We put students on a path to success before the semester begins

Female college student holding a test tube filled with liquid

Does this sound familiar? At the beginning of the semester you look at the students in your courses and know that one of the first things you need to understand is their readiness level. From experience and research you know that students will often withdraw from a course if they feel underprepared and cannot keep up with the rigor and pace. This scenario happens in many majors, but it is especially true within the STEM disciplines. At the University at Buffalo, SUNY (UB), college level introductory chemistry courses are where many students begin to struggle to make the grades, and then start considering pursuing a different major.

Working to improve student success, a team of UB educators developed an innovative approach. Valerie Frerichs, who is the associate director of the General Chemistry Laboratory at UB, chatted with me about one of their solutions, an online Chemistry Primer, which is now a part of the online program MasteringChemistry. The Chemistry Primer is a self guided, internet-based set of tutorials and training materials that help students understand the key competencies needed to succeed in General Chemistry. In the following interview, she explains their approach to understanding student motivation, why they developed the primer, and key takeaways for other educators. Professor Frerichs talks even more in-depth about the primer during a recent webinar.


Q. Why did you develop the Chemistry Primer?

Frerichs: The chemistry primer was developed to afford students the opportunity to assess and improve readiness for taking general chemistry at UB. The primer was specifically designed for students to complete before the new demands brought by university study, including the balance of multiple courses and adjustment to the new level of study and environment. At UB the digital primer is also used to inform students of the resources available to them within our environment to improve their success in first semester chemistry.


Q. You identify that student motivation as important to keep students moving through courses and an entire program or major. How did you approach motivation in the development of the Chemistry Primer?

Frerichs: We addressed this through the timing of the Chemistry Primer, and through general incentives. The pilot run for the Chemistry Primer required students to complete the tutorials before arriving to campus. We took advantage of a time when students possess the desire to do well in college. So the Chemistry Primer serves as a proactive step for students who want to do well in chemistry, or perhaps know that chemistry will be a challenge. Once students arrive to campus they must get settled, begin coursework, obtain materials, establish their study routines, and get acclimated in general to their environment- all which take time and effort- undefined time and effort for first time students. By introducing the primer in the summer these competing priorities are avoided. Although students will have priorities to balance in the summertime, it stands to reason that students may be more familiar with these priorities, and can better allot time and attention to the primer. At UB, we also incentivized finishing the Chemistry Primer during our pilot. Students finishing the primer received an individualized report of their performance on each section, summary of the time spent on the activities, score, and strategies for improvement. Students opting for the primer, but not finishing it, received a general report of the resources available to them for better success in first semester chemistry, such as the location of our help center.


Q. What are some of the top level takeaways educators will gain from watching your webinar?

Frerichs: This is a difficult question to answer considering the variety of perspectives and environments for potential webinar viewers. In the webinar my goal was to highlight our experience with the Chemistry Primer — why we implemented it, what it is, and the results of a controlled pilot. Since using a digital format is a convenient way to promote readiness for General Chemistry, another goal was to provide enough information so viewers could envision how best to implement or alter the primer to best complement their program.



About Valerie Frerichs
Valerie Frerichs

Dr. Valerie Frerichs

As associate director for the General Chemistry Laboratory, Valerie Frerichs works to co-direct the University at Buffalo, SUNY’s teaching laboratory program. The program encompasses 2500 bright student minds, over 50 well-equipped teachings assistants, and several highly engaged faculty members across five General Chemistry courses. In her role, Dr. Frerichs mentors undergraduate and graduate students, develops and implements experiments, manages online homework, and coordinates other program aspects. Dr. Frerichs also teaches lecture sections of general chemistry and analytical chemistry laboratory, and assists with the department’s Project Teach program and management of graduate teaching assistants.