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Chem 112
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Chem 112: Offering a Personalized Learning Experience
4 March 2019

Chem 112

Even though it serves thousands of students each year, Chemistry 112 offers a personalized class experience like no other. Chem 112 is Penn State’s second semester general chemistry course, serving a diverse group of students in many different majors. Chem 112 lays the groundwork for more advanced courses that students will take later in their college careers, which means that instructors are tasked with making the class applicable to students from many different backgrounds.

For instructor Dr. Lori Stepan, meeting this unique challenge meant rethinking the way she approached Chem 112. Although Chem 112 is a lecture course with hundreds of students in each section, Dr. Stepan’s teaching techniques give students a one-of-a-kind learning experience that they can personalize to meet their own needs.

Instead of simply listening to Dr. Stepan lecture about the topics they’re studying, students engage in active learning. Working with Learning Assistants (LAs), Teaching Assistants (TAs), and their classmates, students work through problem solving activities together in class. These activities are scaffolded, allowing student activities to move through the problems step-by-step. These group activities allow students to develop communication skills while also cultivating problem solving strategies that they can take with them as they progress to more advanced classes.

However, the in-class learning opportunities don’t stop there. Dr. Stepan conducts live chemistry demonstrations in almost every lecture, giving students a chance to see the information they’re learning in action. Students also have the chance to check their problem solving skills in real time with in-class clicker questions that put their knowledge to the test.

Outside of class, students have another important resource: an electronic textbook. The textbook was developed by Dr. Stepan and other faculty members and is customized to Penn State’s method of teaching chemistry. The book, which was designed to help students learn the material in greater depth, reinforces the problem solving method that students use in class. It’s full of unique resources that students won’t find elsewhere, like interactive practice problems that link back to the text and interactive molecules. Although the book is designed to be used in Chem 110 and Chem 112, students have access to it for four years after they purchase it, so they can use it as a reference in other classes.

Dr. Stepan is planning to take the electronic resources to the next level with an online assessment tool that she’s currently developing with other faculty members. The tool will allow students to take smart-quizzes to assess their knowledge. The quizzes are designed to increase in difficulty based on how many questions the student answers correctly or incorrectly. The quiz only moves students up to the next level of difficulty after they’ve successfully mastered the level below it. The assessment tool will help students prepare for tests and will even offer personalized feedback that shows students the topics they need to focus on.

For students who need extra help, Dr. Stepan organizes even more learning opportunities. Students looking for additional resources can attend optional discussions and help sessions that are led by LAs. Students can even attend free tutoring sessions through the Department of Chemistry. LAs also attend the tutoring sessions and help to answer student questions.

Dr. Stepan works hard to give students the tools they need to achieve success in science on their own. She sees herself as a “coach,” providing resources and information, but ultimately encouraging students to learn the material on their own. She hopes that Chem 112 instills a “growth mindset” in students. “I want the students to be confident in chemistry,” she explains when asked what she wants students to take away from the class, “as an instructor, it’s my job to encourage them to think that, if they put in the effort, they can do whatever they try to do in chemistry. I want to give them the confidence and enthusiasm to think that they can learn whatever they want to learn.”

Communications Coordinator