PISCATAWAY — At Rutgers University, there are few undergraduate classes as brutal as Intro to Chemistry.
First-semester freshmen often take the class in lecture halls with more than 400 students. Many struggle to grasp the concepts in the fast-moving course, which is a requirement for most science majors.
By the end of the semester, about a quarter of students will either flunk chemistry or drop the course.
“This is a really important class for these students and it’s really challenging,” said Darrin York, a chemistry professor and coordinator of Rutgers’ general chemistry program. “This is the first university class that trains students to think as scientists.”
Faced with a large number of struggling students, Rutgers is rethinking how it teaches chemistry. Last semester, the university joined the growing number of colleges around the country experimenting with combining traditional lecture classes with online learning.
Rutgers students still attend weekly classes taught by a chemistry professor in a large lecture hall. But the university has done away with the traditional “recitation” classes that would meet weekly for 30 to 50 students to review chemistry problems with an instructor and take quizzes.
Instead of sitting in a classroom, students can now log into an e-learning website and watch virtual review sessions taught live via video 30 times a week. Students can attend as many online sessions as they want, ask instructors questions anonymously through an online chat box. They also take online quizzes on a system that varies the difficulty of questions to gauge if an individual student is learning the week’s lesson.
In its first few months, the new concept has been a hit, especially with tech-savvy students more comfortable with asking questions over their laptops than raising their hands in a packed classroom. The university gave out 5 percent more As in chemistry last semester than the previous year and final exam grades jumped nearly 6 percent under the new system, campus officials said.
York envisions eventually expanding the idea beyond the 1,800 students who take chemistry every year at Rutgers. The same systems could be applied to courses in other subjects at Rutgers, he said.
“This is actually a really huge project that’s in its infancy,” York said.
Sophomore Nathan Berlin is a fan of the new format. The biology major earned a D when he took chemistry as a freshman as he struggled with a heavy load of science classes.
When Berlin took the course a second time last semester, he brought his grade up to a B-plus, he said. He credits the new online component of the course with helping to boost his grade by letting him take multiple recitation classes and quizzes online.
“It gives you the possibility to improve your grade in your own manner,” said Berlin, 19, of East Brunswick.
But not everyone in the course is thrilled with the idea of giving up traditional recitation classes where they can raise their hands to ask a question.
“Obviously, there are some kids who don’t like the fact that it’s online and you have to wait to the end to ask a question,” Berlin said.
In an anonymous survey of chemistry students last semester, Rutgers officials received largely positive reviews of the new system. But some students complained about technical glitches with the online classes and the lack of a relationship with instructors.
“There is no face-to-face connection,” said one student surveyed.
In addition to the online classes and quizzes, Rutgers has added more chemistry demonstration labs and additional office hours for students who want in-person tutoring. There are plans to add a social networking component to the course, so students can help each other online.
Rutgers is also working on building a free, online chemistry course open to anyone. Students could take the optional course over the summer to prepare for the real class on campus.
The university is funding part of the chemistry class upgrades with a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and $150,000 in seed funding from a campus entrepreneurial fund. The money helped pay for programmers to create the online component of the class.
Rutgers is one of numerous colleges and universities around the country trying out methods of blending technology into lecture classes. At Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, campus officials recently overhauled their introductory calculus class to include a combination of live and video lectures, online exercises, team workshops and digital clickers that students use to answer questions in lecture classes.
The method has helped boost the passing rate to 97 percent, Stevens officials announced last semester.
“Top-notch professors are integral to this new approach,” Michael Bruno, dean of Stevens’ engineering and science school, said at the time. “They have everything to do with our student success rates.”