Teaching & Assessments Shift in the Wake of the Pandemic

Chemistry educators streamline learning outcomes and incorporate virtual labs into course objectives. 

By Robin Donovan for the American Chemical Society

Brittland DeKorver, Ph.D., wasn’t having a great month last March. Her grandmother had passed away, the pandemic meant she could no longer visit family, and it sounded increasingly likely that Grand Valley State University, where she’s an assistant professor of chemistry, might switch to an all-online model. One evening, DeKorver set up a “Strategies for teaching chemistry online” Facebook group, invited a few friends and went to bed.

“When I woke up, there were over a hundred members and a message asking me if I minded if members invited other people,” DeKorver said. Today, the group’s membership is over 4,600 and “it seems that camaraderie is just as important, if not more important than the professional advice.” The group is one indicator of the shifts in teaching, assessment and lab curricula that have marked pandemic life for chemistry professors.

Back-to-basics approach

Beyond the shift away from hands-on labs, there have been few changes to curricula. “A fair number of people did creative things to try to connect what was happening with the curriculum, but … wholesale change certainly hasn’t happened,” said Tom Holme, Ph.D., editor in chief of the Journal of Chemical Education (JCE) and a professor at Iowa State University, pointing out that “it’s been almost flat since we settled on a curriculum sometime after Sputnik.” This seems partially due to the “inherited” nature of many courses, according to Sam Pazicni, Ph.D., assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s department of chemistry and an ACS Society Committee on Education (SocEd) member.

Pazicni says he’s seen a back-to-basics approach—“If you didn’t know much about learning, you weren’t going to be making innovative decisions during this transition”—and a new attentiveness to what is truly essential learning as the “privileged bubble that the university provides” has eroded with distance learning.

Incorporating virtual labs

Virtual labs were the source of early concern for faculty members and remain an area where the pandemic’s true impact is uncertain. Pazicni said he welcomes the newfound willingness to try virtual labs, and the shift away from traditional, programmatic approaches: “The most important thing is to figure out what happened in your procedure that gave you your results; that’s the science of it. It’s not a cookbook.”

Others, like Barbara Reisner, Ph.D., a chemistry professor at James Madison University and ACS Committee on Professional Training member, emphasized that certain skills can only be taught in-person. Reisner suggested a hybrid approach post-pandemic, pointing to evidence that virtual labs prior to in-person training allow students to focus on higher-level skills.

“I’d like to focus more not on whether students can do a problem, know the names of the elements or put something into some heuristic, but can they think about things, can they interpret data, and can they understand what these representations mean?” she said.

Holme noted that a few smaller universities had sent lab equipment home, but felt this would be difficult to scale for larger universities.

Fair assessments for online learning

Balancing testing rigor and academic integrity with concerns about diversity, equity and inclusion is a difficulty faced by higher education institutions of all sizes. The threat of Chegg and similar platforms, after all, is a time-consuming influence on exam preparation.

“Since we have moved to online [instruction for] many courses, I am more concerned about ensuring academic integrity,” reported Tanea T. Reed, Ph.D., chairperson of Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Chemistry. “There are more resources where students can easily find answers to questions with little effort, which is troubling.”

DeKorver says cheating has been a hot-button topic on her Facebook group as well: “There are many discussion threads about how to assess chemistry knowledge … There are even more threads about how to thwart students’ attempts to subvert our assessment methods.”

“Online exams have allowed me to give even more support to my students,” DeKorver said of her own teaching. “They schedule to take the exam when they want within a 12-hour period. They can take longer to answer the question. They can take breaks between questions.” She allows students to use existing Chegg solutions as a resource, but not to submit her test questions. Finally, she provides each student with a personalized set of questions and a 20-minute window to answer each question. The generous time limit is designed to ease anxiety without allowing students enough time to seek assistance from disallowed third-party services.

For Kristen Murphy, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in-person testing continued to play a role during the pandemic. As the director of ACS’ Examinations Institute, Murphy oversees the development of assessments used by chemistry departments across the country.

“We are unable to allow people to use secure testing using a learning management system; that violates the secure copyright,” she explained. “The tests have to be administered in a secure environment.” For ACS Examinations Institute tests, that means in-person and with a live proctor. (The Institute has broadened its offerings of online practice exams for general and organic chemistry.) Students in Murphy’s courses took their exams in-person, and she said results were “fairly in-line” with past scores.

Keenan E. Dungey, Ph.D., head of the department of chemistry and physics at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga shared that his department normally uses the ACS exams. In the wake of online learning, he reported, “We dropped some exams, replacing them with quizzes or ‘learning assessments’ (a large quiz/mini test). Otherwise, in those courses where we kept a traditional exam structure, we needed to write our own final exams in courses which usually used the ACS standardized exams.” Holme saw a similar trend, pointing to smaller, more frequent assessments as a popular shift for online courses.

Pazicni has an eye on equity with his testing strategies, creating a bank of potential test questions that he provides to students in advance of exams and allowing them to work together, as long as the final product represents their own work. In coming semesters, he plans to allow students to select among several test questions per topic and to respond to whichever best demonstrates their knowledge.

“We’ve probably regressed more than progressed with regard to assessment with this constant concern about preventing cheating through whatever means,” he said, expressing abhorrence for intrusive proctoring software.

Hoping for a return to in-person instruction, Murphy pointed to the loss of community-building and communication opportunities for students since the beginning of the pandemic. Her concerns echo an ironic pandemic outcome: As faculty members become more connected with one another, and more likely to discuss pedagogy, they mourn the loss of in-person connection and community-building opportunities with and for students.

As DeKorver watches over her Facebook group, she has one parting message for her peers who are juggling the shift to online classes, virtual labs, new assessment challenges and more: “It’s OK to be stressed out, ‘making do,’ and not thinking about lofty goals of how to be a better teacher. Surviving to the end of the day is enough right now.”


Person Writing on Notebook
Photo by Julia M Cameron

Online exams have allowed me to give even more support to my students,” DeKorver said of her own teaching. “They schedule to take the exam when they want within a 12-hour period. They can take longer to answer the question. They can take breaks between questions."