General Chemistry is usually the first science course that students take at the university, and therefore is an important transition course in which most students learn the study and time-management skills necessary to be successful in this course and in future science courses. Washington University is dedicated to improving our students’ success in General Chemistry and in future science courses; hence, with HHMI support, the Department of Chemistry developed for General Chemistry an online review tutorial and a diagnostic exam.

We have also developed a mentoring program for students whose performance on the online diagnostic exam suggests that they are under-prepared for General Chemistry.

This program includes the development of an online pre-matriculation tutorial and diagnostic exam to identify the less-prepared students. The program also includes extended-length recitations focused on problem solving, integration into PLTL groups, and specialized semi-structured peer-mentored homework groups. The evaluation shows improved performance by students in this program. Collaborating with Mark Hogrebe (Department of Education), Regina Frey (The Teaching Center, Chemistry, and CIRCLE) has begun a long-term study of the effect of the transition program on under-prepared students on retention in STEM and the effect on performance in upper-level STEM courses.

Funding for this project was provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).


In order to help incoming students make a smooth transition to the University environment and to ensure that they thrive academically, this project aims to accomplish the following objectives:

  • To provide a motivation and a means (the online tutorial) for incoming students to review the prerequisite material that they need to be successful in the fall semester of General Chemistry (Chemistry 111A)
  • To help students fill in gaps in their knowledge (via the online tutorials)
  • To provide a means (the online diagnostic exam) that identifies to each student the areas in the prerequisite material in which the student needs to improve his or her understanding of the material
  • To identify under-prepared students and provide them with resources, such as topic-based review workshops and course recitation sections that are broader in scope and longer in duration than the standard course recitation sections
  • To introduce interested students (via the Advanced Application sections in the online tutorial) to real-life applications and to cutting-edge research that takes place in the Department of Chemistry

Click here to access the tutorial (which includes practice problems, and quizzes) and the diagnostic exam. Washington University students need their six-digit WU student ID numbers to access the quizzes and exams on the site, but do not need a password.

Extended-Length Recitation Sections and Peer-Mentoring Program

During the summer before they matriculate, students utilize the online tutorial to review prerequisite material and then take the online diagnostic exam. If a student’s performance on the exam shows that she or he is sufficiently lacking in prerequisite chemistry knowledge and problem-solving skills, the student is placed in an extended-length weekly recitation section and offered the opportunity to participate in a peer-mentored study group. In comparison with standard course recitation sections, the extended-length sections have a broader scope and last 30 minutes longer (total duration: 1½ hours). These extended-length recitations place an added emphasis on strategies for effective mastery of the material and problem-solving skills.

The under-prepared student is also eligible to participate in a peer-mentored study group for General Chemistry. (In order to participate in this peer-mentored study group, the student must participate in a separate Peer-Led Team Learning group.) The peer-mentored study groups meet for two hours each week. Thirty minutes of each group meeting are typically devoted to a discussion of techniques for transitioning from high school into the rigors of the University curriculum; the rest of the group meeting is a facilitated homework session during which students work together on homework problems. The discussions of transitioning to the University curriculum center on effective skills and strategies for time-management, note-taking, and test-taking (including pre-exam preparation, tactics employed during the exam, and using past exams as learning tools). The discussions are based on talking points prepared by the peer-mentors at their weekly meetings with course instructors.

Preliminary Evaluation of the Mentoring Program

Approximately 570 students enrolled in Washington University’s Chemistry 111A course in fall 2006. A total of 52 students (51 freshmen and 1 transfer student) were placed in the extended-length Chemistry 111A recitation sections.

Extended-Length Recitation Sections

Based on surveys filled out by students near the end of the fall 2006 semester, the extended-length recitations were well received. There were 52 students in the special recitations; 30 responded to the survey. Of the 30 respondents (16 male and 14 female):

  • 87% agreed that the extra problem-solving work that the special recitations allowed was helpful or very helpful.
  • 37% found that the problem-solving strategies taught were helpful; 47% found these strategies somewhat helpful.
  • 87% expressed interest in having the extended-length recitation section taught for Chemistry 112 during the spring semester.

The students also had a number of positive written comments concerning the extended-length recitation sections.

The group of students enrolled in the extended-length recitations outperformed a small group (n = 12) of students predicted to perform similarly on all exams (the students in this small group were not enrolled in these recitation sections due to course scheduling conflicts). However, this difference was only statistically significant for the third exam.

Peer-Mentored Study Groups

For the fall 2006 pilot program, there were six peer-mentored study groups. A total of twenty-three students opted to join the peer-mentored study groups at the start of the semester. One of these students dropped out of the group but remained enrolled in the course; two of the peer-mentored students dropped Chemistry 111A by the end of the semester.

The group of twenty students who were members of the peer-mentored study groups earned Chemistry 111A point totals that were 0.4% higher than their non-peer-mentored counterparts; therefore, there was no meaningful difference in the point totals between the two groups of students.

The participants in the peer-mentored groups tended to view participation in these groups as a valuable experience. There were 20 students in the extended-length recitations and 13 responded to the survey. Of the 13 respondents:

  • 100% said that working homework problems in this type of session was helpful (31%) or very helpful (69%).
  • 69% agreed that being in a peer-mentored group taught them study and transitioning skills that they would not have learned otherwise.
  • 92% rated the mentoring experience as helpful or very helpful.
  • 85% reported that they would join a Chemistry 112 peer-mentored study group if one were offered during the spring semester.


S. P. Shields, M. Hogrebe, W. Spees, L. Handlin, G. Noelken, J. Riley, & Frey, R. F. (2012). A Transition Program for under-prepared students in general chemistry: Diagnosis, implementation, and evaluation. J. Chem. Edu., 89, 995.


Faculty interested in implementing a Transitions program may contact Gina Frey, co-Director of CIRCLE and Florence E. Moog Professor of STEM Education in Chemistry. For information about day-to-day administration of the Transitions program at WUSTL, please contact Jia Luo, Lecturer, Chemistry:

Additional Collaborators: Greg Noelken, Julie Riley, Shawn Shields, and William Spees (Chemistry); Larry Handlin (Cornerstone: The Center for Advanced Learning)


The development, refinement, and assessment of the mentoring program (including the development of the online review tutorials and diagnostic exam) were supported by grants to Washington University from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, through the Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education program (Grants HHMI #52003842 and HHMI #52005911).