test tubes with pipette

Building Online Chemistry: Interview with Lori Sonntag

We’ve all had to adapt to changes brought on by the pandemic. I was curious how the Chemistry department was able to to handle the move to online learning, especially when dealing with larger lab classes. I asked Senior Lab Instructor Lari Sonntag for her insights and she generously shared her expertise, providing details on how her courses made the transition.

Key Insights from Lori

  • When the Moodle page is set up correctly, it runs seamlessly for students and instructors, making life easier for all.
  • Using Moodle groups is the easiest way to manage assignments and grading in multi-section lab courses.
  • Having grades in Moodle makes it easy for everyone to see: professors, lab instructors, and students.

What changes did you have to make in response to the pandemic and what technology did you use to help facilitate the changes?

Before the pandemic, Chemistry lab students handed in hard copies of their report sheets and notebooks. The graders recorded the grades onto paper grade sheets and turned them in to the lab coordinator who manually entered the grades into an Excel spreadsheet. At the end of the semester, the lab coordinator would email the lab grades to the professor of the course. In the lab component of the large chemistry lab courses, Moodle was used just for providing useful documents (such as the lab manual, report sheets, and handouts) and resources for the students (such as GC traces of chemical standards and links to online sites to look up physical constants of organic compounds).

Chem 22 – Spring 2020

For Chem 22 lab after the pandemic hit, labs were taught asynchronously, with the exception of a group lab and presentation. Maria Gallagher recorded her lab lectures on Zoom and uploaded them to the course Moodle page. Lab handouts and other supporting material were posted on Moodle. Students were taught theory and given data for them to analyze for their report sheets. Report sheets were available as assignments that students could upload to Moodle when completed. Since we had 6 lab sections with different due dates, each report sheet was uploaded as an assignment 6 times (Monday Hydroboration report sheet, Tuesday Hydroboration report sheet, etc.) The graders downloaded their lab section’s completed report sheets and sent the grades to the lab coordinator who entered them into her Excel spreadsheet. The gradebook on Moodle was not used.

Chem 10 – Fall 2020

Chem 10 lab had synchronous labs. We had 7 lab sections, 5 lecturers, and 3 lab instructors. The lab students also came from 5 different lecture sections. We had a Moodle page, which was hidden from the students, to coordinate the teaching materials for the 8 member lab instructional team. We also had an individual Moodle page for each lab section. This organization caused some issues that were annoying, but not difficult to solve. Each two week lab had 3 assignments, and these assignments had to be uploaded to each lab section Moodle page (21 uploads! – more if mistakes were discovered and we had to upload corrected versions). The grades were automatically recorded in the individual lab Moodle gradebooks, so the grades had to be exported from the individual gradebooks and imported to the main Moodle course.  Each student was in one lecture section and one lab section, so the gradebook in our main Moodle page was set up with these groups so that the instructors could sort the grades by the lab section or the lecture section.

We used a combination of pedagogical tools for our labs. We had online simulations and videos of instructors performing experiments. In some cases students analyzed the data from the simulations. In other experiments, students were given data sets which they analyzed and graphed on Google sheets.

Chem 22 – Spring 2021

Chem 22 labs are again taught asynchronously, with the exception of one discussion lab and the group lab/presentation. We have computational labs that were created by Paul Rablen and “wet labs”, where students watch videos of instructors performing experiments. Students need to watch the videos to get the data (weights measured, temperatures recorded, etc.) to complete their notebook preparations and report sheets. Maria recorded her lab lectures, where she explains the theory, on Panopto. All materials are posted on Moodle.

I found using groups on Moodle to be convenient and easy, so we set up a single Moodle page for the 6 lab sections for Chem 22. Each assignment was uploaded only once, and I used group overrides to set the different due dates for each lab section. Since I have set up visible groups, the graders find it easy to select and download the completed assignments of their lab section, grade, and upload them again. I also used groupings in Moodle to allow a single report sheet submission for a group project. The only complaints I had from instructors were that they thought uploading assignments using group overrides was too complicated. Our solution was that the instructors emailed me the assignments, and I uploaded all of them.

What changes do you anticipate on keeping after the pandemic is over?

We will be returning to physical notebooks once students return to in person labs, but the consensus among the instructors is that they like having report sheets turned in on Moodle. They also like having the gradebook on Moodle because the professor could just look up a student’s lab grade without having to contact the lab coordinator.

Bob Paley was part of the Chem 22 instructional team, and he found it easy to download his lab section’s assignments, grade them, and upload them and have the grade automatically recorded. He plans to use the same Moodle setup we used in Chem 22 this semester for Chem 32 in Fall 2021 (which will have 5 lab sections).

We will also have a single lab Moodle page for Chem 10 in Fall 2021. Since I am the lab coordinator for this course, I will manage the lab Moodle page as I managed the Chem 22 lab Moodle page this semester.

While I am happy to do the managing of the lab Moodle pages for all the courses I am involved with, I hope to help others in the department learn how to use groups in Moodle. It is by far the easiest way to manage assignments and grading in multi-section lab courses.

Do you have any advice that you’d like to share with other instructional staff?

I find Moodle to be user friendly, but when I do have a problem, searching for the answer on Google is not very helpful. I am not the most computer savvy person, but I could usually figure out how to do what I wanted to do by searching the drop down menus (the gear icons). When the Moodle page is set up correctly, it runs seamlessly for students and instructors, making life easier for all.

Questions? Ideas?

We’d love to talk about ideas for your classes. Get in touch with your Academic Technologist to discuss how we can support your teaching.


Thanks to Lori Sonntag for her time – I hope you have a relaxing summer!

Featured Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay