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.
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.
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.”
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
G. W. Anderson (1978) The Playfair Collection and the Teaching of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh 1713 – 1858, The Royal Scottish Museum: Edinburgh.
P.D. Wightman (1955) William Cullen and the teaching of chemistry, Annals of Science, 11(2), 154-165.
P.D. Wightman (1956) William Cullen and the teaching of chemistry—II, Annals of Science, 12:3, 192-205
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:
restructure the curriculum,
attract more young people to science,
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.
Assessment 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.
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:
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.
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.
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…
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…
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:
What do you think the potential of flipping is?
What concerns you about the model?
Is it scalable?
In terms of resources, have you any thoughts on the materials prepared for lecture flipping in advance of and/or for lectures.
How do you consider/reconsider assessment in light of lecture flipping.
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.”
I 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)
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.
At last – a way to quantify if you are asking a nasty question or not!
Problem 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:
The gas identity: whether it was “an ideal gas” or a “mixture of gases” or an “unknown gas”.
The number format: whether it was general (1.23) , decimal (0.0123) or scientific (1.23E-2).
The unit change required in volume: no change (L to L or mL to mL), or conversion mL to L, L to mL.
The unit change required in temperature.
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 °C 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]
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):
Designing out plagiarism through various L&T methods
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/.
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.
A question always likely to give strong response is whether PowerPoint should be used in lectures. Those advocating its use point to a more organised lecture where the structure has been thought out in advance. Those against it say that PowerPoint makes it too easy to put too much content in lectures and accompanying handouts. I don’t have a Yes/No opinion, because I think it depends very much on the person and what they do.
While raiding the archives of Education in Chemistry (EiC), I came across some old but interesting articles on the topic of lecturing. Before I was born, Alex Johnstone wrote an article “Attention Breaks in Lectures” in EiC. In it, he outlines a study he undertook where student attention was monitored by observers in 90 chemistry lectures. Attention drops—doodling, looking around, yawning, chatting—were recorded. Interestingly, the course been taught was delivered twice in one day, so a comparison could be drawn between groups. Not surprisingly, the average performance of a groupwas found to correlate with the level of attention paid. The twelve lecturers giving the course varied in style. The lapses in attention were more common in lecturers that did not vary their style compared to those that did: by using activities such as models, experiments, problem-solving sessions, etc. The general pattern of lapses in attention were found to exist at the start of the lecture and about 10 – 18 minutes later, with further lapses over the duration of the lecture. Attention span dropped during the lecture, so that by the end of the lecture, attention span was 3 – 4 minutes.
When I was starting university, Johnstone wrote another article for EiC. In this article, “Lectures-a learning experience?” Johnstone stated that the average lecturer delivers approximately 5000 words in a lecture, with a student recording about 500 of these. This article reports what students chose to write down and why they felt some information was more important. The study found that students recorded about 90% of what was on the blackboard, with inaccuracies ore common with diagrams or equations. Lecturer corrections, demonstrations and examples of applications typically went unrecorded. Note-taking styles did not vary for students, even if the lecturing style or content was different. Students themselves ranked lecturers in terms of effectiveness, and those marked “ineffective” tended to have a higher word count per lecture—they cover more, although from the perspective of the student, they make less sense.
For me, the question is a lot bigger than “To PowerPoint or not”…
AH Johnstone and F Percival, Attention breaks in lectures, Education in Chemistry, 1976, 13, 49-50.
AH Johnstone and WY Su, Lectures – a learning experience? Education in Chemistry, 1994, 31, 75-76.
Registration for the Irish Variety in Chemistry Education (#iViCE14) is now open. [Link to Conference Webpage] The conference is being held on Tuesday 6th May 2014 and aims to bring together practitioners and others interested in higher education chemistry teaching. It is a popular meeting allowing for the sharing of ideas and discussion of interesting practice.
This year, the conference themes are Technology in Chemistry Education and Transition from 2nd to 3rd Level. Abstracts for talks relating to these topics are especially welcome.
The meeting is sponsored by the Royal Society of Chemistry (Republic of Ireland Local Section), and attendance is free.
The 9th Irish Variety in Chemistry Education meeting is scheduled for Tuesday 6th May 2014 at DIT. This meeting is always a popular event with 3rd level chemistry practitioners from around the country and beyond sharing good practice in their chemistry teaching. The meeting is supported by the Royal Society of Chemistry Republic of Ireland Local Section.
A recent review by Kay gives a brief overview of video lectures which provides some useful information [see here for open access version]. Perhaps more interesting though are a list of questions at the end of the paper which Kay feels remain unanswered. I’ve listed them below, and thrown in a few of my own thoughts. I’d be interested in hearing what others think.
1. What is the optimum length for video podcasts and does that depend on the nature of content?
This is a common question, but I think it does depend not on the nature of the content, but on what you want students to do with the content. Sitting watching a video for 10 minutes while doing nothing will seem like a very long time, but I think using a 10 minute video to work through a work sheet or other activity won’t feel as long…?
2. Are summaries more effective than full lectures video podcasts?
McGarr has summarised podcasts as substitutional or supplemental as often mentioned on this site. The question is really – is it worth repeating a passive learning experience in a video form? Neither a summary nor a full lecture is likely to be much use if there isn’t an additional learning benefit to the students in addressing a problem or using it in some way.
3. Are worked-examples better addressed through the use of video podcasts than in lectures?
I am a big fan of worked examples, and I think they are useful learning and revision tools. I think this is one area where video podcasts have huge potential. In a lecture environment, students probably don’t have time to both work through the example and process the discipline specific material in each step. Moving this online (or at least providing additional worked examples online) help in this regard as students can work through them at their own pace.
4. Can administrative tasks be adequately addressed using video podcasts?
Bleurgh. Well maybe…? No… Bleurgh.
I have toyed with some induction material on vodcast… maybe there are other options?
5. Could video podcasts be used to give feedback to students?
David McGarvey at Keele spoke about this at the Irish Variety and gave some really concrete examples of how video feedback had an enormous impact on the quality of students’s final submission of work. I don’t know if there is much published on this.
6. What type of content or concepts are best suited to the video podcast format and is there still a roll for audio podcasts?
Audio podcasts never seem to have taken off in science, and I think it is because of the nature of the content; equations, graphical material etc. It’s interesting to note the recent work by Sweller on audio alone versus audio and visual, summarised here, on the preference of the latter.
One thing I have often wondered about when considering videos/animations/audio files is that unlike something written on a piece of paper, the information in multimedia presentation moves on quite quickly. With paper, one can get a sense of the whole, see the sequence, refer back quickly to what went before. With audio or video, information, and often quite complex information, is presented at the pace of the speaker, and it takes a bit of effort to go back and review a segment (i.e. not a glance of an eye). Therefore, for technical topics like chemistry, is there an issue with using multimedia generally?
This idea was discussed in a recent paper by John Sweller and others.* They cite a raft of studies which show that animations do not have any beneficial impact on learning. In this study, they conducted two experiments. The context is that with animations, learners need to simultaneously remember what was just presented along with what is being presented. However, depending on the pace, previous information may be forgotten, and cannot be recalled as easily as static graphics on a piece of paper. Segmentation and user control has previously been shown to aid novice learners. Effective segmentation means that the amount of any information in any segment is within working memory limits.
The first experiment showed children an origami task – it was important that the task included technical elements. Obviously, watching TV includes long sections of text that can be easily processed. The difficulty is the inclusion of technical elements. The task involved 24 steps. Students were shown either video or a series of static images, either in short segments or a continuous presentation. The post-test scores showed students who watched animations scored better than those who had static images, but only if the animation was in short sections.
The second experiment considered length of verbal statements. Students were given instruction on how to read a temperature-time graph, and given five worked examples. The information was presented to the four groups as (1): longer audio text; (2) longer visual text; (3) shorter audio text; (4) shorter visual text. This information was presented in a 330 second presentation, but the amount of explanatory text on the slides differed (long vs short visual text) and in the case of audio only, the explanatory text on the slides was removed and presented as long or short audio segments. After instruction, students were given a post-test. These scores show that the longer visual text was preferable (reverse modality effect). The shorter audio was preferable to the longer audio. These results demonstrate that short spoken statements can be easily held in the auditory working memory, allowing visual memory to process the graphics on the slide. Written information crowds the visual working memory space, reducing capacity to process. However, long auditory information can be difficult to process.
In terms of designing e-resources, these experiments appear to suggest that animations have a beneficial impact on learning, but should be presented in short segments to novice learners, to allow time to process. Audio commentary is beneficial, but again short segments are more useful.
With regards to animations, I think interactivity is important, as it allows the user to click through at their own pace rather than just watching passively. Perhaps table of contents listing slides might help with audio statements, leaving it possible for users to click back on a slide they wish to revisit. But it is a pertinent reminder not to go off on long audio meanders as is our wont.
*A Wong, W Leahy, N Marcus, J Sweller, Cognitive Load Theory, the transient information effect and e-learning, Learning and Instruction, 2012, 22, 449-475.
Technology has the potential to assist us in our role as teachers, but the overwhelming amount of technology can make it difficult for new practitioners to know where to begin in the process of selecting fit-for-purpose technologies. In this paper, I aim to highlight some teaching scenarios where technology can have an impact. These include the following:
Pre-class activities to present some information in advance of classes, and allow learners to check their understanding of this material;
Wikis for facilitating group work and providing a mechanism for tracing each group member’s contribution;
Worked examples to demonstrate problem solving approaches for basic problems;
Podcasting and screencasting for providing supplemental revision material for all learners.
Each example will highlight a case study from practice and further reading for those interested in more.
The incorporation of technology in our teaching is now ubiquitous but such is the amount of possibilities that it can be overwhelming for those new to the field to focus on areas of use to their teaching. In considering the incorporation of technology in teaching, a potentially useful method is to consider what it is that needs to be addressed, and how technology can be used to help in that scenario – in other words the intervention is driven by pedagogy rather than technology. This is likely to lead to resources that are embedded into the curriculum and are useful to learners, meaning that the time required to create or manage a given resource is offset by their benefit to the curriculum implementation. There are several opportunities for including technology in the chemistry teaching [1-5]. In this paper, I highlight four scenarios that can be effectively addressed by incorporating technology into the curriculum delivery.
2. Addressing Issues that arise in teaching chemistry
2.1 Preparing students for classroom learning
Chemistry is a complex topic involving a lot of terminology, and which can be presented in different representations [6, 7]. As such, for novice learners, it can be a difficult topic to engage with as it is easy to become overwhelmed with new information and terminology that can lead to a reduced capacity for learning. This is described well by cognitive load theory, which explains that the capacity of learners to assimilate new information is limited by the working memory space. This space is used used up by the complexity of the material (intrinsic load), the difficulty of extracting the material from the learning resources (extraneous load), and the integration of new knowledge into the long term memory (germane load).The latter load is beneficial to learning, and to maximise its scope, the level of intrinsic and extraneous loads in any learning situation needs to be considered so as not to overwhelm the learner .
Pre-class activities can be an effective strategy in assisting learners deal with new information that they will be exposed to during the class time. While these activities can be as simple as asking students to read a section of the textbook in advance, greater opportunities exist if a technology-based solution is used. These include tracking whether the activity has been completed, including a quiz, and providing feedback and links on areas of difficulty .
In designing the activities, emphasis should be placed on what you want students to know coming into class, not after class. Their aim is to prepare students for the class time. A useful strategy is to consider all of the new terms each class might introduce, and how these relate to the key topic in the class. Therefore a class introducing atoms might define the atom and its constituent sub-atomic particles, and explain isotopes. Therefore students who have completed the activity will have been introduced to the key terminology and been able to check their understanding of some basic principles – for example atomic number and mass number. The class can then build on this work by describing isotopes, calculating atomic mass units, etc. In addition, examining class answers to the quiz can provide valuable information on whether any particular question or topic is providing difficulty before the class begins. By incorporating a quiz at the end of the video resource, it is possible for students to obtain instant feedback on their understanding of the key terms that they need to know.
This simple strategy has been reported at school level and at college level for introductory chemistry. In the school study, two groups of students were taught about chemical equilibrium, with the experimental group scoring higher grades in the post test . The implementation of these strategies at college level led to improved grades for students who had no prior knowledge of chemistry, a fact attributed to their basis in cognitive load theory [11, 12].
The technical requirements of using pre-class activities are relatively straightforward. A podcast/screencast of the material can be prepared and shared on a local virtual learning environment (VLE) or Google Sites. Similarly, the quiz can be included on the VLE or by using Google Forms or similar. It is important to structure what students will do during this time – for example by providing a gapped handout that they can complete and bring to class to build on there. This is a useful strategy for linking the pre-class work with the in-class work.
The concept has been extended further to move more and more of the content-delivery element of the class to beforehand, freeing up more time in the class to working on problems, peer instruction, laboratory work, etc. This concept of “flipping” the classroom has become a popular phenomenon after it was described by two chemistry teachers. Several resources, tips and techniques are available at the Flipped Learning Network, which also includes a chemistry sub-site .
2.2 Wikis for facilitating group work
One of the great difficulties in organizing group activities for students is how to ensure fair assessment. While strategies such as peer-assessment and learning logs are useful, many educators are reluctant to use group work as it is difficult to trace what went on as the group completed their project. Wikis offer a potential technological solution to facilitating group work.
Wikis are an online document editing space that can be open to everyone or just to an invited list. The wiki can be set up so that students can edit pages using a word-processing type editor as well as add pages to create a system of inter-related topics. Therefore, they offer a means to create an online site where several people can contribute. The great benefit of wikis in terms of facilitating group work is that the wiki logs all contributions to the site, when they are added, and who added them. This is visible both to the teacher and to students, and therefore they offer a high degree of transparency to group work – it is very clear who is contributing what and when. Wikis also offer a useful means to help improve student writing and argumentation.
The technical process of wikis is very simple. Most virtual learning environments have a wiki included, and a free one for educational use is www.pbworks.com. Reports of their use in education are mostly restricted to teacher training to date , although there have been some pilot studies on their use with students in several UK and Irish institutions . This work has found that students find wikis easy to use, although some induction is required to explain how to edit others work, and how to write in students’ own words. Some initial training may be required for the teacher to become with using and managing wikis. Examples of wikis developed by school educators include a wiki where each student contributes some information about the periodic table, where students compile information on practical work, or revise particular topics for an exam.
2.3 Worked examples to show how to complete problems
A common approach in teaching chemistry, and especially any mathematical approaches in chemistry is to show a student an example and then get them to try one themselves . Again, this approach can be easily automated and formalized to create a system of worked examples. Worked examples derive from cognitive load theory as they aim to show in a series of identified steps, how to approach and solve a problem. Therefore in learning how to solve the problem, the learner approaches it one step at a time. As they work through the problems, the level of assistance provided is reduced, so that in each iteration, students complete one extra step themselves until they can do the entire problem. This is called “fading” in cognitive load theory.
The incorporation of worked examples can harness this stepwise approach very effectively. This can be easily achieved technically using a VLE quiz or Google form. For example, Behmke describes the iterative approach that was taken for a range of introductory chemistry problems such as acid and base strength, dilution calculations, etc . The incorporation of the fading approach benefited learners in their ability to complete the questions. Ashworth has described a useful method to generate large amounts of calculation questions using Microsoft Excel that could be useful for teachers looking to adopt this approach .
2.4 Podcasting and screencasting
One of the simplest and most effective ways of incorporating technology into our teaching is to create podcasts and screencasts. A podcast (audio only) and screencast (audio with video or screen capture) allows students to recover material in their own time at their own pace. There are some useful resources for how these can be created in a chemistry context [19 – 20]. These webcasts can be of two general types: either they recover what was provided in a class (substitutional) or they provide extra material or explain in further detail something that was delivered in class (supplemental) . The literature appears to suggest that it is supplemental materials that have most use to students – explaining particular concepts, trying out questions, etc. Simply recovering what was done in class adds no extra benefit to students, the time is probably better spent exploring more challenging topics in more detail. Screencasting and podcasting have also proved useful in providing students with feedback .
Podcasts and screencasts are now easily made, and there is a variety of software to prepare them (Audacity, Jing, Camtasia). Several examples of chemistry screencasts are at the website www.chemistryvignettes.net.
While there is a wide range of possibilities for including technology in our teaching, those that are likely to have most benefit are ones which can be integrated with curriculum delivery. The paper summarises four approaches that can be taken, along with some examples from the literature and some practicalities for their implementation.
 Bates, S. and Galloway, R. (2013) Student-generated assessment, Education in Chemistry, 50(1), 18–21.
 Gebru, M. T., Phelps, A. J. and Wulfsberg, G. (2012) Effect of clickers versus online homework on students’ long-term retention of general chemistry course material, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 13(3), 325–329.
 Moore, E. B., Herzog, T. A. and Perkins, K. K. (2013) Interactive simulations as implicit support for guided-inquiry, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 14(3), 257-268.
 Ryan, B. J. (2013) Line up, line up: using technology to align and enhance peer learning and assessment in a student centred foundation organic chemistry module, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 14(3), 229-238.
 Lancaster, S. and Read, D. (2013) Flipping lectures and inverting classrooms, Education in Chemistry, 50(5), 14-17.
 Johnstone, A. H., Sleet, R. J. and Vianna, J. F. (1994) An information processing model of learning: Its application to an undergraduate laboratory course in chemistry, Studies in Higher Education, 19(1), 77-87.
 Taber, K. S. (2013) Revisiting the chemistry triplet: drawing upon the nature of chemical knowledge and the psychology of learning to inform chemistry education, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 14, 156–168.
 Sweller, J. (2008) Routledge: Human Cognitive Architechture, in Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, Spector, J. M., Merrill, M. D., van Merrienboer, J. and Driscoll, M. P., New York, 3rd Ed.
 Seery, M (2012) Jump-starting lectures, Education in Chemistry, 49(5), 22-25.
 Sirhan, G. Gray, C., Johnstone, A. H. and Reid, N (1999) Preparing the mind of the learner, University Chemical Education, 3(2), 43-47.
 Seery, M. K. and Donnelly, R. (2012) The implementation of pre-lecture resources to reduce in-class cognitive load: A case study for higher education chemistry, British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(4), 667–677.
 Crippen, K. J. and Brooks, D. W. (2009) Applying cognitive theory to chemistry instruction: the case for worked examples, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 10(1), 35–41.
 Behmke, D. A. and Atwood, C. H. (2013), Implementation and assessment of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) based questions in an electronic homework and testing system, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 14(3), 247-256.
 Ashworth, S. H. (2013) Generating Large Question Banks of Graded Questions with Tailored Feedback and its Effect on Student Performance. New Directions 9(1), 55-59.
 Seery, M (2012) Podcasting: support and enrich chemistry education, Education in Chemistry, 49(2), 19–22.
 Read, D. and Lancaster, S. (2012) Unlocking video: 24/7 learning for the iPod generation, Education in Chemistry, 49(4), 13–16.
 McGarr, O. (2009) A review of podcasting in higher education: Its influence on the traditional lecture, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25(3), 309–321.
 Haxton, K. J. and McGarvey, D. J. (2011) Screencasting as a means of providing timely, general feedback on assessment, New Directions, 7, 18–21.