Improving chemistry education for technology students.

From : Annual report, department of Inorganic Chemistry, 2001.

Teaching chemistry traditionally means lectures followed by written exercises, and a final written exam as the only evaluation. Working well with ambitious and talented students, the results have declined at least as fast at the applications for the studies. It was evident that new teaching methods had to be used.

In 1997 the teaching was changed to a method that relied more on the students own efforts: The students had to learn the basic concept through solving exercises that gradually increased from the easy to the demanding and complex. First when the basic logics had been introduce this way, were the concepts and in application lectured.

As shown in Table 1 the failure was roughly halved, but the improvement for those students passing was limited. Student evaluations also revealed an equally improved interest and rating for the course For developing the new teaching concept Professor Martin Ystenes was given the Norwegian Engineering Society award for new concepts in engineering education 1999. The results were probably better than indicated by the numbers, as the quality if the students continued to decline.

shows that the the improvement is evident, even though the grades required for admittance to the study were higher in 1996 than in 1997.



Ordinary, 1996

New method, 1997

+ part exams, 2001

A - C (>65%)

22 %

31 %

67 %

D - E (35- 65%)

55 %

56 %

33 %

Average grade

4.04 (D)

3.71 (D+)

2.88 (C+)

F (< F)

23 %

13 %

0 %




Ordinary, 1996

New method, 1997

+ part exams, 2001

A (>85%)

3 % (3 %)

9 % (9 %)

18 % (18 %)

B (75-85%)

8 % (11 %)

12 % (21%)

15 % (33 %)

C (65-75%)

11 % (22 %)

10 % (31 %)

33 % (67 %)

D (55-65%)

16 % (38 %)

20 % (51 %)

24 % (91 %)

E (35-55%)

39 % (77 %)

36 % (87 %)

9 % (100%)

F (35-25 %)

12 %

8 %

0 %

"FF" (<25 %)

11 %

5 %

0 %

Although improved, the results were not satisfactory. A main problem was that too many of the students did not understand a concept properly before continuing to the next. On one occasion this caused some much frustration for a class that the results were almost as weak as in 1996.

The obvious fix was to encourage the students to read and learn the basics during the semester. Rather strict regulations on how evaluations should be done, has made it difficult to use in-semester evaluations. However, a new concept turned out to be acceptable: Voluntary part exams.

The final exam include 10 exercises, the first 5 corresponding testing five basic steps in the logic of chemistry. For each of those 5 a test were held. If you passed no. 4, you would get a full score on the 4th exercise on the exam without even answering it. If you failed, the final exam would be as earlier. The requirements for passing a part exam were tough, requiring 75% correct answers on 16-32 questions (depending on the subject) during 25 minutes. Serious studies were therefore needed, but the thought of having more time on the exam was obviously very encouraging.

A chance for testing he method arose in the autumn 2001, when the number of students in the course was only approx. 35. All students showed up for the exam, none of the students failed, and one of three got an A or B. All of these achievements are remarkable, and unique to such courses. Further investigations gives an even more promising picture: 80% of the students managed at lest a 50% score on one of the part exams test, and none of these got less than a D. Three of ten students passed three or more part exams. All of them - except one - scored at least 83 %.

Were the exams too easy? Probably not. Of the students from the earlier year that continuated, only 30 % passed the exam, significantly less than normal. Were the students very good? No. Only one of ten passed in physics, dramatically below normal. Were the results just a consequence of better time at the exam? Probably not. Students that reached a 50% level on some of the tests, but not enough to earn any direct advantage on the final exam, all made it at least to a D - a grade only obtained by half of the students earlier. The low number of students could have contributed, but earlier experiences indicate that this effects should be small or nonexistent.

The most likely explanation is therefore that the concept was successful, and far above expectations. The mechanism is simple. It is easier to learn an advanced concept when you understand the basic, and the test encourage the students to learn each basic step before going further. Secondly, the tests told the students what they knew and what they needed to work on, which made them to work more and smarter.

The tests also had a profound effect on that the attitude of the students. Starting off as a rather uninspired lot, they ended up as very hard-working and inspired group. They grasped the explanation better, and sought information more eagerly than usual. The inspiration and pleasure this gave the lecturer was maybe equally important for the success of the course.