The feedback dilemma

Read the opening gambit of any educational literature on feedback. It will likely report that while feedback is desired by students, considered important by academics, and in the era of rankings, prioritized by universities, it largely goes unread and unused. Many reports state that students only look at the number grade, ignoring the comments unless it is substantially different from what they expected. Often students don’t realise that the feedback comments on one assignment can help with the next.

Why is this? Looking through the literature on this topic, the crux of the  problem is a dilemma about what academics think feedback actually is.

Duncan (2007) reported a project where previous feedback received by students was assimilated and synthesised into an individual feedback statement that students could apply to the next assignment. Their observations of the previous tutor feedback highlighted some interesting points. They found that tutor comments were written for more than just the students, directed more at a justification of marks for other examiners or for external examiners. Many tutor comments had no specific criticism, only vague praise, and a significant lack of clear and practical advice on how to improve. Feedback often required an understanding implicit to tutor, but not to the student (e.g. “use a more academic style”).

Similar findings from analysis of tutor feedback was reported by Orsmond and Merry (2011). They reported that praise was the most common form of feedback, with tutors explaining misunderstandings and correcting errors. While there was an assumption on the part of tutors that students would know how to apply feedback to future assignments, none of the tutors in their study suggested approaches on how to do this. Orrell (2006) argues that while tutors expressed the intention that feedback (appropriateness of content and develop self-evaluation for improvement), in reality the feedback was defensive and summative, justifying the mark assigned.

So what exactly is feedback?

A theme emerging from much of the literature surveyed is that there are different components to feedback. Orsmond and Merry coded eight different forms of feedback. Orrell outlines a teaching-editing-feedback code for distinguishing between different aspects of feedback.  I liked the scheme used by Donovan (2014), classifying feedback as either mastery and developmental (based on work by Petty). I’ve attempted to mesh together these different feedback classifications and relate them to what is described elsewhere as feedback and feed forward. In many of the studies, it was clear that tutors focussed on the feedback comments well, but gave little or no feed forward comments.

Assigning various codings to general categories of feedback and feed forward
Assigning various codings to general categories of feedback and feed forward

While some of these categorisations are contextual, I think it is helpful to develop a system whereby correction of student work, and in particular work that is meant to be formative, distinguishes clearly between correction of the work and assigning a mark for that, with a separate and distinct section for what needs to be considered in future assignments. Of course, ideally future assignments would take into account whether students have considered this feedback. In chemistry, there must be potential in the lab report correcting system.

A final note: Orsmond and Merry describe the student perspective of feedback in terms matching up the assignment with what the tutor wants and using feedback as part of their own intellectual development, part of a greater discourse between student and lecturer. Feedback that emphasizes the former effectively results in students mimicking their discipline – trying to match what they are observing. Whereas emphasis on the latter results in students becoming their discipline, growing in the intellectual capacity of the discipline.

I’m interested in a discussion on how we can present feedback to students physically—how should we highlight what they focus on and how we monitor their progression so that the feedback that we provide is shown to be of real value in their learning?


Pam Donovan (2014) Closing the feedback loop: physics undergraduates’ use of feedback comments on laboratory coursework, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39:8, 1017-1029, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2014.881979

Neil Duncan (2007) ‘Feed‐forward’: improving students’ use of tutors’ comments, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32:3, 271-283, DOI: 10.1080/02602930600896498

Janice Orrell (2006) Feedback on learning achievement: rhetoric and reality, Teaching in Higher Education, 11:4, 441-456, DOI: 10.1080/13562510600874235

Paul Orsmond & Stephen Merry (2011) Feedback alignment: effective and ineffective links between tutors’ and students’ understanding of coursework feedback, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36:2, 125-136, DOI: 10.1080/02602930903201651

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10 things to consider for a more accessible curriculum

By equipping our students in this manner throughout the year in formative activities, we can help them prepare more effectively for their summative exams.

The great work of AHEAD in Ireland in promoting Universal Design for Learning prompted me to develop the ethos of considering UDL in the chemistry curriculum here at Edinburgh. I was discussing with UDL expert Damian Gordon of DIT some of his thoughts on what lecturers can do to make their curriculum more accessible. True to form, Damian quickly generated 10 things to consider, and then a further 10. They’re brilliant checklists.

I’ve compiled 10 of my own below. The aim here is to say to any lecturer: while you are writing your lectures or thinking about assessments, here are some things that aren’t that difficult to do, but can make life a lot easier for lots of people.

1.      Welcome/induction/introductory lab information in video or podcast format.

The first week of any year can be overwhelming with new information. A short video highlighting the main points for beginning the year allows all students to review in their own time.

2.      Provide associated text (allowing text to speech options) for lecture notes.

When writing new lecture notes, put the main points of each slide in the Notes section. Exporting these annotations separately (File > Export > PDF (Options: Publish Notes)) means that students can use text to speech readers to hear associated notes with each of your slides. You can also use these notes as a script and subtitles if you wish to create a video summary of your presentation. Designing with multiple uses in mind minimises later effort.

3.      Figures/diagrams on lecture notes are beneficial but…

Figures and diagrams can help students survey a lot of information but need explanatory notes. If possible, include the source of the figure (webpage/book) on the slide so that students have the link to read more about its context. Figure captions, including reaction mechanisms etc, can include the main highlights so that they can be picked up by text to speech software. Links to learning resources (e.g. ChemTube3D, spectroscopy simulators) can allow students interact with diagrams further.

4.      Provide specific reading lists for your course in advance and annotate them briefly.

There is a balance between students developing the skills to find information and time wasted in navigating a large amount of text for specific information. Reading lists can point to chapters and sections in chapters. It’s especially helpful if you link particular topics on lecture slides to specific places in reading lists. This applies to lab manuals also. If you wish to fade this support over time, a first step might be to suggest words to look up in the index of a reading list book for a particular topic.

5.      Mind-maps facilitate organisation of thoughts.

Mind-maps are useful for getting an overall sense of a topic, course, or laboratory experiment. Encourage their use by students by presenting your course overview or laboratory experiment as a mind-map. They are easy to do on Microsoft, or there are lots of free online tools. In general, helping students develop their own visual representations of subject matter is a great way to develop their understanding.

6.      Surprises mean students can’t prepare.

An unplanned handout in lab class can be very stressful for students who need to prepare in advance.  Ensure lab manuals contain everything they need to have. Manuals presented electronically as individual experiments save time when using text to speech.

7.      Feedback versus feed forward.

When correcting work consider the difference between making corrections to justify the mark or “for the record” (feedback) and the take home messages that you want the student to think about the next time they try a similar task (feed forward). Often these two different messages are confused, and there is too much information to discern the headline points. A summary statement or key point to take away can be useful for feeding forward. Grading forms on electronic submissions allow this to be done well.

8.      Academic writing and presentations.

The reading and writing activities necessary in academic writing and presentations add an extra burden onto the process of crafting an essay or presentation. Offer your student the opportunity to give you a pre-draft verbal overview of how they intend the article or presentation to look (perhaps develop a mind-map). If you notice a written draft with substantial mistakes, aim to focus feedback on improving the chemistry, and suggesting that the student gets an independent reader to help with the spelling and grammar for the final copy.

9.      Tutorials.

If there is always just a few students who speak up in tutorials, arranging it so that students work in sub-groups of three to four can help. Letting them report back periodically means that there is more chance to keep an eye on progress, while everyone is getting involved.

10.  Formatting issues.

Be aware of specific issues regarding design of learning materials. Colour slides with an off-white/cream background and a sans-serif font (e.g. Calibri, Arial, or open source font considering readability ( are helpful. Note however that these fonts must be installed on PCs where you will use them e.g. a computer in a lecture theatre. A list of suitable common fonts is at:

11. And finally… Text to speech software on all lab PCs.

Lab PCs should have text to speech software installed, with appropriate files for each lab available for any student wishing to avail of them. Free software for this purpose includes “Free Natural Reader” (

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Is all this talk of how we lecture just academic?

It’s getting harder to remember what my final years as an undergrad were like, but I can just about remember this. We had lectures in blocks, usually of 5, which ran in a series, one after the other. Each course involved a lecturer rolling in and giving their best for 5 lectures. The style was what we now consider passive, that’s not to say they were bad. Ones I remember most were those involving demonstrations (from my future PhD supervisor), and the ones with brilliant and passionate explanations from my lecturer on quantum chemistry, who really wanted us to understand. In most cases, notes were erratic, in some, they weren’t so great, so then you just went to the book and made up your own notes, and all was well. PowerPoint was used by some younger staff, but you could count them on one hand.

I was reminded of this in the last while, because I am wondering whether all this talk of lecturing style is worth the effort. There now seems to be two camps, with firmly entrenched beliefs about their preferred style and little hope of common ground. But if you are a student finishing 5 lectures on a topic in October, which will be examined the following May, is it important? Yes, you might remember that a particular topic was interesting or engaging. Yes, the lecture itself may have helped in understanding of a topic, and I don’t dismiss efforts to create an active classroom to facilitate those moments. I try to create them myself. But if you are a student with several honours papers to sit, months on from the lecture events, what’s going to matter most is how you study, and what materials you have to study with.

Instead of considering how we deliver a lecture, is it better to consider how we deliver a lecture course? We say at university that we expect students  to do independent work. That the notes are just a skeleton. As a student, I remember being confused by this—how much extra work was enough? Students want to work hard but can need direction. So why not structure the course so that it scaffolds the independent work to do? VLEs can host the (skeleton) notes, review quizzes, tutorial reviews, links to further and supplemental reading, prompts for thoughts and discussion, glossaries, and on, and on. Each of these have a specific purpose, integrated into the course with a particular pedagogic purpose. There is an overall design to the course.

By examining usage of these we can get a measure, way beyond a personal hunch of how brilliant we each are at lecturing, of what is providing value to students. If students watched my tutorial review and tried the quizzes scored less than those who didn’t, something is wrong. Our approach to teaching becomes data driven, and we can derive some metrics of value. The lecture was a central and important part of this, but it is part of an overall framework of resources that we provide to students as part of our lecture course. Our discussion on lecture quality moves away from how good a lecturer is to how comprehensive a lecture course is.


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Why I love the lecture (at academic conferences)

There is a narrative that goes like this: most educators promote active learning. Educators present at conferences. Therefore they should use active learning approaches at conference talks. Practice what they preach, and all that.

I disagree. I love a good lecture. Good lectures can be memorable and informative. Yes, that was me stifling back a tear when Martyn Poliakoff gave his Nyholm lecture at Variety. Yes, that is me falling in love with chemistry again every time I hear AP de Silva talk. And yes, that was me punching the air at the final Gordon CERP talk by [redacted] at [redacted].

Requesting audience activity at conferences is confusing the process of learning by students on a module with identified learning outcomes, with learning by an academic who define their own learning outcomes when they look at the book of abstracts. Worse still, it is confusing learning by novices with learning by experts. As experts, we are in a position to go to a lecture and immediately scoop up information that is relevant and useful to us. We have the prior knowledge and expertise to call upon to place quite complicated information in context. That’s what being an expert is. The purpose of the presentation is to place the work in context of the speaker’s overall research programme; bring what might be several publications under one umbrella, and present it as a narrative. Argued with good data. Links to publications for more information. Hopefully with a few jolly anecdotes along the way.

Audience participation is a folly. Consider an education talk where the speaker requests the audience to have a chat about something that’s being discussed and predict what’s next, or offer ideas. Academics are blessed with many talents, but we’re not social beasts. The little chat is prefaced with social niceties as we try to get over the fact that we have to speak to other humans, followed by some discussion on what we’re meant to be talking about as we were too busy checking our Twitter feed to see what people said about our talk earlier. Of course, some amazing gems might come out in the feedback to the presenter. But are they really things the presenter isn’t aware of? Was it worth the time? I don’t think so.

I say this with hand on heart, as I have given a lecture at a conference which relied on audience participation. It was a lecture on the flipped lecture, and I agreed with conference organisers that it would be a fun thing to immerse the audience in a flipped experience. As a Friday morning keynote after the conference dinner the night before, the slot made sense. It was great fun and we had some great discussion – but was there anything that came back from the audience that I couldn’t have discussed in my talk? Probably not. It was very popular (thanks Twitter) and I did learn lots, but that’s not the purpose of the conference. Speakers aren’t there to learn. They’re there to inform. Especially keynote speakers – hey we paid for your fees y’know! Now let’s all discuss this over coffee.

(c) The New Yorker
(c) The New Yorker

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William Cullen and the early teaching of chemistry #oldtimechem

They don’t make student satisfaction quotes like they used to in the old days:

Dr Cullen was always at pains to examine his students from time to time on those parts of his course that had already been delivered; and wherever he found any one at a loss, he explained it anew, in a clear, familiar manner, suited to the capacity of the student.”

William Cullen
William Cullen

This quote was from a former student of William Cullen, who took up the Chemical Lectureship at Glasgow in 1747. He held the first independent chemistry lectureship in Britain and Ireland, with chemistry previously being what we today consider a service course to medicine. Funding for the post came by delaying the appointment of a Professor of Oriental Languages. Cullen was provided with money to set up his laboratory, and spent £52 “building furnaces and fitting up a laboratory and furnishing the necessary vessels for it”. The vessels were identified in a letter from Cullen’s brother-in-law who was trying to source a suitable glass-blower: a tabulated retort, a double-necked receiver; a quilled receiver, a funnel, and a connecting tube. Books requested by Cullen at the same time included Johann Heinrich Pott’s Excertitationes Chymicae, published in Berlin in 1738.

What did Cullen teach? A syllabus from 1748 survives, and shows that this was an exciting time for chemistry. Lavoisier was only 4 years old when Cullen took up his Lectureship, and the subject was still in its infancy. Cullen wished to expand it from the narrow confines of application to medicine, instead highlighting its application to a variety of areas of importance.  He wrote in one lecture: “it has been taught with very narrow view”.  Alluding to the agricultural and industrial relevance of chemistry, he continued:

It is the chemist who from these stones and earths procures malleable metals. It is the chemist who gives to these metals the degree of hardness, ductility, elasticity, or other property that fits the several purposes.

The syllabus contained an introduction to the history and use of chemistry, followed by a consideration of the doctrines of the primary causes of chemical reactions (“changes in bodies occurring in chemical operations”) and discussion on solution, distillation and fusion.  Particular emphasis was then given to three major subdivisions: salts (considering acid and alkalis), sulphurs (considering natural products), and waters (with mineral waters).

There was a strong emphasis on practical chemistry. Lectures often opened with a demonstration. Alarmingly, one included the preparation of nitric acid, and the regenerating of potassium nitrate, to illustrate the nature of ‘mixts’. Unusually, and probably uniquely, he encouraged inquiry by students, introducing voluntary practical classes. But Cullen learned a lesson then that chemistry lecturers have been learning ever since: if you don’t assess it, they don’t do it. He lamented in his final lecture to students that:

I proposed that during the course you should have acquired some knowledge [of experimental manipulation] in this way. The laboratory has been open to you, but I am sorry to find that so few of you have frequented it.

After a time at Glasgow, Cullen moved to Edinburgh, starting a course there on 12 January 1756.  Initially he was meant to take the Chair held by Plummer, but Plummer decided to hold on a little longer, and it wasn’t until illness struck him in 1755, that the way was paved for Cullen to become Chair of Medicine and Chemistry. His appointment was controversial: other names had been suggested for Plummer’s replacement, including joseph Black, who was Cullen’s stellar assistant at Glasgow.  But the Town Council, who had over-riding power of the University in accordance with the Charter of James VI, gave Cullen the nod. At Edinburgh, he continued expanding the breadth of the subject he taught. Indeed, his work on fermentation gives credit to the claim that he was one of the pioneers of biochemistry. As the opening quote illustrates, he was a popular teacher at Edinburgh, with student numbers in his classes growing from 17 in his first year, to 59 in the second. Up to 145 students attended his sessions.

Cullen was eventually replaced by Joseph Black, who had acted as his assistant for a course in Glasgow, and had moved to Edinburgh to complete his medical studies in 1752. After Cullen’s appointment to the Chair, Black went to Glasgow as a lecturer in chemistry, and returned to Edinburgh in 1766, replacing Cullen as Professor of Chemistry. Cullen himself was promoted to the Chair of Institutes of Medicine at Edinburgh. His two decades of teaching chemistry at Glasgow and Edinburgh were characterised by an interest in conveying the breadth of the subject and its variety of applications. He had the hallmarks of what we would today consider a reflective practitioner. In 1760 he wrote:

It will only be when the languor and debility of age shall restrain me that I shall cease to make some corrections of my plan or some additions to my course.

Published for the #oldtimechem theme running for the 2015 #Realtimechem week


  1. G. W. Anderson (1978) The Playfair Collection and the Teaching of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh 1713 – 1858, The Royal Scottish Museum: Edinburgh.
  2. P.D. Wightman (1955) William Cullen and the teaching of chemistry, Annals of Science, 11(2), 154-165.
  3. P.D. Wightman (1956) William Cullen and the teaching of chemistry—II, Annals of Science, 12:3, 192-205

Web sources:

Glasgow Chemistry:

Edinburgh Chemistry:

The Cullen Project:

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This week I’m reading… Changing STEM education

Summer is a great time for Good Intentions and Forward Planning… with that in mind I’ve been reading about what way we teach chemistry, how we know it’s not the best approach, and what might be done to change it.

Is changing the curriculum enough?

Bodner (1992) opens his discussion on reform in chemistry education writes that “recent concern”, way back in 1992, is not unique. He states that there are repeated cycles of concern about science education over the 20th century, followed by long periods of complacency. Scientists and educators usually respond in three ways:

  1. restructure the curriculum,
  2. attract more young people to science,
  3. try to change science teaching at primary and secondary level.

However, Bodner proposes that the problem is not in attracting people to science at the early stages, but keeping them on when they reach university, and that we at third level have much to learn with from our colleagues in primary and secondary level. Instead of changing the curriculum (the topics taught), his focus is on changing the way the curriculum is taught. In an era when textbooks (and one presumes now, the internet) have all the information one wants, the information dissemination component of a lecture is redundant. Bodner makes a case that students can perform quite well on a question involving equilibrium without understanding its relationship to other concepts taught in the same course, instead advocating an active learning classroom centred around discussion and explanation; dialogue between lecturers and student. He even offers a PhD thesis to back up his argument (A paper, with a great title, derived from this is here: PDF).

Are we there yet?

One of the frustrations I’m sure many who have been around the block a few times feel is the pace of change is so slow (read: glacial). 18 years after Bodner’s paper, Talanquer and Pollard (2010) criticize the chemistry curriculum at universities as “fact-based and encyclopedic, built upon a collection of isolated topics… detached from the practices, ways of thinking, and applications of both chemistry research and chemistry education research in the 21st century.” Their paper in CERP presents an argument for teaching “how we think instead of what we know”.

They describe their Chemistry XXI curriculum, which presents an introductory chemistry curriculum in eight units, each titled by a question. For example, Unit 1 is “How do we distinguish substances?”, consisting of four modules (1 to 2 weeks of work): “searching for differences, modelling matter, comparing masses, determining composition.” The chemical concepts mapping onto these include the particulate model of matter, mole and molar mass, and elemental composition.

Talanquer CERP 2010 imageAssessment of this approach is by a variety of means, including small group in-class activities. An example is provided for a component on physical and electronic properties of metals and non-metals; students are asked to design an LED, justifying their choices. I think this fits nicely into the discursive ideas Bodner mentions. Summative assessment is based on answering questions in a context-based scenario – picture shown.

In what is a very valuable addition to this discussion, learning progression levels are included, allowing student understanding of concepts and ideas, so that their progressive development can be monitored. It’s a paper that’s worth serious consideration and deserves more widespread awareness.

Keep on Truckin’

Finally in our trio is Martin Goedhart’s chapter in the recently published book Chemistry Education. Echoing the basis provided by Talanquer and Pollard, he argues that the traditional disciplines of analytical, organic, inorganic, physical, and biochemistry were reflective of what chemists were doing in research and practice. However, the interdisciplinary nature of our subject demands new divisions; Goedhart proposes three competency areas synthesis, analysis, and modelling. For example in analysis, the overall aim is “acquiring information about the composition and structure of substances and mixtures”. The key competencies are “sampling, using instruments, data interpretation”, with knowledge areas including instruments, methods and techniques, sample prep, etc. As an example of how the approach differs, he states that students should be able to select appropriate techniques for their analysis; our current emphasis is on the catalogue of facts on how each technique works. I think this echoes Talanquer’s point about shifting the emphasis on from what we know to how we think.

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My Education in Chemistry blog posts

A lot of my bloggery is now on the Education in Chemistry blog, and I will keep a running table of contents of them here.

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Discussing the role of Inquiry Based Learning

My two recent blog posts on the Education in Chemistry blog have generated a lot of discussion around inquiry-based learning in particular, and “innovative” methods in general. It is really well worth looking at some of the comments. There are two posts, opening gambits are below:

The case against inquiry based learning… 

Writing recently in The Irish Times, William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork, stated that newer teaching methods employed in the UK and Ireland are ‘sharply inferior to the older teaching methods they supplanted’. His article highlighted a 30% difference between educational scores in China, where whole-class teaching is employed, and those locally, where child-centred methods are used.


The case for inquiry based learning...

In my previous post outlining the case against inquiry-based learning I referenced William Reville’s critique of modern education methods. In a letter responding to that Irish Times article, teacher Ciara McMackin wrote:

If I intended to educate my students to be best able to follow instruction, regurgitate information and to excel in a 19th-century factory-style working environment … then certainly, modern teaching methods are not my best option.

Comments on this blog post are closed as it makes sense to compile them on the EiC blog.


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Mobile phones for analysis in school and undergrad laboratories

 “Although the majority of scientific workers utilize photography for illustrative purposes, a survey of the literature shows that only a limited number fully appreciate its usefulness as a means for recording data.”

So wrote GE Matthew and JI Crabtree in a 1927 article of Journal of Chemical Education.[1] Photography has come on since then, when they cautioned readers on the properties and limitations of photographic emulsion for quantitative purposes. Now it is much simpler, and there are many applications of photography using a mobile phone camera and a suitable app. I’ve summarised five of these below.

1. Colorimetric Analysis[2]

This is a paper I have written about before. It essentially allows a Beer-Lambert plot to be performed from a mobile phone picture of a series of solutions of different concentrations of a coloured dye. The practical is extended to Lucozade. The original paper suggests the use of PC imaging software, but good results can be obtained with a mobile phone RGB colour determination app such as RGB Camera. Some more detail on that process is in the earlier blog post.

Graphical abstract from J Chem Ed.
Graphical abstract from J Chem Ed.

2. Colorimetry for chemical kinetics[3]

Image: J Chem Ed
Image: J Chem Ed

This recently published paper extends the idea outlined above and uses colorimetry for kinetic analysis. The experiment is the hydrolysis of crystal violet with hydroxide ions. A similar set up to that described above, except the camera is set to acquire images every 10 s automatically. The authors describe the analysis protocol well, and suggest a mechanism for reducing data analysis time. The app mentioned here (for Android) is Camera FV-5 Lite. The supplementary information has detailed student instructions for image analysis. A very clever idea.

3. A variation on flame photometry for testing for sodium in sea water and coconut water[4]

Image: J Chem Ed
Image: J Chem Ed

This is a really excellent idea where the flame test is monitored by recording a video on the mobile phone. Stock saline solutions from between 20 to 160 mg/dm3 were prepared and used to build a calibration curve. The flame colour was recorded on video. To do this, the phone was fixed approximately 40 cm from the flame, with a white background 40 cm in the opposite direction. Distilled water was sprayed into the flame to record the blank, followed by the calibration solutions and the analytes (sea water and coconut water). The videos were replayed to find the point at which the light was most intense. Again, the authors go into quite complex PC imaging analysis; a simpler option would be to pause the video at the point of greatest intensity and take a phone screenshot for analysis. RGB data can be obtained, subtracting the baseline (distilled water). I want to do this one!!

4. Determining amino-acid content in tea leaf extract[5] – using microfluidic analysis

Image: J Chem Ed
Image: J Chem Ed

Students prepare a microfluidic device using a wax pen on fliter paper. A 2% ninhydrin solution is prepared (full details in paper) and this is used as the sensor on the filter paper. Tea is boiled and extracted and small drops added to the microfluid wells. After a picture is taken, the RGB data allow for analysis of the glutamic acid present. Again the authors suggest desktop software, but there is no reason why an app can’t be used. The set-up involves ninhydrin and tin (II) chloride, so is probably best for university students.

The microfluidic device is interesting though for students at all levels. Essentially any pattern can be drawn on filter paper with a wax pen. The paper is heated to 135 °C for 30 seconds, and the wax melts through the paper, creating hydrophobic walls. The main author also has a just published RSC Advances paper where the microfluidic devices are prepared using an inkjet printer, and used as a glucose assay, so this is right on the cutting edge.[6] 

5. More microfluidics: analysis of Cu2+ and Fe2+ using colorimetry[7]

Another paper on microfluidics, but this one more applicable for the school classroom. Microfluidic arrays are prepared by cutting designs into Parafilm sheets and enclosing them between paper, and then aluminium foil, before passing through a laminator. Analysis as before is by RGB determination of the spots formed, again the paper’s SI gives a good overview of the analysis protocol for students.

Image: J Chem Ed
Image: J Chem Ed


[1] G. E. Matthews and J. I. Crabtree, Photography as a recording medium for scientific work. Part I, J. Chem. Educ., 1927, 4 (1), 9.
[2] Eric Kehoe and R. Lee Penn, Introducing Colorimetric Analysis with Camera Phones and Digital Cameras: An Activity for High School or General Chemistry, J. Chem. Educ.201390 (9), 1191–1195
[3] Theodore R. Knutson, Cassandra M. Knutson, Abbie R. Mozzetti, Antonio R. Campos, Christy L. Haynes, and R. Lee Penn, A Fresh Look at the Crystal Violet Lab with Handheld Camera Colorimetry, J. Chem. Educ., Article ASAP, DOI: 10.1021/ed500876y.
[4] Edgar P. Moraes, Nilbert S. A. da Silva, Camilo de L. M. de Morais, Luiz S. das Neves, and Kassio M. G. de Lima, Low-Cost Method for Quantifying Sodium in Coconut Water and Seawater for the Undergraduate Analytical Chemistry Laboratory: Flame Test, a Mobile Phone Camera, and Image Processing, J. Chem. Educ.201491 (11), pp 1958–1960.
[5] Longfei Cai , Yunying Wu , Chunxiu Xu, and Zefeng Chen, A Simple Paper-Based Microfluidic Device for the Determination of the Total Amino Acid Content in a Tea Leaf Extract, J. Chem. Educ.201390 (2), 232–234.
[6] Chunxiu Xu, Longfei Cai, Minghua Zhonga and Shuyue Zhenga, Low-cost and rapid prototyping of microfluidic paper-based analytical devices by inkjet printing of permanent marker ink, RSC Adv., 2015, 5, 4770-4773.
[7] Myra T. Koesdjojo, Sumate Pengpumkiat, Yuanyuan Wu, Anukul Boonloed, Daniel Huynh, Thomas P. Remcho, and Vincent T. Remcho, Cost Effective Paper-Based Colorimetric Microfluidic Devices and Mobile Phone Camera Readers for the Classroom, J. Chem. Educ. 2015, 92, 737−741.

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Flipped Conference Presentation Video Online

The last post described the AHEAD Conference Flipped Lecture presentation, which was itself a flipped lecture. Participants were asked to watch a video in advance of the conference and then the conference session itself discussed the themes emerging from that pre-lecture presentation. AHEAD have published the conference presentation, so if you want to watch the chaos unfold…

embedded by Embedded Video

YouTube DirektVideo: The Flipped Lecture: Using e-resources to support all learners

One of the nice things about using this method is that I was able to integrate comments from other educators made on the preparatory blog post into the conference presentation, which are now immortalised on this presentation… Circles within circles…

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What are your thoughts on lecture flipping?

I am giving a keynote at the AHEAD conference in March, and the lecture itself will be a flipped lecture on lecture flipping. The audience will be a mixture of academics and support staff from all over Europe and beyond, and the idea is that they will watch the presentation in advance (hmmmm) and we will then use the time during the actual conference presentation to discuss emerging themes. I will be highly caffeinated.

In order to address some of the issues around lecture flipping that face most educators, I would be interested to hear thoughts from lecturers and support staff on the idea of lecture flipping. Any and all of the following… please do comment or tweet me @seerymk:

  1. What do you think the potential of flipping is?
  2. What concerns you about the model?
  3. Is it scalable?
  4. In terms of resources, have you any thoughts on the materials prepared for lecture flipping in advance of and/or for lectures.
  5. How do you consider/reconsider assessment in light of lecture flipping.
  6. Any other genius ideas that I can rob…


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New book on Chemistry Education

chemistry-educationA new book “Chemistry Education : Best Practices, Opportunities and Trends” has just been made available online. It covers a range of current topics in chemistry teaching including a chapter on human activity by Peter Mahaffy, context based learning by Ilka Parchmann and flipped lectures by Eric Mazur. In addition, there are some chapters on aspects of chemistry teaching, such as that one on problem solving by George Bodner, laboratory teaching by Avi Hofstein and conceptual integration by Keith Taber. In fact the table of contents reads like a who’s-who of chemical education (some notable exceptions acknowledged).

Ireland is well respresented with two chapters from DIT – one on community based learning by Claire McDonnell, and one on e-learning and blended learning from Christine O’Connor and myself. A further chapter on the language of chemistry comes from UL.

I’m looking forward to getting the physical copy. The problem with many books of this nature is that their cost is prohibitive and therefore many people who would find it valuable can’t access it. It’s worth seeing whether pre-prints are available from individual authors or very often publications covering similar themes might be available. I wrote a survey of e-learning and blended learning for chemistry in the HEA New Directions journal recently (free to access), which covers some of the topics mentioned in our chapter.

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Eurovariety in Chemistry Education 2015

Registration is now open for the 2015 Eurovariety in Chemistry Education meeting, being held in Tartu, Estonia from June 30th to July 2nd.

Dates on the conference website are currently listed as:

  • Registration opens: February,1
  • Submission of abstracts opens: February 1, ends March 15
  • Acceptance of the papers: April 15

Conference Website:

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New ‘Education in Chemistry’ app


EiC' new app
EiC’ new app

Education in Chemistry (EiC) is a bi-monthly periodical covering news and features relevant to the teaching of chemistry at secondary and tertiary level. It has just launched a new app, and is making the magazines free to view for 2015.

I had a preview of the app in development as I’m a member of the editorial board, but got a proper chance to play with it when I downloaded it from iTunes to iPhone and iPad. This bias noted, I have to say I really love it. EiC was one of the few periodicals I still enjoyed reading in print form, and while I’ll still enjoy its physical presence, the app does a very good job at allowing the reader to navigate as easily as possible, mimicking the “scanning through” approach you take with the physical copy. A lot of features of the New Yorker magazine – which for me is the premier example of online magazine interface – have appeared in this app.

As well as reading it in page turn, the app has a side table of contents which means you can jump straight to an article. My favourite though is ability to scan through the pages visually using the first pages menu option on the right of the menu bar. This gives as close a representation as possible of “flicking through” a magazine. I love it, because you can capture the visual element of each article too. After a sideways swipe, you can, New Yorker style, just begin to read the article with a vertical one. It’s easily read on phone and tablet.

Scrapbook allows you to collect favourite articles in one place
Scrapbook allows you to collect favourite articles in one place

Finally, the pièce de resistance is the scrapbook – you can favourite articles from any of your issues and keep them all stored in one place. Love it!

Will it replace the physical copy? I do have an enjoyable ritual with the physical copy (involves tea) but certainly something so easy to access will mean that I can grab an article on the go.

You can find out more about how to get the app at the EiC website.

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Embracing diversity in higher education

The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD) published their first journal recently which I printed off with (I confess) just a passing interest. It turned out to be a compelling read from start to finish.

Being time-poor and work weary, I would suggest that most lecturers don’t really like the idea of considering a diverse student body. An ideal scenario is that one bloc of students come to class, complete the required work and sit the exam. Doing something additional for the odd one or two students can feel like a burden just not feasible in the time available.

What I particularly liked about the core messages in the articles in this journal were that while my straw man was easily and effectively challenged, the approaches advocated are based in a pragmatism and an understanding of the reality of busy college life. According to Ann Heelan’s article, 6% of students in Irish HE have a specific learning difficulty or disability. Add to this 15% international students and 15% mature students, and we suddenly move to a position where the homogeneous bloc of students alluded to earlier is clearly a myth.

Having challenged the myth, the approach advocated is refreshing in its simplicity and pragmatism. While we don’t have one bloc of students to deal with, one overall consideration to a teaching approach might fit the bill. The approach is branded universal design for learning, (UDL) which according to an article by David Rose and Sam Catherine Johnston is built on two premises (worth considering carefully I think):

“1. Addressing students at the margins creates improvements for all students

2. Barriers to learning occur in the interaction with the curriculum—they are not inherent solely in the capacities of the learner.”

Principles of Universal Design for LearningI have added emphasis here to what I see (as a practitioner) to be the key points – addressing students at the margins (which as Rose and Johnston put it has historically been those with disabilities) raises the boats for all students.  I think this acts as a motivator for the well meaning but time poor lecturer to engage with considering principles of UDL. They are, quite frankly, obvious when spelled out, but I suppose considering it as a formal design framework for curriculum delivery raises the bar a little.  Secondly, it is not the material of the curriculum per se that is problematic, but perhaps a particular way it is presented. “Everyone learns differently”, to phrase Ann Heelan’s article, and Rose and Johnston’s article points to several examples where a consideration of this approach has been beneficial to student body as a whole. Readers might like to peruse the recent book by Meyer, Rose and Gordon.

Ann Heelan’s article pushes further strategies lecturers might use in integrating UDL in their practice. One that appealed was formalising the development of self-monitoring, so that students can develop their own sense of learning progression, and identify difficulties. Again this is something we would love for all students! She highlights research which demonstrates that making assignment criteria clear with explicit marking schemes enabled self-monitoring. It also brings to mind this wonderful project on developing metacognition which I wrote about before. Several other strategies are presented in Heelan’s article, and AHEAD is running a conference in Dublin Castle in March on UDL.  (


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Robert Boyle and the origin of “chemical analysis”

A history of chemistry... citing Boyle as the first to use the term: Chemical Analysis
A history of chemistry… citing Boyle as the first to use the term: Chemical Analysis

Yesterday was Robert Boyle’s birthday (happy birthday Bob!) and in Twitter chit-chat, an interesting nugget emerged from Prof Damien Arrigan. He recalled reading that it was Boyle who first coined the term chemical analysis. Pointing me to the source, a paper by Duncan Thorburn Burns in his 1982 paper on Boyle, one can go back further to the original reference: Ernest von Meyer’s 1891 book “A History of Chemistry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day“, now available on In this edition, we can see on pp 111-112 that Boyle progressed from the fluctuating and uncertain meaning of ‘element’ to one that meant a substance “that can be demonstrated to be the undecomposable constituents of bodies” (von Meyer). Boyle also considered that in time many more elements would be discovered, and that many existing substances considered to be elements were not actually so. Boyle continued this thought process to consider compounds, distinguishing them from mixtures; these being a combination of two constituents that differ in properties from either constituent alone.

All of this leads to a rational conceptualisation of the main problem of chemistry at the time: the investigation of the composition of substances. von Meyer considers that before Boyle’s time, analytical chemistry did not exist, and that Boyle was the first to use the term chemical analysis. (We also owe him thanks for the term “chemical reaction”.) Thorburn Burns reports that the first explicit use of the term was in a letter from Boyle to Frederick Clodius (a chemist) written in Ireland in 1654:

“I live here in a barbarous country where chemical spirits are too misunderstood, and chemical instruments so unprocurable, that it is hard to have any hermetic thoughts in it, and impossible to bring them to experiment. . . . For my part, that I may not live wholly useless, or altogether a stranger in the study of nature, since I wont for glasses and furnaces to make a chemical analysis of inanimate bodies, I am exercising myself in making anatomical dissections of living animals”

Of especial interest to Irish historians, on searching the original source,* it appears that Boyle was going to be assisted in this task by his friend Dr (later Sir) William Petty, army physician, and all round polymath.


*Birch’s The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, available on Hathitrust.

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The role of prior knowledge

One of the main challenges in teaching first year university students is that they have a great variety of backgrounds. A quick survey of any year one class will likely yield students who have come straight from school, students returning to education, and students who have taken a circuitous route through pre-university courses. Even the main block of students coming directly from school are a diverse group. Different school systems mean students can cover different content, and even that is assuming they take that subject at all. Those challenged with teaching first years know this better than those who take modules only in later years, when the group of students becomes somewhat more homogeneous.

All of this makes it difficult for the first year lecturer to approach their task, facing students who have, in our case, chemistry knowledge ranging from none at one extreme to a significant part of the syllabus they will be taking at the other.  As well as trying to navigate a syllabus that doesn’t isolate the novice learners and bore those who have “done it before”, there is a conceptual basis for worrying about this as well. Back in the 1950s, David Ausubel stated that the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Learners overlap new information with some existing knowledge, so that an ever-increasing complex understanding of a topic can develop. Unfortunately for novice learners, substantial unfamiliarity emphasises the attraction of rote learning, meaning that new information learned for the purpose of an exam and not integrated with some prior knowledge will likely be quickly forgotten, never mind understood.

In my own work (CERP, 2009, 10, 227-232), I analysed the performance of first year students in their end of module exam, and demonstrated that there was a consistent significant difference between the grades achieved by students who had taken chemistry at school and those that hadn’t. This difference disappeared from Year 2 onwards, suggesting that the group had levelled out somewhat by the end of the year. The response to this was to introduce pre-lecture activities so that students could at least familiarise themselves with some key terminology prior to lectures; a small attempt to generate some prior knowledge. Even this minor intervention led to the disappearance of any significant difference in exam scores (see BJET, 2012, 43(4), 2012 667–677).

I was reminded of all of this work by an excellent recent paper in Chemistry Education Research and Practice from Kevin de Berg and Kerrie Boddey which advances the idea further. Teaching nursing students in Australia, the researchers categorised the students as having completed senior school chemistry (SC), having completed a 3 day bridging course (BC) and having not studied chemistry since junior years of school (PC for poor chemistry). Statistical analysis showed some unsurprising results: those students with school chemistry scored higher (mean: 67%); followed by the bridging course students (54%); and lastly those students with poor chemistry (47%). The difference between BC and PC students was not significant however, although there were more lower performing students in the latter group.

These results align well with prior work on the value of prior knowledge in chemistry and the limited but positive impact of bridging courses. For me, this paper is valuable for its qualitative analysis. Students were interviewed about their experiences of learning chemistry. Those students who had completed the bridging course spoke about its value. For example, the authors quote Bella (please note, qualitative researchers, the author’s clever and helpful use of names beginning with B for Bridging Course students):

I think if I had actually gone straight just to class that first day not knowing anything, I don’t think I would have done half as well as what I would having known it.

Additionally, such was the perceived value of the bridging course, those students who had no prior chemistry felt left out. Paula states how she thinks it would have helped:

Familiarity in advance. Just, so you’re prepared. So you get the sort of basic, the basic framework of it all. So then, I’d sort of, got a head start and not be so overwhelmed…

Another interesting feature highlighted by students was the unique language of chemistry. Students spoke of entering their first chemistry class as being “like stepping into another world” and being “absolute Greek”. Additionally, the conceptual domains proved challenging, with students  overwhelmed by formulae and trying to visualise the molecular world. Pam states:

Maybe with anatomy, you can see more, you know, the things we’re cuttin’ up into pieces and looking inside. With chemistry, you can’t see it, so you gotta imagine that in your head and it’s hard tryin’ to imagine it, without actually physically touching it.

In a comprehensive review of prior knowledge, Dochy (1999) described “an overview of research that only lunatics would doubt“: prior knowledge was the most significant element in learning. Indeed, the review goes further when it considers strategies that teachers can use when considering students from differing backgrounds. I like this quote from Glaser and DeCorte cited elsewhere by Dochy:

Indeed, new learning is exceedingly difficult when prior informal as well as formal knowledge is not used as a springboard for future learning. It has also become more and more obvious, that in contrast to the traditional measures of aptitude, the assessment of prior knowledge and skill is not only a much more precise predictor of learning, but provides in addition a more useful basis for instruction and guidance’

This for me points a way forward. Much of the work on prior knowledge has concentrated on assessing the differences in performance as a function on prior knowledge or surveying the impact of amelioration strategies that aim to bring students up to the same level before teaching commences (such as bridging courses, pre-lecture activities, etc). But what about a more individualised learning path for students whereby a student’s starting point is taken from where their current understanding is. This would be beneficial to all learners – those without and also those with chemistry, the latter group could be challenged on any misconceptions in their prior knowledge. With technology getting cleverer, this is an exciting time to consider such an approach.

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ChemEd Ireland, DIT Kevin St on Sat Oct 11th

ChemEd Ireland is being held at Dublin Institute of Technology Kevin St on Saturday October 11th, 2014. 

The 33rd Chem-Ed Ireland Conference returns to Dublin on Saturday October 11th from 9.30 am to 4pm at Dublin Institute of Technology Kevin St. Campus (5 minutes walk from St. Stephen’s Green). This annual event provides an opportunity to share resources and ideas relevant to teaching chemistry and science in Ireland. It features both presentations and workshops on topics that include; the new Junior Cycle Science specification, effective hands-on laboratory demonstrations, new chemistry teaching resources, applications of chemistry research and applying technology to enhance teaching and learning.

Contributors include:

  • Dr Kristy Turner, Royal Society of Chemistry School Teacher Fellow and Teacher Trainer
  • Miriam Hamilton, Junior Cycle for Teachers Science Team Leader
  • Marie Walsh, Limerick IT, coordinator of Chemistry is All Around Us project
  • Dr Maria Sheehan, Science Advisor with the Professional Development Service for Teachers
  • Angela McKeown, Royal Society of Chemistry Programme Manager for Ireland

The conference fee includes a hot lunch, tea and coffee and the conference programme


Please register at the Eventbrite website at this link:

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How difficult are Gas Law questions?

At last – a way to quantify if you are asking a nasty question or not!

CharlesProblem solving imposes a cognitive load on novice learners. Even if the problem is simple (often called exercises, if they involve routine algorithmic tasks), the learner will need to recall how to approach each stage of the exercise in order to solve the entire problem. Thus the question arises: if a problem involves several tasks, does each one add to the cognitive load? Which ones do learners find difficult.

This question was addressed for Gas Laws in an interesting paper in Journal of Chemical Education. The authors took typical gas law questions, and determined what processes were required to solve them. Each of these processes had a level of difficulty. For example, sometimes the number might be presented in scientific notation, or sometimes a unit change was required. The authors listed five variables that could be distinguished:

  1. The gas identity: whether it was “an ideal gas” or a “mixture of gases” or an “unknown gas”.
  2. The number format: whether it was general (1.23) , decimal (0.0123) or scientific (1.23E-2).
  3. The unit change required in volume: no change (L to L or mL to mL), or conversion mL to L, L to mL.
  4. The unit change required in temperature.
  5. The units of pressure.

From this, questions of different complexity could be derived using all of these variables – in total a possible 432 combinations. These range from easy questions where no conversion was required, to difficult questions where conversions were required. The authors then analysed several thousand answers from chemistry and non-chemistry major students in their first year. Based on what was involved in each question, they could determine what was causing least and most difficulty. Read paper for lots of statistics—I’m going to highlight the results.


The results are interesting for two reasons: they identify for this particular set of questions what variables caused most difficulty, and more so, the authors generate a cognitive load increment for all items ranging from those which don’t cause a significant cognitive load to those that do. I think it is an interesting way to present the data. The load was given a rating of 0: no additional load increment; 0.25: small effect; 0.5: medium effect; 1: large effect.  The total cognitive load increment for a question is determined by adding up the individual components.

Of the five variables listed above, only two showed significance in the analysis.

  • The number format: If the number was in scientific notation, this caused difficulty (a cognitive load increment of 0.5). Decimal format had a smaller effect (0.25).
  • The volume conversion: interestingly, if students were given L(itres) and need to convert to mL, this had a significant load associated with it—the largest observed. The conversion in the other direction also had a significant load, although the former was perceived to be more difficult, as it involved dividing. Both were assigned a load increment of 1.
  • Additionally, there was marginal significance for the temperature value – providing and requiring °C (i.e. have to convert through K). this had an increment of 0.5.

Thus a very easy question would be that shown below (given in the paper – complexity factors in bold). No conversions are required and the number format is general. This has a cognitive load increment of zero according to the authors’ scheme.

An ideal gas occupies an initial volume of 6.22 L at a temp of 262 L. What is the final volume in units of L if the temperature is changed to 289.6 K while the pressure remains constant.

On the other hand, this whopper is a hard question. Scientific notation and unit changes abound, and this has a cognitive load increment of 2.25:

A mixture of ideal gases (…) occupies an initial volume of 3.21 x 106 mL at a temperature of 62.8 °C. What is the final volume in L(itres) if the temperature is changed to 89.6 °while the pressure remains at a constant value of 1.2 atm.

Now its time to analyse our gas law questions – are we being too easy or too hard?!


J. D. Schuttlefield , J. Kirk , N. J. Pienta , and H. Tang, Investigating the Effect of Complexity Factors in Gas Law Problems, Journal of Chemical Education, 2012, 89, 586-591. [Link]

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Blogging Chemistry Education

Education in Chemistry launched their new blog earlier this year and the editorial staff there were good (brave?) enough to give me a platform to post articles on the theme of chemistry education. There are at least three posts per month and today I posted my 10th article—see links below. If you haven’t seen the blog yet, do have a look—there are guest articles by others including Dr Kristy Turner’s “Do subject specialist teachers matter?” and Dr Keith Taber’s “Ignoring the research and getting the science wrong“—both of which should be of interest to Irish educators as we discuss what and how we do things at secondary level. There’s a healthy discussion both in the blog comments and in the Education in Chemistry LinkedIn group.

My 10 articles are:

  1. Some thoughts on implementing the flipped classroom – this generated a lot of discussion!
  2. Some suggestions for preparing screencasts – a how-to article on using screencasts.
  3. An opinion piece on the value/impact of innovations in teaching.
  4. A blogroll of other great chemistry education blogs.
  5. An article with a video on using back issues of Education in Chemistry and Chemistry World for student generated posters.
  6. An article on some clever web-apps that allow the reuse of existing web-video content with your own emphasis.
  7. A conference report on the New Perspectives in Science Education meeting.
  8. An post following up the CPD article on chemical bonding in EiC.
  9. An opinion piece on where the impetus for integrating innovative practice in teaching lies.
  10. A conference report on the 9th Irish Variety in Chemistry Education meeting held in DIT on 6th May 2014.

Lots more to come!

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