Cynthia LaBrake

Editor’s Note: This column is the third in a series by associate classics professor Jennifer Ebbeler on the changing nature of higher education at UT-Austin and other institutions. Look for Prof. Ebbeler’s column in the Opinion section of this paper every other Wednesday.

On a recent Thursday morning, students in the 9:30 am section of professors David Vanden Bout and Cynthia LaBrake’s Chemistry 301 were learning about covalent bonding. Before class, they had been assigned an online learning module that introduced them to ionic and covalent bonding and nomenclature. Class started with a short i>clicker quiz based on the learning module, during which each question was followed by a short explanation of the correct answer. Vanden Bout then introduced the concept of covalent bonding with a short lecture before he turned the class loose to apply these newly-learned concepts.

Around me, students were drawing the bonding structures of molecules, starting with relatively easy ones like H2 and progressing to the more complex molecules, such as C2H6 and COCl2. The students worked on these problems with one another in small, self-determined groups.

For a class of just over 300 students, there were eight peer mentors and two graduate teaching assistants wandering around the auditorium and stopping to offer help to students who needed it.  These peer mentors did not provide answers. Rather, they walked the students through problem-solving strategies until the students themselves were able to solve the problem.

Peer mentors play an indispensable role in Vanden Bout and LaBrake’s Chemistry 301.  There are approximately 50 of them, assigned to six different sections. The only requirement to be a peer mentor is a grade of B in the class and, says Dr. Vanden Bout, “an interest in helping.” 

Mentors start off by taking a for-credit course, in which part of their grade is connected to their work as a mentor. More experienced mentors are paid a stipend for their work, and also do some grading.  

Perhaps the most impressive part in all of this was how well it worked in the classroom.  The presence of the mentors allowed for a large-enrollment course to look very much like a small, active seminar. From the first day of class, the message to students is that there is someone nearby who can help with any questions. This message is reinforced outside the classroom thanks to the use of Piazza, a discussion board that allows students to post and answer questions.  

This transformation from predominantly lecture-based instruction to a more student-centered pedagogy is a product of the first round of the University’s Course Transformation Program. As a “gateway” course — that is, a course that many students need to pass before moving on to higher-level courses — Chemistry 301 was ripe for redesign. Now in the third year of the redesign project, Chemistry 301 is a model introductory course (and not just for the natural sciences). LaBrake and Vanden Bout created their own online resources, with their own videos, that have supplanted a required textbook.  

Given the ongoing debate about licensing content created by other faculty, I asked LaBrake and Vanden Bout whether they thought it was important that their content was their own (or that of colleagues in the UT chemistry department). Both strongly emphasized that using content they had created themselves was essential.

“[Creating content ourselves] shows that we care,” LaBrake said.

Chemistry 301, as taught by LaBrake, Vanden Bout and their team, could be characterized as a flipped class, in which the “lecturing” portion of the course occurs outside the classroom through web modules and the problem-solving, traditionally assigned as homework, occurs inside the classroom. 

Yet, as LaBrake warns, “flipped is a dangerous term.” Indeed, they haven’t flipped their class so much as they have developed ways to support student learning in a course that requires both conceptual understanding and an ability to apply that conceptual understanding to problems. Lecture is still very much a part of their class. But now it’s done in short bursts and only to reinforce important concepts.  

The instructors make excellent use of low-stakes formative assessments, which allow students to see how well they understand a concept before they take a high-stakes midterm exam. I was struck by how many opportunities students had to get feedback on their learning: assigned learning modules, i>clicker quizzes, in class problem-solving activities, Piazza, homework problems, office hours. By the time a student sits down to take a midterm exam, that student has encountered the problems in multiple contexts and with a range of support.

LaBrake and Vanden Bout have designed a class that supports student learning at every step, and it shows: More students are passing the course than ever before. Both LaBrake and Vanden Bout are outstanding professors, but the course would not be nearly so effective if it weren’t supported by the outstanding resources the professors have created for students, in the form of an e-textbook, activity packet and peer mentoring program. Their current challenge — a familiar one for instructors who have moved away from the traditional lecture model of teaching — is to find ways to sustain the tremendous amount of time and human labor that such an excellent course requires. 

Ebbeler is an associate professor in the department of classics from Claremont, Calif, and she is interested in receiving student feedback on topics discussed in her columns. You may reach Ebbeler at and follow her on Twitter  @jenebbeler. 

University Co-op employee Cameron Ingram sorts through and labels used textbooks in the store’s basement Saturday morning. Some natural sciences professors are requiring online teaching materials instead of the traditional textbook.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

This fall, some chemistry and physics students won’t have to wait in line at the University Co-op for their intro-level textbooks, as professors are opting for online teaching materials instead of the traditional book.

Students will be allowed to purchase any general chemistry textbook that covers the higher level chemistry content for Chemistry 301 and 302. By altering this book requirement, around 4,500 undergraduate students will save on steep textbook prices ranging from $100 to $200. Instead of focusing on content delivery in class, students will engage in problem solving and critical thinking. Because of this change, it will now be up to students to find a textbook that will further their understanding of lectures.

Cynthia Labrake, chemistry and biochemistry senior lecturer, said the chemistry department has worked to develop its own learning modules in course websites, Blackboard sites and Quest Learning and Assessment, an online classroom management tool.

“With support from the Course Transformation Project, we have developed in-class activities specifically designed for concept development,” Labrake said. “The best way to develop concepts in chemistry is to construct your own knowledge. A textbook is more of a passive direct teach, whereas an active guided inquiry lesson is much more effective at facilitating the construction of new knowledge.”

Removing textbooks and using online tools is known as “flipping the class,” and a number of courses across the College of Natural Sciences are adopting this teaching method. Quest is used to provide online video lectures, resulting in more in-class time for discussion and critical thinking. Labrake does not think the lack of a required textbook will hinder her students’ ability to completely absorb the material, especially since the curriculum in Chemistry 301 and 302 does not follow one specific textbook.

“I would like to say that our decision to forgo the textbook was made deliberately and with much thought, planning and development,” Labrake said. “Our desire is to increase student learning and actually make it easier for them to be successful now and in the future.”

After student surveys in Chemistry 301 and 302 were completed, chemistry and biochemistry associate professor David Vandenbout said few students thought the textbook was a helpful tool for learning course material. Instead of being a useful resource, the textbook led some students astray.

“In the past, some students would obsess over topics they found in the text that were not covered in class, or in any assignments,” Vandenbout said.

Sacha Kopp, physics professor and associate dean for the College of Natural Sciences, said he discontinued a required text for Physics 302 and 355. He said when his students were asked to rank learning resources, they regarded his Quest materials as very useful but did not think the optional free textbook was much help.

“Most said they didn’t use the text. I don’t think they suffered, and course grades were high,” Kopp said.

UT System Board of Regents met Wednesday to discuss developments in new curriculum programs along with local real estate deals and the future of MyEdu. The meeting was one of about six regular meetings that occur each year. Today the regents are expected to set tuition for the next two academic years and to discuss the proposal for a UT Austin medical school.  

Course Transformation

The UT System Board of Regents glanced around the room with i>Clickers in hand as they faced an impromptu chemistry quiz at Wednesday’s meeting.

Two UT professors showed off the University’s course transformation program that uses demonstrations, trial and error, class discussion and online learning modules to engage students. The pilot program launched in 2011 with several core classes, including economics, English 316K and psychology. Professors in the program approach teaching in a more participatory way instead of the usual lecture style.

The regents seemed as enthused as their college student counterparts, who report not always enjoying the classes even if they are making better grades, said Gretchen Ritter, vice provost for undergraduate education and faculty governance. Ritter said the program targets large freshman classes, specifically the 20 percent of students who are not successful in those classes the first time through.

The regents were handed syringes with no needles and asked to pull the syringe to 50 milliliters, put their thumbs on the openings and press the plunger as hard as they could in order to test the concept of Boyle’s law. A clicker question came up on the screen asking about the relationship of volume and pressure in the syringe, so the regents clicked away.

Natural sciences senior lecturer Cynthia LaBrake gave a portion of the lecture and joked that she could use the i>Clickers to tell which regents had not answered at all. LaBrake said the course transformation program gets students engaged so the big classrooms of 300 to 500 students feel smaller and students improve their ability to transfer knowledge to other classes.

“Rather than have the students learn a list of chemistry principles, we want them to be able to apply them and be able to apply the skill,” LaBrake said.

The regents went through several more questions in which they had to hypothesize the answer without testing it out on the syringe. The regents did not jump at the chance to “participate,” but natural sciences associate professor David Vandenbout said during the process of quizzing, students generally share their reasoning for choosing a given answer.

“At this point, everybody is nailing it,” Vandenbout said.

Several regents were interested in the negative student feedback, and Vandenbout said a lot of responsibility is placed on independent learning. He said a big complaint is testing students on information from the online component of the course that the professor did not directly cover in class.

“They somehow think we’ve placed a big burden on them,” Vandenbout said.

Another issue for the chemistry course is the change from tests in multiple choice form to tests in short answer, explanatory form.

“They’ve taken a lot of multiple choice tests,” Vandenbout said. “Now they’re lost, because they just memorized what the answer was.”

Land Deals

The regents gave the University permission to pursue buying the land where Schlotzsky’s restaurant sits at 1907 Guadalupe St. The University recently reached a multimillion dollar deal with Players restaurant, Schlotzsky’s neighbor, on West Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard. The University plans to use the land for an expansion for the McCombs School of Business.


MyEdu CEO and Chairman Michael Crosno addressed the regents about new efforts for the interactive degree planning website and mistakes the company has made since finalizing the $10 million partnership with the UT System Oct. 18. Crosno did not discuss the familial connection between a MyEdu corporate executive and a former UT System chancellor. Crosno touched on faculty’s role in the site’s implementation, but he did not specify about faculty concern regarding the comments section of MyEdu.

“Here’s the thing we didn’t understand,” Crosno said. “You cannot do this by just bringing in students alone. MyEdu had the wrong message and the wrong approach.”

He said the company is focusing on making credit management easier as students plan their degrees around prerequisite classes.

“It’s a disaster out there,” he said. “Try to be a student and manage your classes.”