Peer Led Recitations for General Chemistry

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The Peer Led Recitation Program in Chemistry

Every semester, freshman students taking General Chemistry receive additional tuition in the form of recitations. The instructors are fellow CCNY undergraduates in upper years with proven abilities in these courses, These mature and experienced recitation leaders are often the best tutors because they are City College students, have taken the exact same course themselves, and are highly motivated, caring and driven. They serve as excellent role models for the freshman, who can self-identify with these recitation leaders, and in many cases picture themselves doing the job – taking the role of mentor - in the coming years. The recitations are therefore a very strong force for building community amongst the incoming year, while also putting them in touch with juniors and seniors who are willing to share their experiences and insight. In turn the juniors and seniors improve their academic skills and build their resume. Beyond the subject matter of chemistry, the recitations are an invaluable source of training for our freshman. They improve chemistry skills, but also help individuals become accustomed to the university learning environment. Especially the concept of teaching yourself.

A problem faced by The City College of New York, and many other schools attempting to embrace a wide community of hopeful scholars with a diverse array of backgrounds, is attrition. General Chemistry is typically a gatekeeper course to STEM for which a higher than desirable outcome for students is DFWI (grades of D and F, withdrawals, and incompletes).1 A long standing goal is improved retention.2,3 Key to the success of the program is maintaining small class sizes to promote engagement and active learning.7

The PLR program, an active learning environment,4 is consistent with established views on methods to modernize and improve STEM education, especially when striving for diversity, equity and inclusion. Achievement gaps between well-represented and underrepresented students have been called one of the most urgent and intractable problems in higher education.5 There are now published studies from around the United States, that show how many “at-risk” students (those who might drop out of college) are from low income or ethnically diverse backgrounds for which the expectation of going to college or completing a degree is not a given.2,5,6 And therefore these at-risk students begin their college experience by assuming they don’t belong. A low grade or failed exam within the freshman year might be sufficient confirmation bias for them to drop out, whereas, in actual fact, persistence and reorientation towards college studying habits is required. Professors are not always the right role models for initiating this change of mindset, due to the generation gap, or their typical profile/background. Peer group students who have gone through the ritual of the first semester and “survived”, with whom incoming students can self-identify, make excellent role models. Peer group students can also be realistic about the College culture, offering candid advice about how to navigate the unfamiliar waters.

Continuing our commitment to PLR

We never have problems finding PLR instructors, but the program costs money. We are seeking to pay each instructor a modest stipend. Semester enrollments in General Chemistry I and II can mean that the PLR program is catering to 1000 students per semester. We are always in need of support of this invaluable program.

CUNY Sponsored Assessment of the Peer Led Recitations Program During the Pandemic

(using class anonymous poll n = 134)

Attendance: Recitation attendance was high: in class polling revealed that 85% of the students who were enrolled in Chemistry 103 and 104 only missed between 0-4 recitations over the entire academic year 2020-2021 (57% of students polled did not miss a single session). For the remainder, 13% maintained their attendance but missed 5 or more recitations, and 2% did not respond.

Learning:  Students strongly supported the benefits of weekly recitations; 78% of students agreed or strongly agreed that recitation leaders helped them understand lecture material and solve chemistry problems; while 73% agreed or strongly agreed that recitation leaders helped them gained problem solving skills to succeed with the challenging online homework system ALEKS.

Engagement: In a setting of ~25 enrolled per section, students were given the opportunity to collaborate with their peers and use interactive technologies to solve problems. 57% reported that they were able to collaborate effectively with their classmates in an online setting, whereas 74% reported that they routinely used interactive technologies to participate in the problem-solving process during recitation.

Goal met: Students were strongly supportive of the ability of recitation leaders to help them gain the necessary conceptual and problem-solving skills to succeed in the course. Recitation leaders were encouraged to use iclicker polling and breakout rooms in the online setting to enhance active engagement with the material and support peer learning.  The survey suggests that there is an opportunity to implement active learning and peer engagement space even more extensively in the future, regardless of teaching modality. Maintaining a small enrollment also facilitates student engagement.  Student attendance was routinely excellent and implies that students find recitation to be a useful component of the course. 


The PLR program is an embodiment of Peer-led team learning (PLTL), a model of teaching undergraduate science, math, and engineering courses that introduces peer-led workshops.8,9 PLTL was originally created by faculty at The City College of New York in an effort to address the low success rate of students in General Chemistry.10 Peer-led Workshops were incorporated into the teaching of General Chemistry, and the number of lecture hours were reduced. Results over the years at The City College of New York and other collaborating institutions indicated improved student attitudes and performance in General Chemistry. A recent review of research on PLTL and closely related peer-led learning formats found that published studies representing courses at over twenty institutions have demonstrated an average increase of 15% A, B, or C scores as a fraction of the initially enrolled students, compared to the traditional lecture format. There are now multiple indications of its success. See for instance key studies in Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science, and Engineering,11–14 The PLTL leadership was recognized by the James Flack Norris Award for Outstanding Achievement in Teaching Chemistry in 2008. PLTL is consistent with social constructivism and the learning philosophies of L. S. Vygotsky in that students are asked to construct their own understanding with guidance from a more capable peer, learning within the zone of proximal development.


(1)       Bancroft, S. F.; Fowler, S. R.; Jalaeian, M.; Patterson, K. Leveling the Field: Flipped Instruction as a Tool for Promoting Equity in General Chemistry. J. Chem. Educ. 2020, 97 (1), 36–47.

(2)       Hall, D. M.; Curtin-Soydan, A. J.; Canelas, D. A. The Science Advancement through Group Engagement Program: Leveling the Playing Field and Increasing Retention in Science. J. Chem. Educ. 2014, 91 (1), 37–47.

(3)       Johnson, A. F.; Nord, R. Gateways to Completion: Reconceptualizing General Chemistry i to Enhance Student Success at Eastern Michigan University. ACS Symp. Ser. 2019, 1341, 13–31.

(4)       Freeman, S.; Eddy, S. L.; McDonough, M.; Smith, M. K.; Okoroafor, N.; Jordt, H.; Wenderoth, M. P. Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 2014, 111 (23), 8410–8415.

(5)       Harris, R. B.; Mack, M. R.; Bryant, J.; Theobald, E. J.; Freeman, S. Reducing Achievement Gaps in Undergraduate General Chemistry Could Lift Underrepresented Students into a “Hyperpersistent Zone.” Sci. Adv. 2020, 6 (24), 1–9.

(6)       Yeager, D. S.; Purdie-Vaughns, V.; Garcia, J.; Apfel, N.; Brzustoski, P.; Master, A.; Hessert, W. T.; Williams, M. E.; Cohen, G. L. Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback across the Racial Divide. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 2014, 143 (2), 804–824.

(7)       Lyon, D. C.; Lagowski, J. J. Effectiveness of Facilitating Small-Group Learning in Large Lecture Classes. A General Chemistry Case Study. J. Chem. Educ. 2008, 85 (11), 1571–1576.

(8)       Frey, R. F.; Fink, A.; Cahill, M. J.; McDaniel, M. A.; Solomon, E. D. Peer-Led Team Learning in General Chemistry I: Interactions with Identity, Academic Preparation, and a Course-Based Intervention. J. Chem. Educ. 2018, 95 (12), 2103–2113.

(9)       Gosser, D. K.; Roth, V. The Workshop Chemistry Project: Peer-Led Team Learning. J. Chem. Educ. 1998, 75 (2), 185–187.

(10)     Lewis, S. E.; Lewis, J. E. Departing from Lectures: An Evaluation of a Peer-Led Guided Inquiry Alternative. J. Chem. Educ. 2005, 82 (1), 135–139.

(11)     Hockings, S. C.; DeAngelis, K. J.; Frey, R. F. Peer-Led Team Learning in General Chemistry: Implementation and Evaluation. J. Chem. Educ. 2008, 85 (7), 990–996.

(12)     Wamser, C. C. Peer-Led Team Learning in Organic Chemistry: Effects on Student Performance, Success, and Persistence in the Course. J. Chem. Educ. 2006, 83 (10), 1562–1566.

(13)     Horwitz, S.; Rodger, S. H. Using Peer-Led Team Learning to Increase Participation and Success of under-Represented Groups in Introductory Computer Science. SIGCSE’09 - Proc. 40th ACM Tech. Symp. Comput. Sci. Educ. 2009, 163–167.

(14)     Loui, M. C.; Robbins, B. A.; Johnson, E. C.; Venkatesan, N. Assessment of Peer-Led Team Learning in an Engineering Course for Freshmen. Int. J. Eng. Educ. 2013, 29 (6), 1440–1455.

Last Updated: 02/15/2022 21:12