Teaching college chemistry to the edges rather than to the average: Implications for less experienced science students
Students in the lowest quartile of their matriculating class in terms of the math and science experiences usually struggle in their first chemistry course in college. Although math and science experience closely tracks with family income and access to advanced placement and honors high school courses rather than with individual intelligence, attrition from science coursework during the first year of study has become the norm for this group. Access to college continues to expand, but institutions of higher learning have been slow to adapt to the increasingly diverse backgrounds of their student bodies. The challenge presented by the breadth of learners' backgrounds constitutes an issue of poor institutional readiness rather than a problem arising from any characteristics of the students themselves. This viewpoint puts the duty to provide legitimate pathways for student success squarely on the shoulders of faculty who develop curricula, teach classes, and lead programs. With this in mind, faculty in the Duke University Department of Chemistry began systematic assessment of undergraduate student outcomes in gateway chemistry courses. Results from this work spurred major curricular and institutional programming changes to address the wide range of learner backgrounds in chemistry and scientific problem solving. Better matching of courses with the learners' existing skills and implementation of known high impact practices such as collaborative in-class work and new learning communities were keys in this process. A preliminary assessment of these changes, including demographic impact, will be discussed.