My Education in Chemistry blog posts

A lot of my bloggery is now on the Education in Chemistry blog, and this post will keep a running table of contents of my posts there:

27. Variety in Chemistry Education 2015Conference report from the 21st Variety in Chemistry Education meeting, held conjointly with the Physics Higher Education Conference. 

26. We are failing our students and society: what do students who are leaving us to pursue other careers leave with? Shouldn’t we give them some chemistry useful for their role in society?

25. We need to talk about VLEs: VLEs are set up for failure, as their main use is a content repository. This sends a false message about what online learning can be. 

24. The case for inquiry-based learning: Part II of this post – arguing for inquiry based learning. We are not in the nineteenth century any more, Toto. 

23. The case against inquiry-based learning: Part I of this post – all the evidence seems to point towards direct instruction. (Comments on this post are well worth reading)

22. Worked examples for assisting student learning: There is a significant evidence base for incorporating worked examples (as understood in terms of cognitive load theory) into our teaching and formative assessment.

21. Using video for lab reports

20. Stop motion animation to facilitate group discussion

19. There’s something about maths…

18. Teaching for transition

17. Variety in Chemistry Education conference report

16. Integrating art into the chemistry curriculum

15. Context Based Learning at #ICCE2014

14. Lots of chemistry education at #ICCE2014

13. Warming to PeerWise

12. Teaching thermochemistry

11. Learning to write about chemistry

10. Conference Report: Irish Variety in Chemistry Education

9. Translating research into classroom practice

8. Chemical Bonding Confusion

7. Conference Report: New Perspectives in Science Education

6. Screencasting: reusing existing content

5. Student posters on chemistry topics

4. The great EiC blogorama!

3. The impact of innovations in teaching

2. Preparing screencasts – a few thoughts

1. Implementing the flipped classroom



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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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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: http://sisu.ut.ee/eurovariety/avaleht

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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.  (http://ahead.ie/conference2015)


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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 archive.org. 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: http://www.eventbrite.ie/e/chemed-ireland-2014-tickets-12938390073

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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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ACS ConfChem on Flipped Lectures Now Online

ACSlogoFrom tomorrow, 9th May, the 2014 Spring ConfChem begins. ConfChem is an online conference, and the theme of this one is “Flipped Lectures”. The conference abstract is below. Each week, two papers are discussed, and my paper “Student Engagement with Flipped Chemistry Lectures” is first up! Do join in with the conference over the coming weeks. You can find the conference papers and joining instructions at: http://confchem.ccce.divched.org/2014SpringConfChem 

Conference Abstract

Among educational practice there has been significant attention on the flipped classroom, which is an innovative pedagogical method used by K-12 to college and university educators. There are many different approaches to implementing a flipped classroom. In particular, some educators pre-record lectures of themselves presenting material, others use screen casts to convey information to students before attending class in order to facilitate more peer-to-peer learning, and some teachers use a flipped classroom approach that does not involve videos. Ultimately, the shift in learning is focused on changing the classroom from passive to active.

The purpose of the symposium is to present papers on the flipped classroom and its development of flipped learning. Although some authors are invited to discuss the technical aspects of the flipped classroom, the focus of our symposium will be about how teachers use the face-to-face class time gained by changing from a completely lecture based classroom. Please join the discussion during this symposium as we explore the wide variety of approaches with the authors and other members of the chemical education and flipped classroom communities.

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Teaching the history of chemistry at school

The following question was part of the Leaving Cert Higher Level examination paper in 2010:


There are many problems with these questions, worth 4.25% of the Higher Level paper. They are, of course, completely reliant on recall. There is no chemical understanding required here, and any student with a decent set of bullet-point notes will be able to rattle off that atoms are small, indivisible, and have identical atomic mass for a given element (8 marks) & Thomson, Rutherford, and Millikan (9 marks). 17 marks in the bag – no chemistry required.

Some easy marks on an exam are excusable. A much larger issue here is how the history of chemistry is presented and examined as a list of facts and dates. This is an awful pity, because the history of chemistry allows for a powerful illustration of how the scientific process works. Instead of isolated dates and facts as listed in the syllabus* and presented in textbooks**, we could instead present the history of chemistry as a continuing revision of our understanding based on new information as it comes to light. Much more important, and relevant, and let’s be honest, interesting, than the dates and facts themselves are the whys? and so-what? questions. Why did Thomson complete his experiments? In other words, instead of focussing on the events in isolation, what is more relevant are the links between them.

What does this mean in practice? How can this be approached at a level appropriate for this stage (and in the time available). My personal opinion is that the reasons and context of these experiments and the conclusions from the results are much more valuable than the names of the (white, male) scientists that completed them. Let’s take Thomson as an example. In his original paper, he says that his experiments are set against the backdrop of two competing theories: cathode rays are wave-like in nature or that cathode rays are charged particles. He writes:

The electrified-particle theory has for purposes of research a great advantage over the aetherial theory, since it is definite and its consequences can be predicted.

In other words – if the particles are charged, it is a lot easier to design an experiment to investigate their presence. Thomson did not, as popular textbooks and revision guides suggest, prove that these particles were negative.† This had already been done two years previously by the Frenchman Jean Perrin. Thomson writes of that experiment:

This has been proved to be the case by Perrln… [his] experiment proves that something charged with negative electricity is shot off from the cathode, travelling at right angles to it.

Thomson Apparatus
Thomson Apparatus

Thomson used a variation of Perrin’s experiment to incorporate both an electometer (to measure electric charge) and a phosphorescent screen (to measure path of cathode rays). He used a magnet to deflect the cathode rays through a narrow slit where the charge of the rays could be collected. His experiment thus demonstrated that the negative charge and the rays were one and the same. His surmised:

Thus this experiment shows that however we twist and deflect the cathode rays by magnetic forces, the negative electrification follows the same path as the rays, and that this negative electrification is indissolubly connected with the cathode rays.

The next question is whether these charges were ions, or a universal charge. Briefly, the charge to mass experiment shows that they were not ions, as the value was constant, and different ions would have different charges, hence giving a different ratio. In addition, as the charge to mass ratio was an enormous number, it must mean that the mass was very light indeed – much lighter than an atom. Thus the conclusion is that this is a universal particle, that is smaller than the atom.


This brief discussion of this single component in the history of chemistry argues against point-by-point facts that are out of context and offer little understanding. Indeed, over-simplification has led to a misrepresentation of the history of our understanding of this topic. A much greater learning opportunity exists by shifting the emphasis to consider the context of each experiment. This allows the student to consider the development of the idea of atomic structure from Dalton through Thomson in a much more holistic manner. Niaz and Rodríguez argue that the current emphasis of presenting these topics as ‘rhetoric of conclusions’ is not conducive to towards understanding the scientific process. They write:

It is not far fetched to suggest that such presentations lead the students to memorize the experimental details and ignore the underlying rationale for the experiment, which could facilitate conceptual understanding. Thus the theoretical rationale (‘heuristic principle’) in which the experiment is conducted is more important than the experiment itself.


†Thomson did complete an experiment using electrostatic plates, but this was an extension of previous experiments whereby he created a near vacuum to show that the rays were deflected by a small charge – something that hadn’t been proven.

  • Niaz M. and Rodríguez M. A.  (2000) Teaching Chemistry as Rhetoric of Conclusions or Heuristic Principles – A History and Philosophy of Science Perspective, Chemistry Education: Research and Practice in Europe, 1(3), 315-322.
  • Thomson, J. J. (1897) Cathode rays, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 44, 293-316.

*This is what the syllabus requires to be covered:

Very brief outline of the historical development of atomic theory (outline principles only; mathematical treatment not required):

Dalton: atomic theory; Crookes: vacuum tubes, cathode rays; Stoney: naming of the electron; Thomson: negative charge of the electron; e/m for electrons (experimental details not required); Millikan: magnitude of charge of electrons as shown by oil drop experiment (experimental details not required); Rutherford: discovery of the nucleus as shown by the α−particle scattering experiment; discovery of protons in nuclei of various atoms; Bohr: model of the atom; Chadwick: discovery of the neutron

**This is an outline of the coverage of Dalton to Rutherford in a popular textbook (my summary):

Beginning of nineteenth century: Dalton put forward atomic theory to explain results from his experiments with gases. Three assumptions of Dalton’s theory given (matter consists of atoms, atoms are indivisible, atoms cannot be created nor destroyed).
Mid nineteenth century: electric currents passing through gas at low pressure caused a glow. Crookes postulated the idea of cathode rays. These rays caused a paddle wheel to rotate away from cathode.
End of nineteenth century: Thomson investigated charge of these rays and ‘discovered’ the electron. He also used an electromagnet and determined the e/m ratio, whose number we don’t need to know. Thomson also proposed the plum pudding model.
Early 20th century: Millikan determined the charge and mass of the electron with the oil drop experiment. Rutherford experiment and observations led to a revised model of atom.

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Plagiarism: Detection, Prevention, Monitoring

I attended the National Forum for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning seminar on plagiarism organised by Kevin O’Rourke at DIT’s Learning Teaching and Technology Centre. The meeting was interesting as it covered three aspects of plagiarism (in my opinion):

  1. Plagiarism detection
  2. Designing out plagiarism through various L&T methods
  3. Institutional and national profiling of extents of plagiarism

Plagiarism detection is probably the area most academics are familiar with in terms of the plagiarism debate. The pros and cons of SafeAssign and Turnitin were discussed by Kevin O’Rourke and Claire McAvinia of DIT, and the core message seemed to be that this kind of software is at best a tool in helping identify plagiarism. Care should be taken in using the plagiarism score which really needs to be read in the context of the document itself. In addition, the score itself is subject to limitations—it isn’t transparent what academic material is available to the software. Also, while it can be constructive to allow students to submit drafts to allow them gauge the level of plagiarism in their writing, there can be a tendency that students rewrite small sections with the aim of reducing the numerical score, rather than re-considering the document as a whole. Kevin pointed us to this video if you are interested in looking at this topic more.

The second component on designing out plagiarism was of most interest to me. Perry Share of IT Sligo gave a very interesting talk on the wide spectrum of plagiarism, ranging from intentional to unintentional, or “prototypical to patch-writing”. I think the most important thing coming out of his presentation was the consideration of how to design curricula (and most importantly assessment) to teach out plagiarism. A basic example was the consideration of assessment so that it avoided repetitious assignments or assignments that do not vary from year to year. This then developed into considering the process of academic writing. Students writing with a purpose, an overall motivation, will be more likely to consider their own thoughts (and write in their own words) as they have an argument or opinion they wish to present. Students lacking such a purpose will thus lack motivation, and thus revert to the rote-learning style reproduction of existing material. There was an interesting conversation on the lack of formal training for writing in undergraduate programmes. This might consider that “patch-writing” is a part of writing, especially among novices. This involves including some elements of other people’s material/structure in early drafts, but is iteratively rewritten as the author develops their own argument in their own voice to reach the final draft. Current assessment methods often don’t allow the time for this process to develop. Perry referenced Pecorari as a good text to follow up. An earlier webinar by Perry on the contextual element of plagiarism is available here.

Finally, Irene Glendinning (Coventry) spoke about an enormous Europe-wide project on monitoring levels of plagiarism, plagiarism policy, and so on. It was impressive in scale, and generated some interesting data, including an emerging “Academic Integrity” index. The work is subject to limited responses in some countries, but it looks to be a useful index to monitoring the extent of plagiarism prvention and policy existing in EU countries. The executive summary for Ireland was circulated and full details of the project are on the website: http://ippheae.eu/.

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So-called “Radical” education reforms

In the week of the teacher conferences, Minister Quinn’s special adviser has earned the large pay packet this morning. The Irish Times, Independent and Examiner all carry details of the changes planned for the Leaving Cert grading system. “Leaving Cert grades face radical change under plan” writes Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times. “ABC system will be dropped in sweeping education changes” says Katherine Donnelly in the Independent.

grading scaleThe reform announced will see the number of grades drop from 14 to 8, with bands every 10% rather than the current 5%. While this is welcome, the education correspondents seem to suggest that this will somehow “nurture a spirit of enquiry” (Donnelly) or allow schools “reclaim their purpose as educational institutions” (Humphreys). (Unfortunately neither of these goals were achieved in the short time after the Irish Times proclaimed the points race to be “over” a few years ago.)

While proclaiming the wonder of this radical new plan sweeping through education, our education correspondents seem to miss out on some details. Points awarded at higher and ordinary levels are not proposed. The balance between ordinary and higher has often been the subject of debate and in the case of maths, has led to the introduction of bonus points, to stem the flow of students aiming for 60 points at ordinary rather than risking it all in the higher stakes maximum of 100. What is proposed for the new system?

Our reporters happily lay the blame of the current system firmly at the door of the third level sector, arguing that the colleges asked for the current system to increase the granularity of the points awarded and hence reduce the number of places awarded by random selection. That was in 1992. There are a lot more courses on the CAO now, so with decreased granularity, there will be a lot more allocation by random selection. Did the reporters query to what extent the expert group believe this will be the case?

The reports mention in the same breath that the grading bands are being reduced to avoid teaching to the test, but that a separate study has found that predictability is not an issue. There is a conflict here that should be investigated.


The real issue is number of places allocated per course. To make courses popular, colleges subdivide main entry courses (e.g. Engineering, Science) into different categories and allocate small numbers of places per course. Therefore these courses, which are predominantly co-taught with other courses, will have high points on entry, and become more popular, attracting more students and requiring higher points. It’s a self-propagating system. Humphreys writes:

Instead of asking school leavers to chose between, for example, “physics with astronomy”, “applied physics”, “physics with biomedical sciences” and “analytical science” – to take four courses off the DCU prospectus – there will be a greater focus on putting applicants through “common entry” science, allowing them to specialise later. In fact, DCU already offers such a course.

The real question is if DCU already offer such a course, why then do they (and all colleges) continue to offer the specific courses? Humphreys does report that the college “are intensively reviewing their programme portfolios to reduce the complexity of choice and to ensure broader entry programmes into higher education,” quoting directly from the report linked to the Minister’s press release, but doesn’t make the point, which Niall Murray of the Examiner does, that this was first proposed in 2011. Why is there a delay?

A commitment to review the courses by the institutions themselves is a bit like a commitment to ensure responsible drinking by the alcohol industry. No-one wants to make the first move. Perhaps the HEA telling colleges that they have a limit on the number of courses they will fund through direct entry might initiate some progress. Colleges can have as much choice as they like in second and subsequent years (you know, the way it used to be), but all entry must be through a single point. Now that would be a radical, sweeping change.

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Peer Pressure

I should be convinced about peer teaching but I’m not. Educators who I respect and who advocate the benefits of peer-tutoring, Peerwise and well, general peeriness, have demonstrated improved grades where lecturers use one of a multitude of peer activities. In what follows, I consider peer teaching to be one where students take some or all responsibility for teaching content to each other. I don’t include group work or discussion work, which is teacher led and maintains the academic input of the teacher.

I accept that peer teaching has a role at early undergraduate level, where peers working with each other have some chance of being able to learn from or to teach one another. For example, a student with prior knowledge of chemistry may be able to bring an informed understanding of a topic to a peer teaching scenario, and as the old saying goes, the only way to learn is to teach. A think-pair-share in a first year lecture could work well. Great.

My problem is that once we move beyond basic topics, I can’t see how peer teaching will work. A student going away and learning about a topic and coming back to tell his group about it is all very well; but wouldn’t it just be easier, and frankly more academically rigorous, if the lecturer teaches and the student learns? This situation doesn’t mean we have to default to the traditional lecture.

Maybe I’ve a narrow view of what peer teaching is. But when I see improvements in exam scores, I wonder if it is just because the students interacted in some way, any way, with the material one or two more times before they were assessed on it.

Perhaps my worry is that the laudable ideas of peer teaching don’t stack up when you implement them in the classroom. There’s the story about the guy who wrote the book on problem-based learning but never actually taught that way himself. It sounded good on paper though. But for example with Peerwise, I’ve heard people speak at conferences where they say they are not sure whether the students are writing questions or copying them from elsewhere. I’d love to see a study where a Peerwise group was compared to a group that were given weekly quizzes. And peer teaching in groups, where my fictional student reports back his new knowledge to the group. Ideally, the lecturer is available here at all times to give feedback on understanding; but the reality may be that we get a draft report or presentation, where we can only address some headline issues. Although lauded as a way of saving time, I think it might need a lot more time to do well.

I’m open to being convinced. Convince or agree…

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