California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Chancellor’s Office Lauds Chemistry 111A As Model Course

Published: July 1, 2013

General chemistry is considered an essential class for students across the nation who are considering a career involving science and is one of the California State University system’s general education lab science choices, but passing it is often a challenge.

The class can go by different names and numbers at different institutions—at CSULB it’s Chem 111A, General Chemistry—and even can have content that varies between campuses or even instructors.

In fact, college general chemistry has such a high failure rate in the U.S. that institutions including the CSU system are reexamining how best to teach it and several years ago, Chem 111A became part of CSULB’s Highly Valued Degree Initiative program aimed at improving graduation rates.

Now, as part of the CSU’s Proven Course Redesign program, CSULB’s Chemistry 111A is considered a model for other CSU campuses to emulate.

“We had a high failure rate in passing grades and we tried to focus and find where the problems were and address those problems one by one. It was teamwork involving people from the college, people from the faculty learning center, and from our department. We collaborated and put together some proposals on how to approach this problem and eventually address these issues,” said Assistant Professor Shahab Derakhshan in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department who led the reorganization team.

“What’s interesting here is that we did assessments first and asked the questions, ‘Why are students failing and what are they exactly failing?’” added department Chair Krzysztof Slowinski. “We did some analyses and then based on this, we designed a project proposal in which we have multiple components. We have curricular changes, we have changes in the training of teaching associates, we have cooperation with supplemental instruction, we have an advising element, and an early warning system where students are notified early in the semester that they are not progressing properly and are given advice and so forth.

“An additional element that is very important is that we benchmark against the national standards, so we decided to use the nationally recognized American Chemical Society standard test as the final exam so then we can compare the performance of our students with the national averages including thousands of students taking this test nationally,” added Slowinski.

The effort led to a host of changes, he explained, ranging from shifting some course content between the two-semester sequence of Chem 111A and B, plus requiring students to pass a nationally recognized chemistry placement exam before they even can get into the class.

In addition, the team collaborated with supplemental instruction staff to ensure cohesion with chemistry faculty, as well as enhanced training and feedback for master’s students serving as teaching associates, who conduct lab sections and course discussions.

“Professor Derakhshan, the course coordinator, developed additional materials for the discussions, so all of this is coordinated and uniform across sections. Also, multiple lecture sections teach the same material and have the same mid-term exams, so everything is standard,” Slowinski said.

As a result, CSULB general chemistry students now have about an 85 percent pass rate and score well above the national average on the final exam. “There is numerical evidence for success; it’s not just talking, but we can prove it mathematically,” he said.

As part of the Chancellor’s Office program, “In the next step, the request for proposals will ask CSU campuses to indicate their interest in using our redesigned Chem 111A as a model for replicating the success we have had in increasing student pass rates. The C.O. will then match lead campuses with adopting campuses and support collaboration through summer institutes, work groups and funding. As the lead campus for this course, CSULB will receive funding to support faculty members serving as mentors to adopting campuses,” Slowinski explained.

He praised his colleagues for making this a success, including Derakhshan; Associate Dean Henry Fung; Vice Chair Christopher Brazier; and faculty members Jean Lee-Lin, Andrea Chen, Marjan Mohammadi and members of the general chemistry committee. Outside assistance came from Angela Tuan in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Advising Center; Eric Jahner in supplemental instruction; and Susan Platt, director of Testing, Evaluation and Assessment Service, among others.