CSU looks to improve chemistry courses, focus on student success

Laura Studley

For many students, chemistry has proven to be difficult — more difficult than many of their other classes, and even other chemistry courses at different colleges.

The Colorado State University chemistry department has worked to lessen students’ struggles; however, it remains one of the more grueling disciplines. 

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Chemistry is the study of matter, which is made up of very small particles that we can’t see with our naked eye, and part of the difficulty is that students are trying to learn about systems they cannot directly see, according to Lisa Dysleski, the associate dean for undergraduate programs of the College of Natural Science.

Some students have chosen to take chemistry at Front Range Community College after taking courses at CSU. 

“I chose to take chemistry at FRCC due to the unnecessary difficulty of chemistry at CSU,” said junior sports medicine major Ashlea Johnson. “I didn’t want to risk my GPA when I can learn the same thing and actually understand it at FRCC.”

The FRCC curriculum does not differ from CSU’s, according to FRCC chemistry faculty member Steve Garber. 

In popular culture, chemistry is characterized as hard, and as a common prerequisite for classes in many other programs, it is seen as a barrier to weed out students, said Matt Shores, chair of the department of chemistry. 

“I really don’t think either is true, but perceptions can shape reality,” Shores said.

Additionally, students at CSU tend to struggle with chemistry due to the entry-level courses being taught in large enrollment sections, and because of this, professors may seem less approachable, Shores said.

“Some aspects of the material in chemistry are not intuitive and challenge our assumptions about how the world works; it can be really tough to reform understanding,” Shores said. 

Chemistry has its own language, using chemical symbols and terminology that may be unfamiliar to students, so in addition to learning concepts, students also have to learn a new language and be able to communicate in it, Dysleski said. 

In the 12 years that Garber said he has been teaching at FRCC, students have taken chemistry at FRCC and later gone to CSU and vice versa. 

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Garber’s students who take organic chemistry and go on to take more advanced courses at CSU do very well, he said. 

“We purposely use the same book as CSU so we are consistent,” Garber said. “That way, if students transfer there, they don’t have to buy a new book.” 

Johnson did try to take chemistry at CSU but did not feel she was given the material needed to be successful.  

“It was very hard, and I didn’t learn anything,” Johnson said. “The instructors at FRCC care about teaching you and ensuring you understand the material. They are willing to do anything to help you and make sure you are learning. At CSU that doesn’t happen.”

CSU has attempted to help students through their difficulties. Chemistry courses have been redesigned over the years with a focus on student success, Dysleski said. 

Recitation sections for some courses provide students with the opportunity to meet in smaller sections with a teaching assistant. This allows them to engage with course topics more actively and with smaller groups of students, according to Dysleski. 

In-class participation through iClickers and online homework helps students space their learning out, as well as test themselves on concepts throughout the course, Dysleski said. 

“These additional assignments also provide students additional points in the course so that not all of the student’s grade is dependent on exams,” Dysleski said. 

Other resources for students include Chem Prep, the Chemistry Learning Resource Center and The Institute for Learning and Teaching. 

Currently, the chemistry department is in the process of redesigning the curriculum for chemistry majors, as well as developing concepts and instruction to better teach to larger-section courses, according to Shores.

“The subject can seem daunting, with its own language,” Shores said. “The classes held in large lecture halls can seem impersonal. But in those rooms, students have access to internationally recognized scientists working at the cutting edge of chemistry research, as well as experienced instructors and leaders in chemistry pedagogy.”

Laura Studley can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurastudley_.