Customer Story

How A Top Hat Textbook Contributed to a 16% Decrease in DFW Rates


increase in ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades after switching to Top Hat*


increase in positive course evaluations since using Top Hat


decrease in DFW rates after authoring a Top Hat textbook

Jennifer Donovan is shown smiling.

The Challenge

Getting 750+ online learners curious about chemistry

Dr. Jennifer Donovan, Associate Teaching Professor at Arizona State University, teaches Introductory Chemistry to upwards of 750 students each semester in an asynchronous, online format. While a significant portion are keen to learn about molecules and reactions, many of her students are from nursing and other majors seeking to fulfill a mandatory course credit. For Donovan, catering to these differences in motivation ignited a desire to make chemistry engaging and relevant to all students. But with a costly, unwieldy printed textbook serving as the foundation, that was easier said than done.

The text Donovan was initially using posed a number of issues. Beyond the hefty price tag, the information included was expansive. Not only did a lot of material go unused, it didn’t always match up to what she covered in her lectures. As a printed text, customization was out of the question and with it opportunities to inject real-world examples or highlight women and minorities whose contributions to the field have often gone unrecognized. Crucially for an online course, there was also no opportunity to assess student knowledge or to gauge who was completing the readings, and who was falling behind.

Having seen the potential of digital texts, Donovan decided to author her own, an undertaking that would have a dramatic effect on student engagement and success.

The Solution

Authoring a custom Top Hat textbook that takes real-world learning to another level

Donovan wanted to follow best practices in developing her text. This included making learning more relevant by using real-world examples and delivering text in bite-sized chunks interspersed with knowledge checks and multimedia to make learning active. To promote an inclusive learning experience, she also wanted to celebrate the contributions of women and underrepresented communities to mirror the diversity of students taking her course. These guiding principles were woven into the fabric of what would become Donovan’s first Top Hat title, Introductory Chemistry

‘Real world application’ segments scattered throughout chapters help students see the broader significance of chemistry in their daily lives. It could be embedding a simulation that reveals the molecules found in a glass of beer. Or explaining the chemical reaction that bath bombs elicit.

As an added bonus, the real-time insights generated from discussions and homework questions embedded within the text allow Donovan to gauge knowledge gaps at any given moment, and to pinpoint and reach out to struggling students. For a group of students learning at their own pace and without the benefit of in person guidance, it’s made a noticeable difference to belonging and engagement. 

Greater customization has also led to greater representation. Donovan has used her Top Hat text as an opportunity to promote the contributions of women and minorities to various fields within chemistry. You’ll find references to Rosalind Franklin whose work was central to understanding the molecular structure of DNA. And Charles Richard Drew, an African American chemist whose research helped save countless lives by increasing the yields for donated blood. Donovan also incorporates videos exploring the gender gap in STEM fields to highlight the issues and opportunities facing women.

“I had a student reach out after the semester and excitedly explain how their bag of potato chips expanded when they were driving up a mountain. It’s gratifying to know that they are making these connections.”

Jennifer Donovan Associate Teaching Professor of Chemistry at Arizona State University

The Results

Improved grades and lower attrition rates mean greater satisfaction for Donovan and her students

Since authoring her own text, Donovan has seen a profound impact on student retention and performance.

First and foremost, she credits the ability to monitor student performance and customize learning with fun examples to a whopping 16 percent drop in DFW rates (or what ASU refers to as DEW as E denotes failure here). Moreover, the number of students earning ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades increased by 27.7 percent, reflecting her efforts to help students absorb challenging concepts through simulations and videos that bridge theory and practice.

It’s not just about outcomes, either. Further data reveals that students are leaving more positive course evaluations than ever. Since introducing her Top Hat textbook, Donovan has seen the number of positive student reviews increase by 16.9 percent. “Students reach out and say thank you for de-mystifying the subject matter,” she says. “The ability to customize the learning experience with Top Hat and to make it more dynamic definitely led them to those particular comments.”

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