vaughan, N. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hibbard, L., Sung, S., & Wells, B. (2016). Examining the effectiveness of a semi-self-paced flipped learning format in a college general chemistry sequence,” Journal of Chemical Education, 93(1), 24-30.

Winfield, L. (2015). Community-based interactive engagement in an organic chemistry course. Proceedings of the 8th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation, 2502-2508.

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