History of Foundational Course Reform in Chemistry

Almost 30 years ago, UM Chemistry initiated a reform effort in the foundational course(s) of introductory organic chemistry, including offering this traditional second-year course as the first-year entrée to students’ postsecondary study of chemistry. Remarkably, these instructional changes have been sustained (with modest improvements), despite large and continuous turnover in teaching faculty. Significant features of the organic chemistry teaching program include: literature- and data-based assessments using generative response testing; a truly team-based approach to the agreement on scope and sequence, including internal review of all examinations. In addition, a supplemental instruction Honors option taught by upper-level undergraduate leaders was created. The corresponding lab courses were also reformed, with an integrated lecture-lab option during the second semester for science motivated students which features a literature-derived, student-generated text on which the final examination is based, and half of the second term laboratory whose syllabus is driven by proposals made by the students.

On-going Projects in Foundational Course Reform

CHEM 125/126: Authentic Research Connection (ARC); “Authentic Research” is being incorporated into the introductory laboratories of Chemistry and Biology through funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant in the College of Literature, Science and Arts at the University of Michigan. Faculty research projects are being taken into the teaching laboratories moving away from “the cookbook” lab experience. Students will learn the same lab techniques encountered in the standard lab sections, but in the context of faculty-led research projects. Creating a research-based laboratory experience will give students the opportunity to get a hands-on experience in how real science is conducted. Currently there are two research streams in the Chemistry Department that started in Fall 2015 with 2 laboratory sections each (approx. 30 students each). One research stream led by Associate Prof. Stephen Maldonado focuses on novel materials to increase efficiency of solar cell technology. Students in this lab fabricate perovskite solar cells and test why this material produces higher energy conversion. The other research stream investigates snow chemistry led by Assistant Prof. Kerri Pratt. Students measure the chemical composition of snow and determine the effect of road salting and vehicle composition of snow collected in Michigan. For more information please visit our website at

CHEM 210/215: Unlike precollege instruction, where a highly structured classroom/homework design dominates a student’s experience, university-level learning environments are a diverse assembly of resources from which students need to discover their own most effective pathway(s) to academic success. To support the development of self-regulated learning, it is argued that students need to be able to freely select, try, modify, adapt, and/or reject everything from “going to class” and “using a textbook” to “engaging in peer-to-peer debate” without worrying about picking up check-marks of approval from supervising authority. At the same time, instructors need to think about how to improve the resources available to students, and how to guide students in their most effective use. We are engaged in a long-term, longitudinal study of what resources our students use, how useful they find them, and how this “use and usefulness” correlates with both demographic variables and course performance outcomes. The most obvious outcome is to feed valuable information back to the students about the choices they need to make. For questions about this project, please contact Brian Coppola (

CHEM 210H/215H: Our vision of an “Honors” option is to provide a deeper/broader look at the subject matter for those who are interested in making that exploration while also ensuring that these students are being held as accountable to the standard learning expectations as the non-Honors students. Consequently, we crafted the Honors option as a supplemental instruction option, where those who wish to engage the subject at a deeper/broader level remain enrolled in the main course and earn their Honors designation by participating in an additional 2-hour session each week. Named Structured Study Groups (SSG), these ca. 20-student group sessions are co-designed and led exclusively by upper level juniors and seniors who not only excelled in the course previously, but who also demonstrated their skills in leadership and as prospective educators. At some rate, there is a steady state of new assignments that comprise the honors option, as well as modifications and other improvements, which are all driven by the group of undergraduate teaching partners, as a solid mechanism for constant renewal and attention. For questions about this project, please contact Brian Coppola (

CHEM 210: When you think about a course as the sum of its instructional resources, you also start to think about what you need to do to provide coherence amongst those resources. We identified a potential leaking point between Science Learning Center (SLC) study group leaders and their instructional alignment with the faculty instructors in any given term. The solution was to create a new course, CHEM 220, to bridge this leaking point in our instructional team. The course is discipline-based, where SLC facilitators met for 1 hour/week with a graduate student instructor (GSI) to review course content. A team of study group leaders did find the course-based content-review and pointers towards good questions helpful to their work in leading study group. Those who had led study groups with and without the course-based support felt that the course increased their confidence with the subject matter, confidence in answering questions, and ability to know what was going on in the lecture course. The ongoing design challenge includes mandatory enrollment for tutors, the role of repeat facilitators, and scalability for other lecture courses.

CHEM 211: At the University of Michigan (UM), we teach the intro organic chemistry lab to approximately 2000 freshman/academic year. As a consequence, we have an extraordinary opportunity to nurture and transform how these students view science. Teaching organic chemistry to first-semester freshman, a tradition at Michigan since 1989, has led to the exceptional challenge that most students enrolled in the course have no prior lab experience. With generous funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and assistance from REBUILD, we recently re-designed this laboratory course. The new course aims to provide a hands-on approach for learning organic chemistry concepts while demonstrating why those concepts have relevance to real-world contexts. Students work collaboratively and cooperatively to develop their scientific mindset, by formulating hypotheses, designing experiments to test a hypothesis, collecting and interpreting new data, and creating a scientific explanation. The course is also designed to acquaint students with different forms of science communication. The course was first piloted in F2015 and F2016. The new curriculum is scheduled to “roll out” to the entire student population in W2017. For questions about this project, please contact Anne McNeil (

CHEM 216: In the second semester organic chemistry lab at the University of Michigan, students continue to develop scientific thinking and experimental skills, with an emphasis on spectroscopy and data analysis. As in the first-semester curriculum, students generate their own hypotheses and design experiments while continuing to develop laboratory skills. In contrast, experimental design is less scaffolded, and students have more experimental flexibility, autonomy, and responsibility for analysis and interpretation of results. There is not always a “correct” answer; students learn more advanced spectroscopic data analysis methods, and are assessed primarily on experimental design, notebook-keeping, and data analysis and interpretation. The course uses a problem-based curriculum that was implemented in Winter 2013 and funded by the Third Century Initiative. The curriculum centers on authentic problems that might be realistically encountered in a chemistry research laboratory. Following an individual skill-building experiment, students work in small groups of 3­–4 to brainstorm a solution for this problem and to design and carry out an experiment to test it. Graduate student instructors also experience Chem 216 differently than they would experience instruction of a traditional lab course; their role in the problem-based curriculum is to triage and provide feedback on students’ proposed experiments.