How prepared do students feel for college chemistry? And how accurate are their perceptions?

Title: The transition to first year chemistry: student, secondary and tertiary educator’s perceptions of student preparedness
Authors: Elizabeth Leong, Agnes Mercer, Stephen M. Danczak, Sara H. Kyne and Christopher D. Thompson Journal: Chemistry Education Research and Practice
Year: 2021

Featured image from Pixabay free-use image collection


      General chemistry is often one of the first science classes students interested in the chemical or biological sciences take. Because the course is challenging, many students find it a barrier to be overcome. To probe what attributes impact student success in the course, researchers from Monash University in Australia recently studied the students’ feelings of preparedness throughout the semester as well has the feelings of secondary and tertiary educators regarding what aspects of the transition to college chemistry challenged students.

            Researchers first asked students how prepared they felt for college chemistry on a five point Likert scale. Of the 1504 students in the class, 804 filled out the pre-semester survey about their feelings of preparedness. On average, students felt more prepared than not and tended to cluster around rating their preparation between “average” and “prepared.” Female students rated themselves as less prepared on average than did male students and students with prior chemistry experience felt more prepared than those without that preparation. Additionally, a subset of enrolled students took a more advanced chemistry course as their first college chemistry course. These students felt more prepared than students in the regular track, possibly because they had more prior chemistry experience.

            Students were again asked to fill out retrospective surveys assessing their preparedness at the end of the semester. 277 students filled out this survey, including 178 who had filled out the pre-semester survey. In general, students felt more prepared retrospectively than they had looking forward at the beginning of the semester. However, students did not unanimously feel more prepared; 37.6% felt more prepared, 20.2% less so, and 42.1% didn’t report a change in their level or perceived preparation. Breaking down the data by demographics, however, showed that female students and students who had previously attended private schools did experience gains in their perceived preparation.

When looking at perceived preparation levels relative to students’ final grades, many students appeared to have started the term out underconfident, with 45% of students who get the second highest available grade and 35% who received the highest available grade having reported they were either “unprepared” or “very unprepared.” Additionally, 6% of students who said they were “average” or “prepared” seemingly overestimated their preparation and went on to fail the class. In general, however, students who initially felt more prepared ultimately performed better in the course.

            The researchers also surveyed both high school and college instructors about how prepared students were for college chemistry and what aspects of the course they were expected to struggle with the most. High school teachers generally rated their students’ preparation more highly than college professors, and identified  the difficulty of the content covered in general chemistry and the need to develop independent study skills as aspects of the course likely to be particularly challenging for students. Tertiary-level instructors identified difficulties related to personal-management and motivation as barriers for students’ success. In focus groups, students themselves identified difficulties first with the material and secondarily with study skills as challenges. Lab skills were also occasionally identified as a challenge.

            In light of this data, the researchers recommend further research into what  factors led to greater feelings of preparation in students in the advanced chemistry courses as well as male students. They also suggest deliberately teaching metacognitive skills to help them develop the study skills and motivation the were listed as obstacles by students and instructors. Finally, they suggest helping students identify the reasons they feel unprepared and address possible difficulties at the beginning of the semester.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *