Passing on the Editor’s pen at CERP

From the start of this month I began my slow fading away as Editor of Chemistry Education Research and Practice and I am delighted to say that involved handing over the reins to Professor Gwen Lawrie, who has taken up the position as Editor in Chief of the journal. It was a very difficult decision to stand down from the journal that I have been working closely with for five years, but the right one for me at this time.

On taking up a position like this, you make mad plans and generate lots of “great ideas”, but in reality it is possible only to achieve what seems in advance a small amount, but I hope in hindsight, some significant progress. For the sake of my own reflections, my main areas of focus were:

  1. Maintain the editorial and intellectual standards of the journal set out by the founding Editors, and greatly enhanced by my predecessor;
  2. Broaden the expertise and representation of the editorial team;
  3. Broaden the reach of the journal in terms of its readership and authorship;
  4. Ensure the ongoing sustainability of the journal as free to access and free to publish, in a modern publishing environment.

I think I can say that – in the words of an Irish political party’s election slogan – there has been “a lot done, more to do”. One of the things I have learned in recent years is that change, even transformational change, comes slowly, and winning over hearts and minds alongside changing systems and processes takes time and a lot of patience!

Journal standards

My first task to maintain standards was an easy one because my predecessor Professor Keith Taber had written a long series of editorials that were very useful in putting concrete guidance into practice. As a series we can point to these editorials in discussions with authors, and the first task in my role was to condense the headline messages in these editorials into a single piece, which became the journal’s definition of scope and quality. We used the opportunity to reassert the journal’s guidance on influencing practice – directly or indirectly, and I hope that articles published under my tenure will continue to influence practice well into the future.

Broaden the editorial team

Maintaining standards as Editor in reality means relying on Associate Editors as they are the ones that do the hard work in handling manuscripts, reviewers, and authors. I inherited Keith’s excellent appointments in the duo of Professor Ajda Kahveci and Professor Scott Lewis. Having this expertise and experience as Associate Editors was a major factor in defeating the imposter syndrome I had on taking up the Editor post. As the journal expanded in terms of submissions, it became apparent that we needed to expand the team, as the workload was becoming higher. I used the opportunity to broaden the diversity among the team in terms of geography, reflecting that CERP is an international journal, and in terms of areas of expertise. Professor Nicole Graulich joined and she brought expertise in organic chemistry education research, as well as representations in chemistry generally, and is also a teacher educator, so complements Ajda’s expertise very well.  Organic chemistry is a very popular topic in submissions and among the readership. We also recruited Professor Gwen Lawrie, who brings a vast amount of experience in chemistry education and research informed practice in a range of international contexts. Gwen brings expertise in a range of research methods and her experience of education research in Australia, and so complementing the Northern hemisphere!

Broadening the reach of the journal

Who “owns” CERP? One of the things I was very conscious of in taking on the role of Editor was that I wanted to broaden CERP’s representation in many ways – those who felt they could read it and those who felt they could publish in it. This is a tight-rope, balancing accessibility with editorial standards, which rightly should be very high. But I knew from conferences I attended and conversations I had that there was a lot of amazing work going on that was not coming onto our radar. Part of the role then was – to use another political term – pressing the flesh; getting out and about and discussing CERP in the community. As someone who is happier sitting back and listening, this was quite a challenge, but I thought it was important to ensure that CERP was seen to be open to conversation and submission. I was amazed at how many conversations I had with people who thought that CERP was “out of reach”, who ended up submitting and publishing very well regarded work.

A parallel to this was the local problem in the UK and Ireland (one dominion in RSC terms) and the low publication rate from this region generally in chemistry education. How could this be – with such a dynamic and vibrant community here?! In 2016, I started the annual MICER conference to talk out issues about the doing of chemistry education research, sharing expertise and generating conversations. I wanted people to be confident in saying: “I am a chemistry education researcher”.

Broadening the ownership of the journal also came under the spotlight in general terms under the RSC review of gender bias in publishing in the chemical sciences. While we do not have granular data for CERP, as Editor I wanted to be sure that we as a journal set out to systemise any changes necessary in eradicating all of the small but incrementing aspects affecting gender biasing. The initial response of the journal was published in an editorial, and the editorial board now has a representative charged with holding the journal to account in this regard.

Sustainability

Perhaps the largest task of my work over the last two years has been work to ensure the sustainability of CERP over the coming years. As a free to access, free to publish journal, CERP is highly unusual, and continues in this form only through the support of the RSC through its Education Division. A few years ago the RSC undertook a governance review of the entire organisation, and as an output of that, there was a responsibility on all aspects of the Society to ensure it was providing good value for the money it was spending. At a local level, this translated into the question: should the Society continue to support CERP to ensure free to access and free to publish? Of course if you ask anyone on the doorsteps (another Irish political phrase) they would tell you that of course CERP is necessary and valuable, but what data could we point to? The purpose of the governance review was to ensure that there was a concrete evidence base to ensure that funding could be justified.

Therefore over the course of the last two years within CERP, we set out to better understand who was using and reading CERP, and what its value was to the community. This transpired to be a very complex question, because of course CERP serves several communities, and those different communities have different needs. The review was completed this year, and I am happy to report that value of the journal was indeed easily justified, and the RSC was secure in its intention to continue to support the journal. With that review completed and sustainability ensured, I was happier to make the decision to pass over the pen to the new Editor, and wish her well. It is so exciting to see where she will take the journal next.

Thanks

In signing off, I would like to thank the Editorial Team – I feel very lucky to be associated with the names Lewis, Kahveci, Graulich, and Lawrie – their expertise, empathy, and work ethic is inspiring. Thanks also to my colleagues in the editorial office for their kind and too frequent reminders to remember to look at “The Queue”. And a final thanks to Professor Loretta Jones, whose prompting and reassurance helped me overcome my imposter syndrome and apply for the role in the first place!

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.

Micro-structuring

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.

Get SMARTS

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.

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.

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)

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.