Beyond the “lecture” theatre: First-year chemistry learning resources

Many Chem 13 News readers have students who plan to take first-year university chemistry courses. Based on our combined experiences teaching first-year undergraduates, these courses can appear daunting and some of our students do not seek assistance until it is much too late — often because they either do not appreciate that extensive help exists, or they believe they do not require it. As first-year instructors, we are endlessly trying to communicate all the different ways we have developed to give students the support that they need. We are writing to give high school teachers an idea of the help that we and many other institutions provide outside the formal classroom. Our hope is that you will communicate to your students now (before they even leave high school) that if they do need facilitation, they will be able to easily find it — although the onus will be on them to look.

At our institution, first-year life scientists are enrolled in two chemistry courses ranging in size from 600 – 1100 undergraduates.1,2 Each offering is broken down so that the thrice-weekly lectures typically contain 150 – 450 students. This is clearly much larger than the numbers found in any high school environment. Although the perception persists that “a big class is a bad class”, this is not necessarily the case. Considerable faculty support exists to provide effective large classroom teaching strategies in terms of planning, delivery, assessment and use of technology.3 Further sub-division is additionally undertaken into weekly tutorial sections of around 40 students, and biweekly laboratory groups of 16 – 24 students. In the latter environment, class members gain opportunities to perform both individual and collaborative practical work, so undoubtedly there are small-class experiences built into high-enrolment courses. This article profiles extra modes of assistance simultaneously available to chemistry undergraduates at the University of Toronto, with a focus on mechanisms in place outside scheduled class hours. It highlights the crucial fact that considerable support is readily available for anyone and everyone who looks for it.

Study skills workshops

During the first week of classes each September, all students in both courses are invited to a non-mandatory 50-minute “study skills” workshop outside regular lectures. The workshop is delivered several times in order to maximize attendance, which usually ranges from 40 – 60%. This is a unique initiative for undergraduates enrolled in first-year science courses. The overarching goal here is to emphasize that students need to develop new study habits in order to flourish in chemistry and beyond, and to accept personal responsibility for their work. Significant attention is paid to the concept of “learning to learn” (heutagogy), which was recently identified by the Open University as an approach with the “potential to provoke a major shift in educational practice”.4 Each interactive session covers aspects of university time management and includes a discussion of studying misconceptions, which were the subject of a previous report.5 Feedback from those attending has been very positive. During the Fall 2014 semester, a detailed survey was distributed to all participants with responses received from 330 students. 72% of the respondents either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I will approach studying chemistry differently because of the workshop”. Moreover, 83% gave the same answers to the statement “I feel better prepared to make the most of chemistry lectures, tutorials and labs”, and 88% strongly agreed/agreed with “I learnt at least one new study tip from the workshop”. A representative written comment was “I felt that the most useful part of this workshop was learning study tips specific to chemistry, and hearing that success is possible with hard work and personalized study plans. The workshop further reinforced how much support and help there is available, if we are willing to seek it out. And most importantly, the workshop has given me a more positive attitude about approaching university courses and being willing to learn and overcome challenges.” A second student noted “I found all the tips really useful for my studying. In high school I used to go to the solutions right after I felt I wouldn't be able to solve a problem, but from now on I will keep my solutions manual aside and think about it, go back to my lecture notes and my textbook and think more until I can find the answer.”

Ongoing small-group and individual academic support

Access to assistance with course content and problem-solving is critical in any university course. One significant opportunity is afforded by our departmental Chemistry Learning Centre (CLC), which is staffed by upper-year undergraduates who are members of Victoria College at the University of Toronto.6 These are mentors who previously excelled in both first-year courses, are selected via a technical interview process and receive training in best pedagogical practices. The CLC is open for ten weeks each semester for between 16 – 20 hours a week on a “drop-in” basis, and is heavily advertised by course instructors. Students are encouraged to attend either individually or in small groups, and questions about both lecture and laboratory concepts are welcomed. Throughout the Fall 2014 semester, the CLC received around 500 visits from undergraduates.

All course instructors also hold office hours as group sessions in small classrooms several times a week, in order to provide assistance with lecture material. Student questions are answered on the blackboard, so content and problem-solving issues are addressed in a friendly, non-intimidating environment.

Even students too shy to ask their own questions can benefit from attending. Individual appointments are readily available for those who have course conflicts with the scheduled office hours. Separate hours are run by the laboratory instructors to give specific guidance on experiment preparation and results analysis. In addition, extra help sessions are held during days leading up to term tests and the final examination, to ensure students have the chance to resolve any uncertainties that arise during studying. Faculty from both courses also hold review sessions during “Exam Jam”, a University of Toronto Faculty of Arts and Science event designed to bring students together during each study break before the December and April examination periods to “review, refresh, (and) de-stress”.7

Post-term test support

Despite all of the above resources, the initial round of term tests in first-year science courses can come as a shock to many students as they adjust to the expectations of university learning. To support, encourage and often remediate study and test-taking techniques, all students are given the occasion to have a 20 – 30 minute individual meeting with instructors from both courses after their first chemistry term test is returned. Generally, study habits, time-management strategies and test-writing tips are discussed, however, given the individual nature of these appointments, any issues of concern or interest to the student are examined. The impact of these personal meetings is significant as students are forced to think, with guidance, about how they best learn, and to realize that the strategies for course success do apply to them as individuals.

During October and November 2014, 75 undergraduates met individually with faculty members, resulting in two-thirds of these students seeing a grade improvement on their respective second term test — average increase of 14%, compared to a class-wide increase of 3%. It should be noted that these students achieved a wide range of marks (from A to F) on their first term test, providing evidence that these meetings target the appropriate population — those motivated to improve, rather than simply high-achievers. Unsolicited written comments from students about the meetings have been very thankful, for example:

“I was pretty disheartened after my first midterm exam as it was the only one out of all my courses that I didn't perform well in, and I was debating whether I should just drop the course. Because of your advice on studying, managing my time, and above all, how to do the best on my test, it gave me the confidence I needed to stay in the course. As a result, I scored 94%. Thank you once more for your help, as it gave me exactly what I needed to motivate me to continue in the course.”

Importantly, these individual meetings seem to have influence beyond the chemistry courses, as evidenced by the following quote:

“Took your advice about test taking strategies and did the evolution section before the ecology section on the bio midterm today to boost my confidence. Pretty sure it worked because I feel really confident about how tonight's test went! Once again, thank you for your support and positive reinforcement — it helped to hear it from a professor.”


When imagining first-year chemistry classes, especially at a large institution such as the University of Toronto, high school students often believe that they will sit in a large lecture theatre and simply listen to an instructor teach without any interaction or possibility of getting help. Nothing could be further from the truth! Even in large chemistry “lectures”, students will actually be participating by asking and answering questions, and problem-solving. Tutorials and laboratories offer small group experiences and, just as importantly, there are many avenues for getting assistance and interacting with faculty. Through study skills sessions, peer-tutoring, office hours, extra help sessions and individual appointments, students have many resources to make the most of their first-year academic experience and strongly transition to university learning. It is important to appreciate that students need to be proactive in seeking out these features. Unlike in high school, faculty will not approach struggling students and point them towards resources. Students need to accept responsibility for their learning and for seeking the support they need to be successful. Despite the myriad of resources available, this is a major — but surmountable — obstacle for some students. Faculty members often receive emails after the final examination asking for “help” when it is too late. Assistance is available for each student who seeks it and, with many different resources available, every undergraduate can have a productive and enjoyable first-year chemistry experience.

References (websites accessed March 2015)

  1. CHM 139H (Chemistry: Physical Principles) course information:
  2. CHM 138H (Introductory Organic Chemistry I) course information:
  3. University of Toronto Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation: Exploring Large Classroom Teaching:
  4. M. Sharples, A. Adams, R. Ferguson, M. Gaved, P. McAndrew, B. Rienties, M. Weller, D. Whitelock, 2014. Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Open University Innovation Report 3. Milton Keynes: The Open University.
  5. K.B. Quinlan, A.P. Dicks, Ten first-year chemistry student studying misconceptions, Chem 13 News, April 2013, pages 6 – 7.
  6. Victoria College Chemistry Peer Tutoring.
  7. University of Toronto Faculty of Arts and Science Exam Jam.