State of the nation

An email the other day reminded me with some cheer that it is 66 days until students return. Remove days for annual leave, weekends, and just wailing hopelessly into the void, that does not leave many days left To Do Things. And there are lots of Things To Do.

We’ve just come through a month of consultation with staff and students where I’ve shared plans and sought feedback and ideas. Consultation with staff was quite empowering. I hear a lot about staff in research intensive universities and their supposed negative attitudes towards anything teaching related, but my email box is full of evidence to the contrary. Lots of good ideas, good will, and recognition that Things need to be Done. If anything I am looking to protect staff from the flood of information from far too many sources about next year and keep their minds focussed on what they are good at – teaching their specialism in chemistry. I tend not to “cascade as appropriate” as it rarely is.

If talking to staff was empowering, talking to students was emotional, as in I literally shed a little tear (maybe two). Hearing their ideas about structuring their courses and thoughts on solutions for keeping conversations going was certainly empowering, but hearing their thoughts about ensuring that we maintain inclusion and make sure we reach out to everyone in our little community caused a little Zoom blubbering on my part. Their combination of pragmatism and solidarity was really quite moving.

And they had good ideas! Clear ideas regarding structuring course delivery, surfacing issues around support and engagement, issues around their responsibilities and how to manage them. It all fed into the grand plan that is emerging for our School and as I come to the end of the consultation phase, I’m sharing here for my own reflection as well as seeking ongoing feedback.

Live lectures cannot go ahead for pretty much all of our courses as social distancing means there is no space big enough, and so our courses will be delivered in hybrid mode. Materials for each course will be prepared in advance and be ready for sharing with students. Each of our courses typically has 4 – 6 lecturers delivering a particular course units (normally about 5 lectures each), so with students’ ideas of structure in mind, we are going to deliver these in discrete bundles, with each bundle getting its own focus for two weeks.

In the first of two weeks, the focus will be on reviewing the materials, so students will have the materials available there will be some live Q+A sessions to go over difficulties, as well as perhaps a question repository area where students can bin questions they have. (Students weren’t too keen on discussion boards for discussing, more just as a convenient place to log questions for live discussion.) In the second week, we’ll have structured tutorials, in person where we can, and online for those students that need it. Then the next bundle comes along. I’m calling it the sinusoidal modelTM. Yes I will accept TED talk invitation.

We’ll be doing some things alluded to in the previous post on “micro-structuring”, to help students log what they’ve done and know what they have to do. Clarity of purpose and task is crucial in how we set out our course materials.

Labs are obviously another major aspect and we have now a small army of activity working on all the various aspects of lab teaching. Luckily we made some firm decisions early on in that regard, and we have already a lot of work done. We’ve shared our lab plans on the Royal Society of Chemistry website as a way to help others think about their own plans; hopefully some more will be added there soon!

For each year of students progressing, we’ve written to students explaining what we can say about how the year ahead will look, and what we are working on. We’re emailing students once a month to give them these kinds of updates, and m’colleague Chris Mowat will begin the weekly webchats in August, that in itself initiating our student support plans for the semester. We’ll be continuing weekly webchats throughout the semester. As some of the students said, this is going to be new for everyone, and we want to make sure we keep conversation free flowing to make sure we can tweak and amend things as needed.

We are now firmly in planning phase and it feels good to have made some decisions to work towards. The last few weeks have felt a bit like playing darts, on a listing ship, while drunk. All parts were moving. With some decisions made we can start to plan with some deliverables in mind, and hope that national and university edicts don’t mean we are too far off course. Let’s go!

Capturing hand-writing in desktop-lecture capture

As people begin planning recording materials for online delivery of lectures, one aspect to consider is the capture of hand-writing. Students have been clear with us that where lecturers normally work through problems/reactions etc, they want that to continue, and don’t want “death by PowerPoint” (albeit beautifully produced).

I bought the HUE-HD camera which has a flexible arm to the camera and have been playing with options. It is relatively easy to use this webcam as a document camera for screen capturing recordings as follows. (HUE-HD does not come with Yorkshire tea.)

  1. The HUE-HD document camera should not be used as a “webcam”; in other words if you are speaking to camera, you should use your normal laptop/device webcam. This is important especially in systems where the screen splits when there are several people in the room (e.g. Teams). The webcam output will be reduced, and in any recording, only partially captured.
  2. Instead, the camera app on the computer should just be opened and shown on the screen. In Windows 10, search for “camera”, and it will open. In the picture, I’ve shown a compilation of side on and bird’s-eye, and screen grab of the set up. Note the paper is landscape orientation. I’ve elevated it to capture more of the page but that is not necessary if you don’t mind moving the paper.
  3. Open up screen recording software (Kaltura, Camtasia, etc) and start screen recording. When you want to switch between PowerPoint slides and camera, you just minimise one or the other. There is no need to “record” the camera – the only recording is whatever you see on the screen as captured by the screen-recording software.
  4. That’s it! It is quite easy. An example showing the change from PowerPoint to doc cam is shown at this link (36 – 44 second time range); this was done without any subsequent editing, so as you will see it it pretty seamless.
  5. Webcam workaround – getting a HUE HD camera is now very difficult, so another option is to use your laptop webcam pointed at a whiteboard. Don’t use the webcam as a webcam (you get the mirror image), but instead open the webcam using the camera app so that it displays on your desktop and then share screen, screen record while pointing it at a whiteboard. It means you need a white board but have tried it and it works ok.

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.

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)