Chemistry, Context, Pedagogy

#Eurovariety13 Day 1 Report

Action-packed day on context-based chemistry, using technology for innovative assessment, and some reconsideration of problem-based learning…

Rainer Glaser (University of Missouri) spoke about the need to include writing and the concept of relating chemistry in the everyday world. Discussion and understanding about how to structure an argument and considering the role and value of science in society can be facilitated through peer-review process. He developed Chemistry is in the news module for lower level undergraduate students (Intl J Sci Educ, 2005, 9, 1083-1098) where students read news content and answer chemistry and more general questions about the report. Assessment protocols are details in J Chem Ed, 2006, 83, 662-667.  It was found that CIITN created an interest in organic chemistry and a better understanding of society. In the writing activity, two preliminary activities and a peer-review process is included to structure students approach to the activity Peer review process discussed in his article Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 2009, 34, 69-81.  A similar approach on scientific writing was completed with higher level students, whereby students would write a peer review on a topic given in a lecture. Other references by this speaker include  Science Communication for All, Chemistry International, 2003, 25, 3-6 and Teaching Dissent and Persuasion, Educational Research and Reviews, 2006, 1, 115-120.

Madeline Schultz (Queensland University of Technology) spoke on the development of interventions to improve conceptual understanding. The aim was that given that we know the nature of many misconceptions among our early-year students, what can we do about it? Students are given a chemistry concept questionnaire, using multiple questions on the same topic. Concept topics were on phase change, heat and energy, chemical solutions, aqueous solutions, and equilibrium. Students are emailed their score from the concept inventory – marks were 3 marks for correct answer, 2 for minor flaw down to zero for wrong. Subsequently found that if students saw they were doing OK, they lost motivation t do subsequent activities, even if they had gains to make. Also investigated whether visual or verbal representations of the answers and found that students without prior chemistry did better with visual representations (this is being studied more at present). Having received their email feedback, there is a subsequent series of activities for them to work through, based on the topics that they had difficulty with. Includes text, animations and videos (see examples at YouTube VISCHEM), as well as external sites (e.g. Molecular Workbench).

Mike Casey (University College Dublin) spoke about using closed well-structured questions in problem-based learning.  PBL typically involves open-ended, “real-world problems”. PBL adoption in chemistry is patchy, most often used in introductory level courses, lab courses, and analytical chemistry. There are very few applications in advanced level courses. Problems with open-ended problems include that they take more time (all learning objectives may not be achieved), are difficult to devise, along with some philosophical concerns. A scheme for a 12 week module on stereochemistry and mechanism (Year 3) was outlined. The problems are worked on over a two week cycle. Problems are closed – have a definite solution pathway , but it is a complex problem for students at this level, addresses authentic disciplinary learning objectives, while the problem-solving approach used addresses some generic PBL learning objectives. A typical chemistry problem can be “recast” by placing students in a position of being for example, a medicinal chemist looking for a particular drug isomer (forgive my organic chemistry). This adds some authenticity to the problem. It is possible to add on additional more open-ended problems, which may have multiple solution pathways.

Charles Harrison (University of Southampton) spoke about blended learning and self-assessment to support teaching in organic chemistry. Access statistics show that students are using video resources made to support lectures at all times of the day, but what are they doing? Is it passive? The project involved turning worked example videos into self-assessment exercises. Students completed an exercise after the videos were made available – they showed that they had done it, but it was not marked by academics. Instead, students used the marking scheme provided on the videos to mark their work. This meant that they were actively engaging with the materials, as determined by (a lot of) student feedback. Students who completed the exercise showed a net gain in exam performance of 6%. Those who didn’t did not improve. A similar project over the summer break demonstrated similar results.

Tim O’Sullivan (University College Cork) on developing an online system for students to practice drawing organic molecules, which would allow machine correcting for rapid feedback. Using a Marvin Sketch applet in Blackboard or Moodle, students drew their structure, and generated a SMILES output (automatically by Marvin Sketch) which they pasted into their VLE quiz question (using fill in the blank word option). Marvin Sketch is a Java applet so does not need to be installed on PCs. Students were given a 1-hour training session at the start of the year on the process of submitting questions. Some pitfalls in using the system were highlighted – e.g. implicit and explicit hydrogens have different SMILES codes, so you need to check option in Marvin Sketch to turn off explicit hydrogens. Some more information at http://chemweb.ucc.ie/echemnet.htm.

Anne O’Dwyer (University of Limerick) on the issues around teaching organic chemistry at second level.  A survey of 276 second level pupils, found that the majority said organic chemistry was difficult to learn. This therefore carries on to third level. Strategy is to teach organic chemistry with relevance to everyday life up-front, rather than the traditional method of applications at the end, after all of the core material has been taught. Similar projects include Salters, Chemie in Kontext. An “Organic Chemistry in Action” Teacher and Pupil workbook has been developed. An aspect further discussed was the facilitation of cognitive development. The OCiA delivery involves using a lot of models and illustrations. In terms of practical work, pre-lab work involves mapping molecules being used in the lab to an organic chemistry set-up, as well as using models to show, for example what changes are occurring structurally during oxidation and reduction. Further materials have been developed as resources to teach postgraduate lab demonstrators.

John J Keating (University College Cork) spoke about teaching chemistry through discipline eyes – i.e. teaching chemistry to pharmacy students, need to keep in mind professional requirements and national/EU regulatory bodies. One option is to contextualise the chemistry being taught http://Dailymed.nim.nih.gov/ is a good resource) Can also use media articles, for examples painkillers reported as “dangerous”, etc). Drug SPCs (supplementary protection certificates) also give a lot of information about drugs that can provide a lot of chemistry contexts and questions.

David McGarvey (Keele University) finished the day with the second plenary on the theme of enhancing the student experience through assessment. The motivation for many changes was that the chemistry department was undergoing a curriculum review. The university has a list of 10 graduate attributes (http://keele.ac.uk/distinctive/keelegraduateattributes/) which informed the curriculum design review. (Limerick’s is at here). It is contested whether academic staff designing programmes are aware of such attributes (SC Barrie, Higher Education (2006), 51, 215-241). Some features of the curriculum review included assessment guidelines and marking criteria, pre-lab work, safety in the lab, assessment of practical skills, acting on feedback, self and peer assessment, etc. All feedback for a student was to be located in individual folders in a VLE. Assessment principles are designed in line with TESTA assessment principles (www.testa.ac.uk).

The new first year curriculum separated out theory modules from practical modules. It included a variety of different assessments, class tests, problem sheets, lab diaries, and elements such as information retrieval skills (10%, module 1) and presentation (15%, module 2) in the theory module, and laboratory report sections in a Practical and Professional Skills.  Three-hour exams are worth 60% of the theory module, and there is no choice in questions. There was a 40% threshold on all elements (except class tests).

Lab report sections are used in semester 1. Students write separate sections of a lab report (but for different practicals). Sections are Introduction, Experimental, Results and Discussion, and Conclusion. Assessment criteria are available for each section. In the first lab session, students complete the lab and are given a model report to communicate the structure standards expected.  This is more engaging than the assessment criteria. Students discuss strengths and limitations of reports, and then using assessment criteria, students mark the reports. The aim is to prompt engagement with the assessment criteria. Similar strategy is proposed in Phil Race’s HEA document on assessment (2009). Lab work is supported by a series of how-to screencasts on software usage, using Web of Science, drawing graphs and tables, etc. In semester 2, a full lab report is required – students bring what they have learned in Semester 1 (students are requested to review their semester 1 feedback). Dave also talked about audio feedback, which you can read about here (it’s been a long day!)