Benedictine University is a small liberal arts college in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL that has ~2000 undergraduate students across four colleges. The department of chemistry resides in the College of Science, and ~40% of undergraduates enrolled at the University declare majors housed in this College. At institutions nationwide, general chemistry is known to be a barrier to success among many first-year students [1
]. This is also true at Benedictine, where the general chemistry sequence courses are high impact courses within the College of Science with ~250 students enrolled each year. One natural consequence of low success rates in a high impact gateway course like general chemistry is that it affects retention of students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines during the vulnerable transition from freshman to sophomore academic years [3
]. A correlation between failure in introductory courses and university attrition is not unusual for institutions [4
]. In fact, according to a 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), less than half of students intending to major in a STEM discipline graduate with their intended major [5
]. In particular, first generation college students, underrepresented minority groups, and students with substantial family or work responsibilities and commitments outside of school are especially vulnerable to leaving STEM fields of study prior to graduation [3
]. Benedictine University serves a diverse student population with 19% self-identifying as members of minorities underrepresented in the sciences, 23% as first-generation college students, and 36% of incoming freshmen in the sciences are Pell Grant eligible along with 81% of our students commuting to campus. Therefore, in an effort to address low retention rates in the sciences, first semester general chemistry is a natural target for interventional strategies and innovative pedagogical developments [6
]. In this study, we report our efforts over the past several years to improve academic outcomes for students in the general chemistry sequence at Benedictine. These efforts involved determining a mechanism to identify STEM students who lack adequate preparation to pass general chemistry and developing a Preparatory General Chemistry course to help these students build the skills needed to succeed. In addition, the preparatory course was designed with a commitment to incorporate best practices in STEM education, such as active learning in the classroom. Although we did not change the content in our General Chemistry I and II courses, as our course aligns with the American Chemical Society standards for content, these more engaging active learning practices were integrated to improve our traditional general chemistry sequence [7
]. The results of these efforts are reported here.
A single reliable method to identify students who will struggle in general chemistry remains elusive in large part due to the variety of factors that can influence student learning, many of which, as mentioned above, are nonacademic [10
]. Many strategies have been employed to identify underprepared students in order to provide them adequate preparation prior to entering rigorous STEM major course work. Chemistry placement exams [13
], Math course placement [14
], ACT/SAT college entrance exam scores [13
], high school grade point average (GPA) [13
], and other types of identifiers [10
] have been utilized to gain insight into academic preparation and make predictions about future success in general chemistry. The Toledo Placement exam is a nationally normed chemistry placement exam offered by the American Chemical Society Exams Institute that has been shown to be an effective mechanism for identifying academic preparation predictive of success in first semester general chemistry coursework [13
]. Although this exam is effective at finding underprepared students, there are barriers to it being widely adopted as a placement exam. Most significantly, it is a pencil and paper exam that requires the use of adequate proctoring to have consistent results. Depending on the size of an institution, this can be a large administrative burden to put in place, and instating a required on-campus exam prior to matriculation could be seen as an undue barrier to sensitive incoming student populations, which could potentially affect enrollment.
Although it was determined that the Toledo Placement Exam would not meet our long-term need for a method to differentiate between incoming students who are prepared and underprepared for general chemistry, we still felt it would be a useful instrument to gather important insights about our current students. With this in mind, the Toledo Placement Exam was administered to General Chemistry I students during the first week of class during the spring 2015 and fall 2016 semesters, and their scores and final course grades were tracked. The results from the 228 participating students indicate that the student population and course expectations at our institution align with national norms where students placing in the 50th percentile or above have an 80% chance of success in their first term general chemistry course [13
]. While this exam is an adequate predictive metric for success, the burdens stated above led us to use these results to identify a less cumbersome predictor of success. In this study, it will be shown that there exists a correlation between success in general chemistry at our institution and the Math ACT scores of our students.
Math ACT scores were then used as a tool to target academically underprepared students to provide them the support needed to facilitate success in general chemistry. The support system that was implemented at Benedictine University has two main objectives. The first was to design and offer a semester-long, on-site Preparatory General Chemistry course for underprepared students to take before enrolling in General Chemistry I. This course was piloted in the fall of 2016 (vide infra, pg. 8). The second involved using STEM education research to inform the redesign of the whole general chemistry curriculum at Benedictine, including the new Preparatory General Chemistry and existing General Chemistry I and II courses. In particular, these efforts were modeled on the persistence framework, which is an established guide to best practices to increase retention of undergraduate STEM majors [3
]. The framework identifies three interventions that increase student learning and professional identification as scientists: early research experiences [16
], active learning in the classroom [6
], and enrollment in STEM learning communities [4
]. At our university, we are in the beginning stages of putting the framework into action. Efforts to facilitate research in foundational chemistry labs will be discussed elsewhere, but establishing learning communities by strategically linking key courses and transitioning to learner-centered classrooms have been pivotal changes that have allowed our curricular redesigns to be successful. One example of faculty commitment to incorporate active learning in introductory science courses is the establishment of a learning assistant program. Our learning assistants engage with students inside and outside the classroom creating a structured peer-to-peer teaching and learning mentorship.
General Chemistry sequence courses are high impact courses for our university as ~250 students enroll in these courses each year. Although it cannot be proven as a causal effect, performance in first semester general chemistry may be linked to attrition of STEM majors as shown by decreased graduation rates for students who are unsuccessful in this pivotal course. Between 2010 and 2015 we observed a significant decline in General Chemistry I pass rates. To curb this trend, the chemistry department at Benedictine University redesigned the general chemistry curriculum to improve the outcomes and learning experiences for all students with particular efforts focused on helping underprepared students. Key features of this curricular update included determining a metric to correctly identify at-risk students, understanding their academic weaknesses in order to provide a mechanism to prepare these students for rigorous STEM majors, and utilizing learner-centered pedagogies to engage students in these gateway chemistry courses. Specifically, Math ACT scores were found to be a satisfactory indicator of student preparedness for General Chemistry I. A Preparatory General Chemistry course that focuses on developing academic skills, quantitative reasoning, and on-campus connections was designed for underprepared students to complete before enrolling in General Chemistry I, and this course was piloted in the fall of 2016. Additionally, active learning and learning assistants have been incorporated into the new Preparatory General Chemistry and existing General Chemistry I and II courses to facilitate student engagement.
Based on preliminary evaluation of these programmatic updates, we have provided evidence of increased success of students who are academically underprepared for rigorous college science courses by focusing on their first semester general chemistry course, as it is universally known as a gateway course in science. Students with poor math preparedness who went through the Preparatory General Chemistry course as part of the pilot have been more successful in General Chemistry I than predicted by their Math ACT scores. On average, the pilot cohort scored a letter grade higher in General Chemistry I than students with comparable Math ACT score who did not take Preparatory General Chemistry I, which provides evidence for developed and retained academic skills. Based on these positive results from the pilot, we offered Preparatory General Chemistry during the fall 2017 semester to continue to provide a supportive framework for at-risk students, and we will track their General Chemistry I performance, retention, and graduation rates. A surprising finding from our data is that our pass rates in General Chemistry I are 20% higher than two years ago (compare fall 2015 pass rate of 55.6% to fall 2016 pass rate of 75.0%). The origin of the improvement is not known. Over the course of our revisions, the General Chemistry I content remained the same. However, starting in the spring of 2015, the course instructors began a concerted effort to increase student engagement in the classroom. It is possible that the incorporation of more active learning improved student outcomes, but other explanations are certainly possible. For example, in the fall of 2016, some students who met the prerequisites but were unlikely to be successful in General Chemistry I opted to take Preparatory General Chemistry instead. Regardless of the origin, pass rates up to 75% in General Chemistry I mean an additional ~30 students a year pass, and this trend may lead to improved retention for our university.