In 2014/2015, 18,495 people opted to study undergraduate chemistry at higher education in the UK. What do we know about their experience of learning chemistry?
A search of Web of Science for those based in the UK publishing about chemistry education in the period 2014, 2015, 2016 was conducted. This returned 88 hits. An initial screening reduced this number to 71. Those removed included things like returns for a “Wales” hit that was New South Wales, or book chapters that weren’t about chemistry teaching in classrooms, or authors based in the UK but writing about non-UK classrooms.
Of these 71, the results were categorised as follows. 7 papers referred to chemical engineering, or something specific about chemistry for engineers. While these may have value to chemists, they are not about teaching chemistry to chemists. Similarly, 1 paper was specifically discussing some detail of chemistry relevant to a pharmacy syllabus.
This left 63. A further 10 articles were about school chemistry. 6 were editorials, and 2 were reviews about some aspect of chemistry, which, while written in the UK, obviously extended their reach into international curricula. A further 3 were about informal chemistry; public or outreach or the presentation of chemistry in popular books.
So now we are left with 42 articles about chemistry education in higher education written by someone based in the UK. The majority of these – 22 – were about something to do with laboratory work; typically some new laboratory experiment, but occasionally some approach to doing something in the lab (e.g. alternative lab reports). A further 16 were categorised innovative ideas; unusual or novel approaches that are being reported because of novelty. The evaluation on whether such innovations are effective or not in this category tend to be based on student evaluations or questionnaires, and typically lack a formal research basis.
This leaves 4 articles published in 2014, 2015, 2016 that described something about the curriculum or the learners in higher education chemistry. 2 of these articles were written by Overton and Randles at Hull, both of whom are now abroad. The remaining 2 were on how well maths prepares students for studying chemistry – part of a large project looking at the relevance of maths for a variety of subjects; and on the design and evaluation of a polymer course. That’s it.
We know nothin’
I argue then that we have no idea how students experience chemistry in higher education in the UK. We have no idea how well school chemistry prepares them, what their difficulties are, how they study, or what particular aspects of studying the UK chemistry degree are challenging. We’ve no idea how students experience lectures, what they learn in laboratories, nor how tutorials run. We don’t know how students balance workload, how they study, what affect part-time work has, nor whether students are able to discuss the relevance of chemistry to everyday life. We get occasional glimpses about issues around students’ employability, thanks to the work such as that done at Nottingham (CERP, 2017, outside the time boundary of this search) but we have never revisited the glory of Hanson and Overton, 2010. We will of course have copious amounts of data on students’ entry performance. We can guess that we will have normal distributions in grade data in our annual assessments, and that external examiners will generally be satisfied. Entry and output detail are all we can cling on to.
Around 19,000 chemistry students will be starting in September. We desperately need some funding to begin to find out in a serious way what experience awaits them.