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Adaptive Learning Technology in General Chemistry: Does it support student success?

By Jessica Fautch, Associate Professor in Physical Science, York College of Pennsylvania

Undergraduate programs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) continue to experience lower enrollment rates and retention rates than many other disciplines. At York College of Pennsylvania in 2015-2017, an average of 78% of students passed General Chemistry with a “C” or higher each term. As part of a larger effort to address persistence for all STEM majors, we aimed to increase learning and success rates in this course, which is populated by biology, chemistry, and engineering majors. 


The available possibilities for improving pedagogy and curriculum—and ultimately student learning— for General Chemistry are vast. This study piloted the use of adaptive courseware for homework assignments. Adaptive courseware is interactive; assignments and problems are tailored specifically for each student. Students in one section of General Chemistry utilized the adaptive courseware ALEKS for homework, while the remaining sections worked with Mastering Chemistry, the historical standard software for the course. Major differences between the two learning tools are that Mastering Chemistry engaged students in a standard set of questions, penalized wrong answers, and provided minimal feedback. With ALEKS, students work on problems they are most ready to learn, including foundational material that might be lacking. ALEKS provides full explanations for wrong answers, which allows students to build confidence in their work as they learn at an individualized pace. The amount of time that each student spends on an assignment varies by ability. The more practice a student needs, the more practice that student receives. The adaptive program understands that a student has fully learned a topic once three correct answers in a row have been submitted. Follow-up assessments hold students accountable for material previously learned—they are not allowed to forget it!

Student performance on specific exam questions and their overall success in the course were compared between the two groups. Students who used the adaptive courseware answered an average of 78% of exam questions correctly; whereas students who used the standard software answered 58% of exam questions correctly. On exam questions for topics requiring little to no critical thinking (i.e., plug and chug questions on light and E, Figure 1), students in both sections scored similarly. For questions requiring more in-depth application, the students who used the adaptive courseware performed much better compared to those who used the non-adaptive courseware (see moles and stoichiometry questions, Figure 1) . The pass rate of “C” or higher was 86% for the section in which we piloted the adaptive software (Figure 4). Student and faculty perceptions were elicited through surveys, including from those students who experienced both homework methods (see Figures 2 and 3). We used the quantitative data (course grades, exam question performance) and qualitative data (student confidence, faculty remarks, student praise) to inform changes in all sections of General Chemistry to use adaptive courseware. This learning improvement project in chemistry is one component of a broader institutional initiative to improve student success in STEM at York College of Pennsylvania.


ALEKS = Adaptive Courseware (ALEKS)

MC = Standard Courseware (Mastering Chemistry)

Figure 1


Figure 2


Figure 3


Figure 4


Additional Context

York College of Pennsylvania is a private, four-year college located in south central Pennsylvania serving approximately 4300 students and has a student-faculty ratio of 15:1. Within their Kinsley School of Engineering, Sciences, and Technology, students may pursue either an associate or bachelor of science degree in Chemistry. The General Chemistry course, referenced above, is recommended for all science and Engineering majors as well as Clinical Lab Science, Pre-medical, Pre-dental, Pre-veterinary, and Pre-pharmacy majors. This project involved 86 students. The learning improvement targeted a course: the project compared sections of the same course, same teachers. The learning was measured using exam questions and grades. Multiple colleagues verified the record-keeping to ensure credible findings.

Additional Resource

Vignare et al. (2018). A guide for implementing adaptive courseware: From planning through scaling. Joint publication of Association of Public and Landgrant Universities and Every Learner Everywhere. Retrieved from


Fautch, J. (2019, January). Adaptive learning technology in general chemistry: Does it support student success? Retrieved from

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