Wanted: Beta Testers for a New General Chemistry Text

Stephen Matchett, a professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, has written a textbook aimed at the second semester of a General Chemistry course. This text is unique in that it is fully interactive by taking advantage of the power of WebAssign to engage the students as they read. Each chapter is written as a series of interactive sessions (4-9 pages) which can be mixed and matched to follow the instructor’s pedagogy. Imagine your students showing up to class having actually read the material prior to the lecture. This textbook is designed to make student reading a functional and not ignored part of the coursework.

Features include:

  • A conversational style that speaks to the student not at them.
  • Fully worked practice problems.
  • Pedagogy to teach students how to read science texts. By asking questions directly about the graphs and figures, students are shown how to interpret graphical information.
  • An emphasis on building a full conceptual understanding as well as problem solving.
  • More than 700 questions that build on the lessons presented. Most of the questions are linked to the interactive textbook so that an incorrect response lets the student open the appropriate section in a parallel window so they can review as they work through the problems.
  • Emphasis on continuous review and building a context-rich understanding of the material.

The textbook has been used for 3 years in a second semester General Chemistry class at GVSU by 2 instructors. Beta testers are wanted to get broader feedback about the effectiveness and convenience of the system. Beta testers would have email and phone access to the author and be asked to:

  1. Seek feedback from their students about how the system works for them.
  2. Search for areas in need of clarification or expansion to improve the book. A small record of issues or comments would be appreciated.
  3. Provide feedback on how it was used (optional reading vs. required; flipped vs. traditional classroom)

Cost: Free to the tester and their students during the 2015-2016 academic year!

If you are interested, please contact WebAssign for a copy of the table of contents, contact information for the author, and access to the current version of the text.

Green Chemistry Primer – Reaction Efficiency, Percent Yield, and Atom Economy

Happy Earth Day!

Chemistry often gets a bad reputation when it comes to keeping our Earth green and healthy. “Chemicals” are added to food, they are in our water, they are referred to in association with being bad or harmful. While biology usually gets the nod as the “green” science, the “green chemistry” movement has given form to principles for improving chemical processes – such as using environmentally friendlier solvents, or reactions in which catalysts reduce energy expenditure. One key aspect introduced at the general chemistry level is reaction efficiency.

Whether chemical reactions are used in industry or the academic laboratory, a key factor is the efficiency of a reaction. In fact, millions of dollars of research funding has gone into improving the efficiency of reactions. In this article, we give a brief overview of two concepts in measuring reaction efficiency – percent yield and atom economy.

Students of general chemistry commonly encounter percent yield calculations – determining how much product was obtained in the lab relative to the amount expected in perfect reaction conditions.

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For example, if you generated 15.33 g of product, but expected 17.41 g based on your starting amounts, you would have this percent yield:

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Here’s a baking analogy: You follow a recipe for 2 dozen cookies, but your kids eat enough cookie dough that you end up with just 22 cookies, or roughly a 92% percent yield.

In addition to percent yield, there is a second measure of reaction efficiency – atom economy.  Atom economy measures the percentage of the mass of products theoretically produced by a reaction versus the desired goal product. This metric of reaction efficiency differs from percent yield in that it is based on the theoretical reaction – not on lab data. In essence, atom economy is how much extra “stuff” you create that you don’t want – even under perfect reaction conditions. Thus, let’s say we were trying to create “G” in the following reaction:

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E and J are byproducts of the reaction – we have created materials that we don’t need. To calculate atom economy, we need the molar masses of the products, as described below:

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In our example above, we have molar masses of E as 44 g/mol, G as 78 g/mol, and J as 18 g/mol, we would calculate atom economy as:

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These are the basics of two metrics of reaction efficiency. If you are interested in giving these a try, search for assignment Reaction Efficiency (Assignment ID # 7097680) in WebAssign, which offers a few questions. Beyond this, you can learn more about the “12 Principles of Green Chemistry,” by Paul Anastas and John Warner.

Why Educators Should Use Online Assessments Like Gym Equipment

How frequent, low-stakes online assessments can help improve student learning and retention.

You may think that comparing online assessments to hitting the gym is an odd comparison—but it’s an accurate one when considering strengthening learning pathways in students’ brains.

Take, for example, the principle of deconditioning. To maintain their physical fitness and endurance, athletes must routinely exercise. Stop exercising and their level of conditioning begins to dramatically decline. Studies have shown, however, that athletes who need to take time off from training can still maintain a level of fitness if they exercise once a week.


Several analogous concepts can apply to student learning. One example is Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve–the fact that learned knowledge is not durable, but can be lost if not rehearsed. “Time on task” is also recognized as a major factor in learning gains. In general, the more quality, focused time spent on an activity, the better the related learning outcomes.

This raises the question of what counts as “quality” – is there a specific way of spending the time or arranging the time that results in better performance?

Optimizing for memory

These concepts are related to the notion of spaced repetition. Rather than bingeing on information (for instance, pulling an all-nighter before an exam), students should study a little each day or every other day to refresh the information on a consistent basis. Without this rehearsal of knowledge, memory retention drops over time.

Certain types of knowledge may naturally have longer retention, such as mnemonics, rhymes, acronyms (blue line below) as opposed to random strings of digits and letters (purple line). Knowledge that is practiced can gradually move from quickly decaying (purple) to longer-lived (green, red, blue) through practice. This repeated practice explains how a person can remember certain random strings of information such as a locker combination, identification numbers, or license plate.onlinegym_chart

Order and structure can also help with retention. Rather than remembering dozens of formulas, one can learn the principle behind them, which is easier to remember for longer periods of time.

Practices for efficiency

With the importance of frequency established, the next step is to determine what students should be doing during these regular study sessions. Many instructors have found learning benefits by utilizing the method of frequent, low-stakes testing.

Low-stakes testing can be any sort of assessment that doesn’t have a large impact on final grades, unlike an exam that could make up 10-25 percent of the final grade. With frequent, low-stakes assessments, students get regular feedback that helps guide their studying and expectantly makes them more effective and efficient studiers.

This also helps preclude a misconception that simply reading the text or notes is sufficient – active use of the information in the context of a problem is key.

So, as an educator, how do you facilitate this behavior? Rather than assign weekly homework or homework limited to the days on which class meets, you can use online assessment tools to provide more frequent assignments designed to improve studying and retention.

Assessments like workouts

Just as a workout can be classified based on the type (easy or hard, long or short) these frequent assignments should also vary in length and difficulty. Collections such as WebAssign General Chemistry, sort questions into the following categories to make the assignment creation process easier:

  • Exercises that focus on a broader content area, similar to traditional homework
  • Skill questions that provide focused practice and support on a particular skill
  • Concept-mastery questions that assess student ability to connect concepts in the framework of a larger problem
  • Final-exam questions that assess student ability to integrate a wide range of chemical concepts in a single question, suitable for final exams or year-end reviews

This lets a user easily create “easy workout” assignments of exercises and skill questions, and “hard workout” assignments of concept mastery questions, with the added possibility of a nice well-rounded workout assignment to review for the final exam.

Let’s continue with the athletics analogy and see what we can learn from the process of training for a marathon: Marathon training programs (1, 2, 3) could be considered similar to a “syllabus” for a “semester” of preparation for a big “exam” at the end. For example, class assignments should be varied according to your semester plans and desired outcomes.

In both athletic and academic cases, you are trying to drive adaptation – and this adaptation can’t be rushed. Marathon programs frequently have shorter “midterm” races as a check-in to gauge performance and set expectations for the target marathon. The longest long run, a “practice exam,” if you will, is scheduled a few weeks prior to the “final” to give time for recovery and correction of problems that were identified.

Every plan has frequent practice to maintain and improve fitness with rarely more than a single day of rest in a row. Even the more advanced plans (1,2) for experienced runners have these characteristics – no matter your level of training, a coach would not suggest resting for 16 weeks, running 26 miles the night before, and then trying to run the 26.2 miles of a marathon. There are no shortcuts to success.

In summary, you can help your students exercise their minds and prepare for success with:

  1. Frequent, low-stakes assignments that require regular, active engagement with your course material
  2. A long-term plan for the semester that gradually increases in difficulty, with appropriate feedback along the way – feedback that occurs early enough for students to alter and improve how they prepare

Have a great term – hit the ground running and sustain that momentum!

WebAssign Partners with University Science Books to Offer New Textbooks

We are pleased to announce that we now offer an online homework solution for the publishing company University Science Books.

“We are excited to expand WebAssign’s physical chemistry offering with McQuarrie and Simon’s Physical Chemistry: A Molecular Approach also known as “Big Red,” and Chang and Thoman’s Physical Chemistry for the Chemical Sciences,” said Erik Epp, WebAssign chemistry product manager. “WebAssign is already a leader in the advanced mathematics arena, so we are pleased to bring advanced grading options for algebraic expressions, linear and differential equations, and matrices to questions in physical chemistry.” These new titles feature links to a complete eBook and step-by-step derivation questions to help students understand complex ideas.

University Science Books has published quality books and textbooks in chemistry, physics, astronomy, biology, and environmental sciences for more than 35 years. In addition to the two physical chemistry titles, WebAssign also now offers an enriched question collection for the publisher’s popular title, McQuarrie’s General Chemistry, 4th edition.

“With WebAssign, we are able to provide users our affordable content through an effective, high-quality online instructional system,” said Jane Ellis, publisher at University Science Books. “This union enables us to support student learning at a deeper level.”

WebAssign and University Science Books will be exhibiting at the 249th American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting and Exposition in Denver, CO from March 22-26, 2015. Visit us at booth #201 and University Science Books at booth #605.

Deep Help for Chemistry: Providing Multi-Level Assistance to Students Online

WebAssign’s new Deep Help system provides on-demand, multi-level assistance to students when and where they run into difficulty. This system was designed to help every student best by using principles from the Zone of Proximal Development, Knowledge Space Theory, and Cognitive Load Theory. When applied together these theories provide the foundation for the innovative design of the Deep Help system.

Online Homework Usage
Unlike analog homework, students can access online learning environments at any hour of the day and analytics are available to track student usage patterns. As shown below, student usage peaks in the evening, when instructors tend to be unavailable.

WebAssign usage levels in a 24-hour period

Figure 1. Relative usage of an online learning system over the course of a day

Online learning environments often incorporate various tools to provide real-time assistance to the student, including hints, feedback, solutions, videos, eBooks, and access to example problems. Students in introductory-level courses frequently come from a diverse set of education backgrounds and consequently require different types and levels of assistance.

Zone of Proximal Development
Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development concept describes the range of abilities that a learner cannot perform independently, but can perform with assistance.

zone of proximal development

Figure 2. Graphical representation of the Zone of Proximal Development.

The role of a teacher is to provide guidance and assistance so that the learner can accomplish tasks in the center section. Teachers can use online learning systems as an extension of their role to provide additional assistance when they are not available. Organizing which tasks fall into each of these segments is further described by the next framework.

Knowledge Space Theory
Knowledge Space Theory considers the dependent relationship between subsets of knowledge. For instance, the concept of the balanced equation for a reaction is a necessary prerequisite for the concept of stoichiometry.

portion of a knowledge space

Figure 3a. Example of a portion of a knowledge space.

For instance, in Figure 3a, an understanding of B requires a prerequisite understanding of A. Similarly, D depends on B and C, indicating that to understand D, a learner must already comprehend A, B, and C.  Thus a knowledge state of ACE, FACE, or CAB would be possible, but FEB or DEC would not.

Applying the Zone of Proximal Development to a Knowledge Space diagram requires that the three regions be aligned in ways allowed by the dependencies in the diagram. A hypothetical example of this is illustrated in Figure 3b, that shows a learner able to accomplish A,B,C,E, and F without assistance, D and G with assistance, but unable to perform H. The dependencies make clear that if, for instance, F required assistance, then G would require assistance as well.

Figure 3b. Application of the zone of proximal development to a knowledge space diagram

Figure 3b. Application of the Zone of Proximal Development to a Knowledge Space diagram

Cognitive Load Theory
The major idea behind Cognitive Load Theory is the assumption of a finite cognitive load capacity in a learner. This capacity is spread among intrinsic, extraneous, and germane aspects of the activity being performed. Intrinsic cognitive load comes from the difficulty and complexity of the concept.  Extraneous cognitive load relates to the means through which a concept is presented and germane load addresses the construction of schemas. This theory indicates that in order for the student to use the majority of his or her cognitive abilities for learning, it’s important to avoid extraneous tasks and distractions.

Deep Help Framework
The Deep Help framework was designed to provide stepped tutorials for prerequisite information based on the learning theories described above. Students can dive deeper into the provided extra support as needed, until they fully understand all elements required to perform the original problem. While many interactive tutorials and other help tools are associated at the question level in a student’s assignment, the Deep Help system is associated with individual steps in a tutorial (Figure 4).

Figure 4. The Deep Help framework

Figure 4. The Deep Help framework

Rather than having four tutorials to choose from, in the Deep Help system each step of the tutorial only has one or two options for a learner to choose.  The multi-step approach used in the tutorial helps the student see which step they are having difficulty with and lowers cognitive demand by giving them easy access to the relevant reference materials, as well as a link to the tutorial, which leads to the Deep Help.

Instructors have full control over student access to tutorials and can configure Deep Help to always be available or available only after a specified number of answer submissions. To explore this unique learning framework further view a basic demo or contact chemistry@webassign.net to learn how to get started with a free trial semester of WebAssign’s Deep Help system.

WebAssign & Breaking Bad!


We’re pretty excited about the Breaking Bad series finale coming up this Sunday. We bet your students are too. Check back next week for the results of WebAssign usage during the show time. Let’s see how many students put their homework on hold while they watch what happens to Heisenberg.

Learn more about WebAssign’s Original Chemistry Content here!

Friday Funny!

electron joke

Have a great science/math/teaching joke? We want to hear them!