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Benchmark Quizzes in Organic, part 2

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Last fall, I implemented a set of benchmark quizzes in my organic chemistry classes.  These quizzes arose from a simple question:  “What should every student who passes my class be able to do?”  Adapting the approach of Joshua Ring, the quizzes were pass-fail, with no partial credit.  Students had more than one attempt to pass the quizzes, but they had to get the quiz completely correct in order to pass.  Further, I tethered the quizzes to students’ homework grades:  In order to receive credit for homework, students had to pass 5 of the 6 benchmarks by the end of the semester.

Not everything went as planned.  My benchmarks were compressed toward the end of the semester, leading me to trim the number of quizzes and removing the restriction on the homework grade.  Nonetheless, the results were remarkable:  Rather than limping through exams with partial credit and moving on to other topics, the multi-attempt, pass-fail approach drove students to analyze their knowledge gaps and hone their understanding.  After two or three failed attempts, students often made their way to my office to figure out what they did wrong.  It clearly made them stronger.

Quantitatively, I was able to compare my class to the previous two semesters, using the ACS standardized exam.  The only major pedagogical change was the introduction of the benchmarks.  Here are the exciting results:

SemesterStudentsAverage Percentile
Fall 20155856
Spring 20164045
Fall 20174673

I don’t think the Benchmark quizzes can be exclusively credited with these outcomes.  Our fall classes are usually stronger, and this was an exceptional bunch.  However, they definitely contributed.  I was especially interested to see the effect on those students at the bottom of the class, who often have the most pronounced knowledge gaps.  Here is the change limited to those students who finished in the bottom quartile of the class on the ACS exams:

SemesterStudentsAverage Percentile
Fall 20151517
Spring 20161011
Fall 20171223

This semester, I've moved out of the organic sequence and into Introductory Chemistry.  I'm teaching large daytime and evening sections, and using an adapted benchmark scheme for both.  More to come about this in an upcoming article.

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Can you discuss how you give these quizzes? Do you give them in class? Online? At a separate time from class? If it is a separate time, how do you make sure all students have access to that time? I have been wanting to do something like this but have not been able to work out the logistics.


Hi Melissa,

Great question.  I've done this two ways.  Last semester, I gave them at the end of class, on announced days.  That was okay, but because I only did a partial flip of the class, I was pressed for time.  This semester, in intro chem, I'm giving them at the beginning of the lab period each week.  This makes it more routine for the students, which I think is a plus.  

This semester, I have large classes (72 and 140), so I had to really think through the logistics.  I have a manilla folder for each week.  I don't try to return the quizzes with classes this large, but I do post answer keys.  Also, with this many, I've capped the number of re-takes at 3.  So, for example, this week we're on quiz 2:  I hand out quiz 2 to everyone.  Once they're finished, they turn it in and head upstairs to lab.  Students who haven't passed quiz one can pick it up once they turn in quiz 2.

About the Author
Kevin Revell received his bachelor's degree from the University of New Orleans in 1995, then his Master's Degree in Organic Chemistry from Iowa State in 2000. After several very formative years working in the pharmaceutical industry, he decided to go into education, and from 2002-2006 he taught chemistry at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. Following completion of his Ph.D. from the University of South Florida in 2006, Kevin joined the faculty at Murray State University in Murray, KY. Kevin's research interests include organic synthesis and functional organic materials. He loves to teach, and is increasingly interested in science education in flipped and online class settings. He and his wife Jennifer have 3 kids, and they stay busy between family, church, school, and playing basketball in the driveway.