Chem21Labs Overview

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect is the foundation of the Chem21Labs approach. The Practice of Chemistry (or anything) must include activities that are assigned, monitored and evaluated for improvement (and mastery) to occur. At the most basic level, teaching can be described as the movement of a novice toward the expert (or teacher) level.

The question is . . . .  what can an expert do?   While there are other expert-level skills, the following two may be the most important - experts can . . . .

  1. quickly (1 - 5 seconds) and accurately answer thousands of questions in their scope of knowledge
  2. quickly and accurately critically think in their field of knowledge . . . . this may take 20 seconds to several minutes . . . . . or even longer if they need to look up a few pertinent facts.

The Chem21Labs' approach is simple . . . build fluency in the learner and add critical thinking opportunities when the developing fluency supports a successful outcome. The brain, like a computer, must be connected to databases to be useful. A computer with a slow processing speed connected to several databases is much more useful than a computer with a high processing speed but no databases. The latter can very quickly tell you "the information you seek is not currently available" - the former will give you the information you want, but it may take some time. While the debate wages whether critical thinking is learned or innate, there is no debate that it is impossible to critically think in an area where you have limited knowledge. A learner must be able to quickly and accurately answer lots of basic questions (Expert Skill #1) before critical thinking (Expert Skill #2) is possible. Our goal is to help the learner create the optimal conditions for practicing critical thinking and increasing "their processing speed." To accomplish this goal, learners use a wide range of Chem21Labs learning tools to complete assignments that construct connected databases of information. These learning tools build proficiency in the steps described by Bloom . . . . steps that every learner must take to achieve fluency and critical thought in an area of learning.

  1. Knowledge
  2. Comprehension
  3. Application
  4. Analysis
  5. Synthesis
  6. Evaluation

Chem21Labs has developed online, interactive, computer-graded activities that engage the learner at these levels of cognitive thought.

  1. Knowledge, Comprehension and Application of chemical facts and processes are achieved using Timed / Repetitive Quizzes (TRQs). TRQs take the "facts of chemistry" from the text book and present them to the student in an active-learning assignment that is "low stakes" and "high reward." You have probably discovered that most students will complete an assignment by the due date, but very few students will complete a suggestion by the "due date".

    Ever said this . . . . .

    I suggest you memorize this list of cation / anions by the next class period as we will use this information to write formulas for ionic compounds.

    I suggest you "become familiar" with these organic reactions as we will discuss their mechanisms at the next lecture.

    Both are awesome suggestions. Veteran teachers have learned to enhance the importance of their suggestions by linking them to an assessment . . . . "and there will be a quiz over this list of cations and anions at the beginning of the next class period."

     Then what? 

    Instructor . . . .  More Work!  . . . . make the quiz
    Student . . . .

    • cram the night before or the morning of the quiz
    • blow it off because it does not significantly affect the overall course grade
    • apply a spaced-retrieval learning approach several days before the quiz and truly learn the information

    Instructor . . . .  Oh No - More Work! . The quiz has to be graded, recorded and returned . . . . and the more immediate the feedback, the greater the learning.
    Factor in the class time used for this assessment and the less-than-optimal class performance and you may conclude that  there has to be a better way. 

    Reduce the Work and Increase the Learning with TRQ assignments. TRQs replace inadequate study habits with a proven spaced-retrieval approach. The TRQ assignments contain immediate feedback, are automatically graded and recorded, and  they are completed by more than 90% of students  because they are . . . .

    • Low Stakes - every student can complete the assignment if they are willing to work because while there are three "ways" to earn full credit for a TRQ assignment, anyone can satisfy the 3rd option (submit a certain number of questions correctly, i.e. 75 correct answers).
    • High Reward - the student earns  course credit for studying .

    Click here to learn more about the Timed Repetitive Quizzes theory, application and research results.

  2. Application, Analysis and Synthesis levels of cognitive thought are actively engaged with the following:
    • iTRQs - low stakes, interactive TRQs that present application content in a timed environment where the time is longer than normal TRQs.
      • Solving A Limiting Reagent Problem (View)
      • Drawing A Lewis Structure
      • The Activity Series (View)
      • Organic Mechanisms (View)
    • Tutorials - low-stakes, un-timed, interactive animations that present information that students must use to complete the assignment and receive full credit. This is a "safe learning environment" in that incorrect answers are explained and the student simply starts over . . . . no points are deducted for starting over - points are awarded for correctly completing the tutorial.
      • Phase Diagrams and Heating Curves (View)
      • Solution Concentrations: M, m, mass %, N, mole fraction, ppm (View)
      • Understanding Thin Layer Chromatography (View)
      • Reading a Buret (View)
      • Reading a Polarimeter (View)
      • Reading a Refractometer (View)
    • Learning Pathways - students are required to understand an use universally-established pathways to solve complex problems. As the student interacts with and uses these learning pathways, the pathways become part of the schema that the student is building in their neural network.
      • Dimensional Analysis Unit Map I (View) - length, area, mass and volume
      • Dimensional Analysis Unit Map II (View) - cubic length / volume, mass and moles
      • Dimensional Analysis Unit Map III - uses the ratios in a balanced equation to bridge a Reactant/Product's Map II to a Reactant/Product's Map II. Molarity's connection to the mole is also included in this map.
      • pH Calculator (View) - an interactive "guide" through all the various types of pH problems and their corresponding calculations.
      • Organic Synthesis - students use drop-down menus to enter a multi-step synthesis pathway. Multiple correct answers are permitted.
    • Homework - students solve complex problems that are presented in various formats (multiple-choice, multiple-select, fill-in-the-blank, ordering, numeric answers, balancing equations (chemical and nuclear), etc). Organic chemistry students use Chem21Draw to draw / submit structures as answers.
    • Lab Reports - online submission of lab data, calculations, balanced equations and graphed results are graded in real-time by the computer the moment they are entered by the student. Introducing  immediate feedback  into any process increases learning . . . .  the more immediate the feedback, the greater the effect . The lab code greades everything except uploaded images and essay answers. Chem21Labs has even written into the lab program the ability to produce "web reports" of the student's lab results and automatically apply the instructor's grading rubric. University lab coordinators work with Chem21Labs to convert their university's lab reports into interactive webpages. Typically the lab coordinator "lays out" the lab in Excel and then Chem21Labs content specialists convert it to the interactive Chem21Lab webpage (2-6 hours).  The cost per student is $1 per lab . . . . if you perform 10 labs in a semester, the cost is $10. 
    • Virtual Labs - HTML5 lab animations are assigned as pre-lab assignments or online/virtual labs. These virtual labs are either embedded into the online Chem21Labs format or used as stand-alone labs.

The decision to incorporate computer-based exercises that begin at the lowest levels of cognitive thought must be accompanied by a changed educational paradigm where the instructor gives herself permission to assign an online workload that requires the student to engage in active learning activities for part of the "expected" hours of study. If 10 hours per week is "expected" for proficiency in an Organic Chemistry course, exercises should be assigned that require 5 - 8 hours of active engagement (TRQ, iTRQ, Tutorials, Homework) leaving time for reading the chapter.

The assignments listed above have been used at the university level for twelve years and the results are outstanding. At Lee University (Cleveland, TN), the ACS Organic Chemistry Exam is given each year as the Final Exam. The average class percentile on this exam over those twelve years (2006-2017) was  59.4 percentile  percentile. In the 15 prior years (1991-2005), the class averaged was  41.1 percentile . This result becomes more remarkable when coupled with the fact that  ONLY 3 STUDENTS have dropped the second semester course during those twelve years . . . 386 / 389 students who started the class in January sat for the ACS Exam in late April  . . . . from 1991-2005, 15% of students in the 2nd semester course withdrew and did not take the ACS Final Exam. For more information on the efficacy of TRQs in various subjects, click TRQ Research.