Chemistry, Contingency Planning

Micro-structuring students’ learning with SMARTS

Much of our interaction with students involves structuring their work as they move through a curriculum. The very presence of a timetable is a headline structure, telling students when they will hear content on particular topics, when they will discuss it in class, and when they will work in labs. Much of my own work is focussed on micro-structuring – that is to say structuring at School level but with consideration of individual student actions. For example, in labs and tutorials, we’ve had a lot of success with structuring students work before, during, and after contact time. This means students know what they need to focus on at particular stages, and where it all fits in the bigger picture. It’s a really valuable approach both in helping students navigate as they are learning, but also in fostering independence (the end point of structuring being, naturally, unstructured, but in a structured way…#meta). There is lots of stuff about self-efficacy wrapped up in this as well.


In an online/remote/hybrid(ised)/pivoted teaching, a lot of structures of the physical space disappear, and are replaced with overarching VLE structures. Structuring at the next level down, or what we can consider as the student perspective becomes very challenging. How are students meant to navigate materials; how do they know how they are getting on (self-efficacy alarm bells); and how are they connecting with others in the class? Will students know a topic is difficult are just think they are not able to do this course?

In planning for this, the protocol of first thinking about getting the content sorted and then planning the student interaction with the content is doomed from the start. Yes, we will want students to achieve certain things after our course and we will have in mind “content” that we want to expose them to so that we can achieve this. But instead of thinking of the “delivery” of materials, we would be better placed in planning it from the student journey through the materials.


My own experience from in-person structuring has led to coming up with the following six considerations, which I am naming the SMARTS ProtocolTM… So let’s Get SMARTS!

  1. Structured: the online journey should be highly structured and visible from the outset. If you have ever learned online (or even done 12.2% of a MOOC), you will know that the entire experience is highly structured – you can see at a glance the overall structure as well as how components are structured.
  2. Meaningful: meaningful learning theory is based on students consciously making meaningful connections between new knowledge presented and their existing (prior) knowledge and it seems to me that explicitly supporting this is extremely important in online settings. In writing about learning, Novak himself was pretty scathing about very high performing students in his own institution: “…This inability to transfer knowledge is sometimes referred to as ‘situated learning’. Thus much of this high ‘achievement’ is really fraudulent or inauthentic…”. It is not the purpose here to elaborate on meaningful learning in detail (see Novak in general terms and Bretz for chemistry), but the key take-away for me is that if students must consciously choose to engage in learning in a meaningful way, we need to guide and support that choice. For example, using advanced organisers to structure new content and explicitly link it to what has gone before will help students engage with the activities associated with the new materials.
  3. Active: active learning is grounded in meaningful learning theory. At a superficial level, this can require actions that denote progress; tick to say you’ve watched this video, etc, but clearly as we move to more advanced levels of thinking, incorporating active learning approaches into our online teaching will be necessary to allow students do sense-checking (e.g. quizzing, Q+A, discussing), sense-making (e.g. discussing, reviewing, writing), and sense-owning (e.g. writing, solving). Structuring activities into what might be called online tutorials will be vital.
  4. Routine: Within an overall structure, the cycles (e.g. weekly cycles) should form a regular pattern or routine. It helps build a pattern if students know the general cycle of what is coming for each sub-topic. Again taking a MOOC or doing an Open University course can be very informative to show how cycles can be developed (see here for a nice recent paper on the design and implementation of a chemistry MOOC).
  5. Trackable: Something more controversial – we need to be able to track how students are getting on and follow up as needed. This is reasonably straight-forward in even a (not particularly fantastic) VLE, by tracking last date of log in, quiz performance, discussion board viewings, and following up as desired. This is murky – because you might have a very active lurker who is learning a lot, and a very active contributor who isn’t learning very much. In a discussion board paper I wrote an aeon ago, I tried to categorise the four types of discussion board interactions along these lines, and tracking approaches will likely need to distinguish between them, with appropriate follow up based on the category. In a (not particularly fantastic) VLE, you can set up automatic alerts, but this probably needs a lot of human intervention.
  6. Social: A critical thing for obvious reasons and more. Highly structured activities involving (and requiring) social interactions will be important. In the looming headache that is online labs, a potential opportunity is using online labs to foster bigger group interactions instead of the usual pairing. But as mentioned in the above discussion board paper, fostering an online community is more than the academic components – setting out hopes, fears, and expectations for example is a good way to set the scene from the start that the online discussion is a place where a learning community can feel comfortable, and where the academic is “present”. Managing the social aspect is an enormous demand on time and resource.

I would very much welcome thoughts. Note that this piece is not considering assessment (purposefully) but (I think) I am aware that what we ask students to do regarding assessment will drive much of how we do the above. But here I wanted to focus on what we could do.

Chemistry, Contingency Planning

Helping students manage “The 48 Hours” assessment period

Our exams begin next week, and our focus this week is getting students ready for managing themselves and their academic performance in the exam period. Two key issues from the student perspective are understanding what that 48 hours looks like for them, and giving strong guidance on keeping focussed in their exam answers. A problem with 48 hours is that it is two sleeps, not one, and we want to push a strong message of keeping up a regular and healthy pattern of sleeping and eating over the exam period, with clear advice and directions if students are looking for help. This post is the complement of the Students’ Study Guide shared at the start of this process.

We’ve made the guide shown, and the text is below, available to anyone who might find it a useful basis for their own setting.

Text of document:

Getting ready for the exam period

In advance of the exam period, use the following checklists to ensure you are prepared in advance.

What will you need to complete the assessment?

  • Notes and other resources you want to have available to you;
  • Pens, paper, calculator, model kits, etc;
  • Food and drink that you want to have available.

Do you know how the assessment interface works?

  • Watch the explainer video;
  • Try out the Mock Exam site on Learn and make sure you know how to submit your answers;
  • If you are not sure, ask!

 Be proactive in looking after yourself

  • Eating, staying hydrated, and sleeping regularly will help you keep routines;
  • Stay in touch with friends and family;
  • Sketch out a rough timetable of what the exam period looks like for you (down time, time on assessment, sleeping/eating time);
  • Inform people you live with or who rely on you when you plan to be working on the assessment to try to minimise disturbance;
  • Remember this is not a sprint— pace yourself!

Check in with your Personal Tutor in advance of the examination period if you want to talk through your preparations or have any questions about the assessment process.

During the 48 hour period

For any technical or process queries, or if you have a query during the exam period, contact:


This email is monitored during office hours (UK time) by the Teaching Office staff, IT staff, the Director of Teaching, and the Senior Personal Tutor.

Managing your time and yourself

  • While you have 48 hours, each assessment should only take up to 3 hours to complete.
  • Even though it is open-book, it is understandable that you may be nervous—especially with the first exam—take your time and work methodically;
  • Keep in touch with friends and family. You can discuss anything except the exam!
  • Ensure you eat and sleep regularly.

Be proactive in managing your well-being during exam period is important. Make sure you eat regular meals and stay hydrated.

 Completing the assessment

  • Take time to read through the exam paper, noting questions you are going to work on;
  • Write out your answers clearly;
  • You may consult notes, books, lecture captures, etc, but everything you write must be in your own words and in your own hand;
  • Remember to answer the question asked. Lots of unnecessary information will indicate a poor understanding of what is being asked;
  • If you have any questions during the exam, email _______________ who will be invigilating during office hours (UK time). You may not contact academic staff during the 48-hour period about exam questions.
  • Only submit the number of questions asked for, and take a break before the next exam.

Even though it is open-book, the techniques are the same. Take your time, work methodically, and focus on answering the questions asked.

Answers to 12 Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What will be covered on each exam?

Exams will have identical format to previous years. The lecture courses covered in each exam are detailed in the “Assessment Details” links on the exams contingency page.

  1. How do I access my exam paper?

Papers are made available 24 hours in advance of the start time on a dedicated Learn site for each exam. You may download the paper in advance if you wish, in preparation for opening it at the start of the exam.

  1. How do I open my exam paper?

At 1 PM on the day of the exam, a password to open the exam paper will be emailed to the class group. Use this password to open the file. The password will also be added to the exam paper site.

  1. Do I need graph paper?

We are assuming that all students have plain paper, pens, calculator, and a mobile phone. Therefore if questions ask for graphs, you may sketch them on plain paper. Do not use pencil.

  1. Can I use figures from books or internet?

All work on the exam answer must be in your hand. While you can consult other sources, you must draw or sketch it in your own hand. This includes chemical reactions and mathematical expressions.

  1. Can I use MS Word/ChemDraw?

If you wish to compile your answers on MS Word, you may use Word to type answer text and add in chemical reactions, plots, drawings, etc that you have drawn. However, you cannot use ChemDraw, Excel, or equivalent to submit answers requiring drawing/plotting. These must be in your own hand. You should check the readability of your PDF before submitting.

  1. What if I have a question during the exam?

In normal exams, students ask invigilators questions and these are relayed to academic staff members. For open-book assessments, the exam will be invigilated during office hours by the email __________________. You may not communicate with academic staff about an exam during the 48 hour period. After that period, staff cannot discuss marking or answers to exams until after the Exam Board.

  1. I am concerned about my health/well-being—who do I contact?

We recommend that you contact Chris Mowat if you can. If you prefer, you may contact your Personal Tutor, but they will not be allowed to discuss any topic relating to the examination.

  1. How much should I write?

You should write enough to ensure that you have answered the question asked. A key skill being assessed in this exam is how well you focus your answers on what is being asked, so writing a lot of additional and unnecessary information is poor practice, and may indicate that you do not understand the content.

  1. I am concerned about plagiarism—what am I allowed to do?

The key message is that you should submit answers to questions that only you have written, and are based only on your thoughts. You may consult with other resources (notes, books, internet resources including lecture captures), but you should not copy these word for word. Anything you submit must be written by you, or drawn by you. You should not discuss the exam with anyone else, neither the academic content, nor the “easiness” or “hardness” of an exam—to do so is unfair on others. Full details of the Code of Conduct as they relate to open-book assessments are overleaf. If you have any concerns, contact Michael Seery.

  1. Can I do more than the required number of answers?

No—you may only submit the required number of answers. If you submit more, the required number will be selected randomly.

  1. How do I know you have received my answers?

For each answer you submit, you will receive an email confirming receipt. If you resubmit an answer, this will override your previous submission, and you will receive a new receipt. Check your email receipts tally with what you expect.

Chemistry, Contingency Planning, Laboratory

Compilation of COVID-19 Contingency Posts

I’ve received quite a lot of correspondence about the recent spate of posts and am very glad sharing my own thoughts has been helpful. I’ve listed all COVID-response posts below for convenicence and will update as new ones are added.

I’ve broken them into two themes – Teaching Planning (from a whole-School perspective) and Moving Labs Online.

Teaching Planning

Managing and recovering from serious interruption to teaching

This post was the first in the series, looking at the four stages we are working through from interruption to return to normalcy – currently at the end of stage 3…!

Supporting student study in the “pivot” online

This post looked at how we were helping students adjust to new reality and get their focus back on study, with study prompts and guidance for preparing for a new type of assessment (48 hour open book exams). In addition, some messages regarding student support – see my colleague Chris Mowat’s blog for more detail on this. The text of the handout written is available for reuse.

Five approaches to help students manage information during COVID-19

Chris and I summarised five headline approaches around helping students for thos who haven’t much time to read anything else. It is hosted on Edinburgh’s Teaching Matters blog.

Managing the Open Book Process

This post looked at how we are managing the open book assessment process, in terms of logistics and also how we inform students about the technical aspects.

Guidance for students on helping manage “The 48 Hours” assessment period

This post shares the guide we have developed for students to help them focus on managing their health and well-being for the assessment period. Text of guide available if anyone wants to reuse it.

Micro-structuring student learning with SMARTS

This post looks at issues to consider in planning an online course.

Moving Labs Online

What is an “online chemistry lab”?

This post looks at what it is we mean by online labs, and surfaces some considerations as we all think about online lab teaching.

Moving a (physical) chemistry lab online

This post builds on the previous one, looking at some nitty gritty detail on what it would mean to move an advanced lab class online.

Moving early undergraduate chemistry labs online

This post looks at early undergrad labs, and starts to build something more tangible in terms of how to deliver an lab class based on making claims and seeking further data.

“Two Travellers”, Jack B. Yeats (Tate)
Chemistry, Contingency Planning, Laboratory

Moving early undergraduate chemistry labs online

The last post discussed an advanced physical chemistry lab, and in this one I want to summarise more concrete plans for how we can move an early undergraduate lab online.

The key thing for us at early undergrad stage is teaching chemical technique, and getting students to think about recording data and drawing conclusions from experiments. An important factor is that at this stage, students probably expect that they will be learning about technique. Coming into university from school, their perception will be that they want to learn about chemical techniques, and lots of them.

A problem I have summarised in previous posts as the “swipey-wipe” effect rears its head here. A typical online lab involves students doing a simulation of sorts, getting information from that simulation, and writing up the report. While this likely has some benefit in terms of data processing, I am not sure how much it teaches about experimental technique, because a lot of simulations don’t reflect the tangible reality of laboratory work.

Anyway with resolution rather than confusion on my mind for this post, I’m going to get straight to the template envisaged. This is heavily influenced by Joi Walker’s poster presented at CLEAR20 last week, as well as Lukas Kroos/Nicole Graulich’s poster on decision-making in experimental procedures – using video of those procedures (both posters available on the CLEAR website). All academic credit goes to the work reported by those researchers, and I have linked to papers by Joi below.

Joi Walker’s work is based on getting students to make an academic argument and reason it with evidence. So instead of getting students to play with a simulation and generate data off the bat, I am proposing that we have a lab template that:

  1. Presents students with some data from a described experiment. There should be sufficient data there for students to make a claim.
  2. Students’ first task is to make a claim, based on the evidence presented. If you zoom in really close on Joi’s poster, you’ll see a whiteboard there on how she structures that (what is the guiding question; what is the claim, what is the argument presented; what is the evidence for that argument).
  3. Once students have made their claim, their next task is to decide what further evidence they need to support the claim. It is at this point where we might unleash a simulation on students. I personally prefer video (or at least photos of the real set-up) and Lukas’ poster from CLEAR shows a really exciting way of making that interactive – I am greedy for more on that work.
  4. We somehow provide students with data based on their required further experiment. Students need to use the videos provided to describe the experimental procedure – how they would do the experiment in reality if they were in the lab. This is a way to get students to meaningfully engage with any procedure videos etc we share.
  5. Students add in the data from the “experiment” with the data they were provided, and review their claim. Their discussion outlines whether their claim was supported or not by the additional evidence.
  6. The writing up and presentation of the work needs some further thought (by me). Joi shared some lovely peer-review work, and Marcy Towns, who spoke at CLEAR, outlined a similar approach based around “Claim-Evidence-Reasoning”, which involved some peer review work (recording of that presentation is online next week).

I think this approach ticks a lot of boxes for me. It removes the “game” aspect of doing a simulation to get some data just for the sake of it, and instead turns it into a meaningful activity, with some in-depth considerations by students of experimental procedure, but also a taster about experimental design, and in making judgements on data. It’s also feasible. (Of course after teaching students online, once we get them back in the laboratory, we will be cram-packing in intensive laboratory competencies.)

Example in practice

To do a run through feasibility, I am thinking of some of our early year experiments. Obviously this more suited to general/physical chemistry labs, but one I had in mind was the typical iodine clock kinetics experiment. We could share some data based on some initial concentrations, which could allow students to either deduce the order or reaction, or require just one more piece of the jigsaw. They could make a claim and seek further data to either confirm the order or get the additional data. It would be easy to integrate existing videos we have about the iodine clock, and easy to auto-generate data based on student requests.

The reporting and assessment side of things needs a bit more thought, but I’m certainly happier about this kind of level of laboratory than I am when I finished writing the advanced lab post! In fact it really appeals as it means we can use this as a process to review our current early year lab offering and improve them to include argumentation for future iterations in person or online.

Check out Joi Walker’s publications on ADI:

Sampson, V., Grooms, J., & Walker, J. P. (2011). Argument‐Driven Inquiry as a way to help students learn how to participate in scientific argumentation and craft written arguments: An exploratory study. Science Education95(2), 217-257.

Walker, J. P., Sampson, V., & Zimmerman, C. O. (2011). Argument-driven inquiry: An introduction to a new instructional model for use in undergraduate chemistry labs. Journal of Chemical Education88(8), 1048-1056.

Chemistry, Contingency Planning, Laboratory, Pedagogy

Moving a (physical) chemistry lab online

The last post discussed some epistemological considerations (roll with it) on moving chemistry labs online, sharing some concerns about trying to teach technique via fancy swipey-wipe interactions (roll with it).This one aims to be a bit more grounded. If we were to move a lab online, what might it look like? I am going to go through my first draft of thinking for moving a physical chemistry lab online below. The headline considerations for me are:

(1) not to create busy work for the student for the sake of it;

(2) some bits of lab work aren’t really that great, so let’s not try to just replicate; and in complement,

(3) when we are all back in the actual lab again sometime in 2027, maybe there are some bits of this online malarkey that would actually be quite useful to keep in place.

In other words, my focus is not on replication, but on looking to build a decent learning experience.

Let’s flash!

My prototype experiment is a pretty standard one on flash photolysis of azobenzenes, built on the experiments described nicely in this J Chem Ed paper. We use this as a basis for an experiment in our third year, and this is the year we focus on teaching experimental design, using our “unfinished recipe” approach. That is to say, students do a recipe lab to get used to the experiment, the kinds of experimental protocols, and data outputs, and then follow this up with a non-trivial investigation based on the kinds of things they learned in the first part. Our “Part 2” is based on the recent paper described here; it asks students to explore pH effects, and if they are really good, to go hunting for a transient.

I like this experiment because it is based on photochemistry – enough said? But also it is a good one for students to pull a lot of what they already know – kinetic analysis, simple techniques (UV/vis in kinetics mode), cis­-trans isomerisation, etc – and apply it to a new analysis (for them). The experimental technique, while reasonably straight-forward, requires a bit of black art at times, and you see students who will get really good traces and those who get not so great ones, just based on some timings when they actually do the experiment. I want students to get things like considering timelines for experimental measurement (my homage to Porter), working with trickier kinetic decay curves, and making reasonable judgements about mechanisms from their data. For students who want to push a little more, hunting for the transient based on the information from the Larsen paper is a good trip to go on.

Moving online

Now I know at some point I should write down all the learning outcomes I want but I am not going to do that because it is just too much of a pain. Instead I want to frame my online lab in terms of technical competence and syntactical knowledge. Just a little more detail on what I mean by those are in the previous post, but it will become apparent below if you can’t be bothered to go back to that.

1. Technical competency

As mentioned I don’t really see much point in going down the road of trying to recreate a simulation of the experiment online. They do exist for flash photolysis, and again I make no judgement on these, but my own purpose here is to take students through an actual experiment and understand how they would complete a task to obtain the data they will be presented with. A cost of moving online necessitates, I believe, an acceptance that we cannot teach experimental technique as well as we could do in person. So what can we do? We do have videos of our experimental techniques, made in our labs. At the very least, we could show these videos?

This seems a bit unsatisfactory, and very passive. I want students to really think through the procedure; live through the considerations that they might have to make in practice. Key ones here are the solution concentration (a desirable absorbance of < 0.2 at max) and the kerfuffle of getting a flash (we use an old camera flash) and recording the subsequent decay. The first is reasonably routine – we could provide students with an absorbance spectrum of the stock and ask them what they wanted to do with it; the second is impossible to role-play – simulation or not. Therefore I am thinking of getting students to critique the procedure as presented in the video. This seems like a sensible way to get them to really think through it. Our procedure could be improved, no doubt, in parts, and a nice task for students would be to talk about how they might do that. This is an example of how I think we might actually improve the status quo, and this critique can feed into some discussion later (for example how different events in this photochemical process might be studied).

2. Syntactical knowledge

The complex learning framework that I use to guide my own thinking on labs aims to describe a lab environment in terms of what students need to draw together when completing laboratory work – the combination of, in this case, knowledge of kinetics and analysis, understanding of photochemistry principles and timelines, knowledge of using the UV/vis spectrometer and application of the combination to address a laboratory-based problem. In simple terms, I do not want to use this lab to teach kinetics, but want students to bring their kinetics knowledge to this environment and apply it alongside their other relevant knowledge and experimental skills to address a laboratory-based problem.

How do we move this online?

I think to answer this I need to write out what the component bits are in each stage of the experiment, so that I can see what it is students are “drawing together”.

In part 1 of the experiment, the focus is really on training about the approach:

  • Running each of the solvents in turn (toluene, cyclohexane, acetone), including one at a range of temperatures and extracting kinetic data;
  • Curve-fitting to obtain rate constants, and in one case Arrhenius parameters;
  • Data presentation and interpretation (in terms of mechanism)

This is all pretty routine, but drawing together in an online version means, along with the technical aspects described above, students will need to be given data to run through the processing, and present some summary findings about what this means in terms of the mechanism (essentially a discussion based on polarity). Do we simulate this data based on some student prompts, or do we just give them some data sets? I don’t know yet, but I would like the former. I’d like them to think also about data quality and what might be affecting it.

In part 2 of the experiment, students have to design a pH study of a water-soluble azobenzene, and if they wish, go transient-huntin’ (unlike the Larsen article, we generate point-by-point spectra). This means they need to plan out things like:

  • Deciding on what pH range to study and how to prepare those concentrations ((un)surprisingly this is a pretty major challenge for students);
  • Repeating the analysis for solutions at different pH
  • Exploring different wavelengths beyond the bleaching peak to see if they can find transient
  • Comparing transient and bleaching kinetics

This second part is much more student-driven, and takes them a lot of time in the lab normally just to even scope it out. So in moving this online, I’d like to replicate that – we really want them to think through experimental design. Online, this might need more guidance and dialogue stages; prompt first thoughts on the overall scope – what will the purpose of a pH study be based on what they know from the first part of the experiment (polarity dependence); how could they go about making a study; what are the technical aspects of that (pHs, concentrations, etc); how might they find transients; what would a comparison of transients mean. I can see this working out quite nicely (in my head!) but wonder about how that dialogue would be managed with ~150 students so that each gets to have their own input into “their” experiment. That consideration (workload of demonstrators aside, albeit hugely significant in terms of what can actually happen) is why I think simulated data would be good.


Another significant issue is that of assessment. We could of course continue with the major report we expect of students from these two-part experiments – they are beneficial in preparing students for later pieces of major writing such as their thesis. A concern is that if we need to engage students a lot more in dialogue on the way, they will already be putting quite a lot of work into this – so we need to capture that in what would previously have been a lab mark. Also, I think I would like to hear from students as well; especially in relation to their understanding of the technique and how it works. Perhaps there is scope for that, through an online presentation, and that this would, in some small way, make up for the lack of completion of the experiment. “Category is: explain flash photolysis with 5 pieces of Lego…” Now that would be an improvement on the status quo!

Oh dear – so much to do… And this is only one experiment!