Getting ready to badge and looking for interested partners

Over the summer we have been working on a lab skills badging project. Lots of detail is on the project home site, but briefly this is what it’s about:

  • Experimental skills are a crucial component of student laboratory learning, but we rarely assess them, or even check them, formally. For schools, there is a requirement to show that students are doing practical work.
  • By implementing a system whereby students review particular lab techniques in advance of labs, demonstrate them to a peer while being videod, reviews the technique with a peer using a checklist, and uploads the video for assessment, we intend that students will be able to learn and perform the technique to a high standard.
  • The video can form part of students electronic portfolio that they may wish to share in future (See this article for more on that).
  • The process is suitable for digital badging – awarding of an electronic badge acknowledging competency in a particular skill (think scout badges for… tying knots…).

Marcy Towns has a nice paper on this for pipetting and we are going to trial it for this and some other lab techniques.

Looking for interested parties to trial it out

I am looking for school teachers who would like to try this method out. It can be used to document any lab technique or procedure you like. You don’t necessarily need an exemplar video, but a core requirement is that you want to document students laboratory work formally, and acknowledge achievement in this work by a digital badge. We will provide the means to offer the badge, and exemplar videos if you need them, assuming they are within our stock. Interested teachers will be responsible for local implementation and assessment of quality (i.e. making the call on whether a badge is issued).

Yes I need help with badge design
Yes I need help with badge design

This will be part of a larger project and there will be some research on the value and impact of the digital badges, drawing from implementation case studies. This will be discussed with individuals, depending on their own local circumstances.

So if you are interested, let’s badge! You can contact me at: michael.seery@ed.ac.uk to follow up.

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What is the “education literature”?

Over on the Education in Chemistry blog, Paul MacLellan wrote an excellent article on reasons teachers don’t engage with education research, which is well worth a read. Speaking a few years ago, I used analogy of a paddle boat steamer when talking about the penetration of education research in HE. The paddles throw up some splashes as it sails over the vast quantity of water below. These splashes were meant to represent how many engage with research – taking on what they hear on the grapevine, Twitter, or CPD. It isn’t systematic.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about whether I should expect my colleagues to read education research, and on balance, I don’t think I should. The reason stems from the argument made about different audiences by Keith Taber in MacLellan’s article, and quantified by the featured commenter under his post. And I think we need some clarity about what we mean by education research literature.

Primary, secondary, and tertiary literature

New research in any field is iterative. We know a certain amount, and someone does some research to add a little more to our understanding. In publishing these research findings, we tend to summarise what was known before to situate the work in context, and add on the new bit. As Taber points out, education has the unique position of aiming to address two audiences: like any field it is addressing other education researchers in that field; but also has a second audience; practitioners who may wish to change some aspect of their teaching, and are looking for “what works”. The trouble with the mixed audience is that the language and semantics for each are very different, leaving the practitioner feeling very frustrated. The featured comment under MacLellan’s blog documents this very well. The practitioner looking to improve faces the difficult challenge: they use some search engine with decent keywords and have to try to pick out some paper that will offer them nuggets. It really is a needle in a haystack, (or a splash of water from the river boat…).

If asked for advice, I think I would rather suggest that such practitioners would instead refer to secondary or tertiary literature. Secondary literature aims to summarise the research findings in a particular field. While it is still written with an audience of researchers from the field in mind, these reviews typically group the results from several individual studies into themes or overarching concepts, which can be useful to practitioners who may wish to see “what might work” in their own context. I recall the value of MacArthur and Jones’ review on clickers, and my own review of flipping lectures in chemistry are examples of this type.

The audience shifts more fully when we move to tertiary literature. While there is still likely two audiences for education research, the emphasis with tertiary literature is addressing a wider audience; introducing the field to a wider audience of interested readers. Typically books summarising teaching approaches are grounded in well documented research, but unlike secondary sources, they are written for those wishing to find out about the topic from an introductory level, and the language is considerate of the wider audience. Think of Taber’s books on misconceptions, and the impact they have had. More recently, the web has offered us new forms of tertiary literature – blogs are becoming more popular to disseminate the usefulness of research to a wider audience and summaries such that recently published by Tina Overton on factors to consider in teaching approaches can help introduce overarching research findings, without having to penetrate the original education research studies.

So should my colleagues read education research? I still don’t think so. A tourist to a new city wouldn’t read academic articles on transport infrastructure and architecture – they would just read the tourist guide. Of course it can be inspiring to read a case study or see what students in an individual situation experienced. But I would rather recommend secondary and tertiary sources to them if they are going to spend any valuable time reading.

And that means, in chemistry education’s case, we need a lot more of these types of publications. A recent J Chem Ed editorial suggested that they are thinking about promoting this type of publication, and any movement in that direction is welcome.

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Planning a new book on laboratory education

Contracts have been signed so I am happy to say that I am writing a book on chemistry laboratory education as part of the RSC’s new Advances in Chemistry Education series due for publication mid 2017.

I’ve long had an interest in lab education, since stumbling across David McGarvey’s “Experimenting with Undergraduate Practicals” in University Chemistry Education (now CERP). Soon after, I met Stuart Bennett, now retired, from Open University at a European summer school. Stuart spoke about lab education and its potential affordances in the curriculum. He was an enormous influence on my thinking in chemistry education, and in practical work in particular. We’d later co-author a chapter on lab education for a book for new lecturers in chemistry published by the RSC (itself a good example on the benefits of European collaboration). My first piece of published education research was based on laboratory work; a report in CERP on the implementation of mini-projects in chemistry curriculum, completed with good friends and colleagues Claire Mc Donnell and Christine O’Connor. So I’ve been thinking about laboratory work for a long time.

Why a book?

A question I will likely be asking with increasing despair over the coming months is: why am I writing a book? To reaffirm to myself as much as anything else, and to remind me if I get lost on the way, the reasons are pretty straightforward.

My career decisions and personal interests over the last few years have meant that I have moved my focus entirely to chemistry education. Initially this involved sneaking in some reading between the covers of J. Mat. Chem. when I was meant to be catching up on metal oxide photocatalysis. But as time went on and thanks to the support of others involved in chemistry education, this interest became stronger. I eventually decided to make a break with chemistry and move into chemistry education research. (One of the nicest things for me personally about joining Edinburgh was that this interest was ultimately validated.)

So while my knowledge of latest chemistry research is limited mainly to Chemistry World reports, one thing I do know well is the chemistry education research literature. And there is a lot of literature on laboratory education. But as I read it and try to keep on top of it, it is apparent that much of the literature on laboratory education falls into themes, and by a bit of rethinking of these themes and by taking a curriculum design approach, some guiding principles for laboratory education can be drawn up. And that a compilation of such principles, within the context of offering a roadmap or plan for laboratory education might be useful to others.

And this is what I hope to offer. The book will be purposefully targeted at anyone responsible for taking a traditional university level chemistry laboratory course and looking to change it. In reality, such change is an enormous task, and being pragmatic, needs to happen in phases. It’s tempting then to tweak bits and change bits based on some innovation presented at a conference or seen in a paper. But there needs to be an overall design for the entire student experience, so that incremental changes sum up to an overall consistent whole piece. Furthermore, by offering a roadmap or overall design, I hope to empower members of staff who may be responsible for such change by giving the evidence they may need to rationalise changes to colleagues. Everyone has an opinion on laboratory education! The aim is to provide evidence-based design approaches.

My bookshelves are groaning with excellent books on laboratory education. I first came across Teaching in Laboratories by Boud Dunn and Hegarty-Hazel back in the days when I stumbled across McGarvey’s article. I still refer to it, as even though it was published in 1986, it still carries a lot of useful material. Woolnough and Allsop’s Practical Work in Science is also excellent; crystal clear on the role and value of laboratory education and its distinction from lecture based curriculum. Hegarty-Hazel also edited The Student Laboratory and the Science Curriculum. Roger Anderson’s book The Experience of Science was published before I was born.

I have bought these now out of print books and several more second hand for less than the cost of a cup of coffee. I have learned lots from them, but am mindful that (justifiably) well-known and comprehensive as they are, they are now out of print and our university laboratories have not seen much change in the forty years since Anderson.

I am very conscious of this as I structure my own book. I can speculate that books about science laboratories at both secondary and tertiary level may be too broad. So the book is focussing exclusively on chemistry and higher education.

Secondly, the book is very clearly directed at those implementing a new approach, those involved in change. Ultimately it is their drive and energy and input that decides the direction of changes that will occur.  I hope that by speaking directly to them with a clear rationale and approach based on an up-to-date literature, that it may ease the workload somewhat for those looking to rethink laboratory education in their curricula. Now I just need to actually write it.

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Alex Johnstone’s 10 Educational Commandments

My thanks to Prof Tina Overton for alerting me to the fact that these exist. I subsequently happened across them in this article detailing an interview with Prof Johnstone (1), and thought they would be useful to share.

Ten Educational Commandments 

1. What is learned is controlled by what you already know and understand.

2. How you learn is controlled by how you learned in the past (related to learning style but also to your interpretation of the “rules”).

3. If learning is to be meaningful, it has to link on to existing knowledge and skills, enriching both (2).

4. The amount of material to be processed in unit time is limited (3).

5. Feedback and reassurance are necessary for comfortable learning, and assessment should be humane.

6. Cognisance should be taken of learning styles and motivation.

7. Students should consolidate their learning by asking themselves about what goes on in their own heads— metacognition.

8. There should be room for problem solving in its fullest sense (4).

9. There should be room to create, defend, try out, hypothesise.

10. There should be opportunity given to teach (you don’t really learn until you teach) (5).

Johnstone told his interviewer that he didn’t claim any originality for the statements, which his students called the 10 educational commandments. Rather he merely brought together well known ideas from the literature. But, and importantly for this fan, Johnstone said that they have been built into his own research and practice, using them as “stars to steer by”.

References

  1. Cardellini, L, J. Chem. Educ., 2000, 77, 12, 1571.
  2. Johnstone, A. H. Chemical Education Research and Practice in Europe (CERAPIE) 2000, 1, 9–15; online at http://www.uoi.gr/cerp/2000_January/contents.html.
  3. Johnstone, A. H. J. Chem. Educ. 1993, 70, 701–705
  4. Johnstone, A. H. In Creative Problem Solving in Chemistry; Wood, C. A., Ed.; Royal Society of Chemistry: London, 1993.
  5. Sirhan, G.; Gray, C.; Johnstone, A. H.; Reid, N. Univ. Chem. Educ. 1999, 3, 43–46.

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ChemEd Journal Publications from UK since 2015

I’ve compiled this list for another purpose and thought it might be useful to share here. 

The following are publications I can find* from UK corresponding authors on chemistry education research, practice, and laboratory work relevant to HE since beginning of 2015.  There are lots of interesting finds and useful articles. Most are laboratory experiments and activities, Some refer to teaching practice or underlying principles.

I don’t imagine this is a fully comprehensive list, so do let me know what’s missing. It’s in approximate chronological order from beginning of 2015.

  1. Surrey (Lygo-Baker): Teaching polymer chemistry
  2. Reading (Strohfeldt): PBL medicinal chemistry practical
  3. Astra Zeneca and Huddersfield (Hill and Sweeney): A flow chart for reaction work up
  4. Bath (Chew): Lab experiment: coffee grounds to biodiesel
  5. Nottingham (Galloway): PeerWise for revision
  6. Hertfordshire (Fergus): Context examples of recreational drugs for spectroscopy and introductory organic chemistry 
  7. Overton (was Hull): Dynamic problem based learning
  8. Durham (Hurst, now at York): Lab Experiment: Rheology of PVA gels
  9. Reading (Cranwell): Lab experiment: Songoshira reaction
  10. Edinburgh (Seery): Flipped chemistry trial
  11. Oaklands (Smith): Synthesis of fullerenes from graphite
  12. Manchester (O’Malley): Virtual labs for physical chemistry MOOC  
  13. Edinburgh (Seery): Review of flipped lectures in HE chemistry
  14. Manchester (Wong): Lab experiment: Paterno-Buchi and kinetics
  15. Southampton (Coles): Electronic lab notebooks in upper level undergraduate lab
  16. UCL (Tomaszewski): Information literacy, searching
  17. St Andrews & Glasgow (Smellie): Lab experiment: Solvent extraction of copper
  18. Imperial (Rzepa): Lab experiment: Assymetric epoxidation in the lab and molecular modelling; electronic lab notebooks
  19. Reading (Cranwell): Lab experiment: Wolff Kishner reaction
  20. Imperial (Rzepa): Using crystal structure databases
  21. Leeds (Mistry): Inquiry based organic lab in first year – students design work up
  22. Manchester (Turner): Molecular modelling activity
  23. Imperial (Haslam & Brechtelsbauer): Lab experiment: vapour pressure with an isosteniscope
  24. Imperial (Parkes): Making a battery from household products
  25. Durham (Bruce and Robson): A corpus for writing chemistry
  26. Who will it be…?!

*For those interested, the Web of Science search details are reproduced below. Results were filtered to remove non-UK papers, conference proceedings and editorials.

ADDRESS:((united kingdom OR UK OR Scotland OR Wales OR England OR (Northern Ireland))) AND TOPIC: (chemistry)AND YEAR PUBLISHED: (2016 or 2015)

Refined by: WEB OF SCIENCE CATEGORIES: ( EDUCATION EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH OR EDUCATION SCIENTIFIC DISCIPLINES )
Timespan: All years. Indexes: SCI-EXPANDED, SSCI, A&HCI, CPCI-S, CPCI-SSH, BKCI-S, BKCI-SSH, ESCI, CCR-EXPANDED, IC.

 

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Practical work: theory or practice?

Literature on laboratory education over the last four decades (and more, I’m sure) has a lot to say on the role of practical work in undergraduate curricula. Indeed Baird Lloyd (1992) surveys opinions on the role of practical work in North American General Chemistry syllabi over the course of the 20th century and opens with this delicious quote, apparently offered by a student in 1928 in a $10 competition:

Chemistry laboratory is so intimately connected with the science of chemistry, that, without experimentation, the true spirit of the science cannot possibly be acquired. 

I love this quote because it captures so nicely the sense that laboratory work is at the heart of chemistry teaching – its implicit role in the teaching of chemistry is unquestionable. And although it has been questioned a lot, repeatedly, over the following decades; not many today would advocate a chemistry syllabus that did not contain laboratory work.

I feel another aspect of our consideration of chemistry labs is often unchallenged, and needs to be. That is the notion that chemistry laboratories are in some way proving ground for what students come across in lectures. That they provide an opportunity for students to visualise and see for themselves what the teacher or lecturer was talking about. Or more laudably, to even “discover” for themselves by following a controlled experiment a particular relationship. Didn’t believe it in class that an acid and an alcohol make an ester? Well now you are in labs, you can prove it. Can’t imagine that vapour pressure increases with temperature? Then come on in – we have just the practical for you. Faraday said that he was never able to make a fact his own without seeing it. But then again, he was a great demonstrator.

A problem with this on an operational level, especially at university, and especially in the physical chemistry laboratory, is that is near impossible to schedule practicals so that they follow on from the introduction of theory in class. This leads to the annual complaint from students that they can’t do the practical because they haven’t done the theory. Your students are saying this, if you haven’t heard them, you need to tune your surveys.

It’s an entirely understandable sentiment from students because we situate practicals as a subsidiary of lectures. But this is a false relationship for a variety of reasons. The first is that if you accept a model whereby you teach students chemistry content in lectures, why is there a need to supplement this teaching with a re-teaching of a sub-set of topics, arbitrarily chosen based on the whim of a lab course organiser and the size of a department’s budget? Secondly, although we aim to re-teach, or hit home some major principle again in lab work, we don’t really assess that. We might grade students’ lab report and give feedback, but it is not relevant to them as they won’t need to know it again in that context. The lab report is done. And finally, the model completely undermines the true role of practical work and value it can offer the curriculum.

A different model

When we design lecture courses, we don’t really give much thought to the labs that will go with them. Lecture course content has evolved rapidly to keep up to date with new chemistry; lab development is much slower. So why not the other way around? Why not design lab courses independent of lectures? Lecture courses are one area of the curriculum to learn – typically the content of the curriculum; laboratory courses are another. And what might the role here be?

Woolnough and Allsop (1985), who make a clear and convincing argument for cutting the “Gordian knot” between theory and practice, instead advocate a syllabus that has three aims:

  1. developing practical skills and techniques.
  2. being a problem-solving chemist.
  3. getting a “feel for phenomena”.

The detail of how this can be done is the subject of their book, but involves a syllabus that has “exercises, investigations, and experiences”. To me these amount to the “process” of chemistry. On a general level, I think this approach is worth consideration as it has several impacts on teaching and learning in practice.

Impacts on teaching and learning

Cutting the link between theory and practice means that there is no longer a need to examine students’ understanding of chemistry concepts by proxy. Long introductions, much hated by students, which aim to get the student to understand the theory behind the topic at hand by rephrasing what is given to them in a lab manual, are obsolete. A properly designed syllabus removes the need for students to have had lectures in a particular topic before a lab course. Pre-lab questions can move away from being about random bits of theory and focus on the relationships in the experiment. There is no need for pointless post-lab questions that try to squeeze in a bit more theory.

Instead, students will need to approach the lab with some kind of model for what is happening. This does not need to be the actual equations they learn in lectures. Some thought means they may be able to draw on prior knowledge to inform that model. Of course, the practical will likely involve using some aspect of what they cover or will cover in lectures, but at the stage of doing the practical, it is the fundamental relationship they are considering and exploring. Approaching the lab with a model of a relationship (clearly I am in phys chem labs here!) and exploring that relationship is better reflecting the nature of science, and focussing students attention on the study in question. Group discussions and sharing data are more meaningful. Perhaps labs could even inform future lectures rather than rely on past ones! A final advantage is the reassertion of practical skills and techniques as a valuable aspect of laboratory work.

A key point here is that the laboratory content is appropriate for the level of the curriculum, just as it is when we design lectures. This approach is not advocating random discovery – quite the opposite. But free of the bond with associated lectures, there is scope to develop a much more coherent, independent, and more genuinely complementary laboratory course.

References

Baird W. Lloyd, The 20th Century General Chemistry Laboratory: its various faces, J. Chem. Ed., 1992, 69(11), 866-869.

Brian Woolnaugh and Terry Allsop (1985) Practical Work in Science, Cambridge University Press.

1928 quote

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Developing practical skills in the chemistry laboratory

How do we prepare students for practical skills they conduct in the laboratory?

Practical skills involve psychomotor development, as they typically involve handling chemicals, glassware, and instrumentation. But how do we prepare students for this work, and do we give them enough time to develop these skills?

Farmer and Frazer analysed 126 school experiments (from the old O-level Nuffield syllabus) with a view to categorising practical skills and came up with some interesting results.[1] Acknowledging that some psychomotor tasks include a cognitive component (they give the example of manipulating the air-hole collar of a Bunsen burner while judging the nature of the flame for a particular task at hand) they identified 65 psychomotor tasks and 108 cognitive tasks from the experiments studied. Some of these psychomotor tasks are defined as having a key role, in that the success of the experiment is dependent on the successful completion of that task, reducing the number of psychomotor skills to 44. Many of these key tasks were required in only a few experiments, so the set was again reduced to number of frequent key tasks – those occurring in more than 10 experiments. The 14 frequent key tasks subsequently identified are described in their table below.

Data from Education in Chemistry (Ref 1)
Data from Education in Chemistry (Ref 1)

Thus of the 65 psychomotor skills listed, only 14 are defined as frequent key tasks, limiting the opportunities for pupils to develop the skills associated with completing them. Indeed this paper goes on to demonstrate that in an assessment of 100 pupils, there was very poor demonstration of ability in correctly completing the practical tasks, which they attribute to the design of the syllabus and the limited opportunity to do practical work.

This article prompts me to think again: how do we prepare students for the laboratory skills aspect of practical work? I think the most common approach is to demonstrate immediately in advance of the student completing the practical, explaining the technique or the apparatus and its operation. However, demonstration puts students in the mode of observer; they are watching someone else complete an activity, rather than conceptualising their own completion. It also relies on the quality of the demonstrator, and is subject to local hazards, such as time available, ability to see and hear the demonstration, and so on. Therefore, there may be benefit in shifting this demonstration to pre-lab, allowing students time to become accustomed to a technique and its nuances.

Such pre-labs need to be carefully designed, and actively distinguished from any pre-lab information focussing on theory, which has a separate purpose. At Edinburgh, two strategies are planned.

The first is on the development of core introductory laboratory skills: titrations involving pipetting and buretting; preparing standard solutions including using a balance; and setting up Quickfit glassware to complete a distillation. Pre-lab information is provided to students in the form of videos demonstrating each technique, with key steps in each procedure highlighted in the video. Students will be required to demonstrate each of the three procedures to their peers in the laboratory, while their peer uses the checklist to ensure that all aspects of the task were completed appropriately. The purpose here is to incorporate preparation, demonstration, and peer-review into the learning of core lab skills, as well as to set in mind early on in students’ university careers the correct approach and the appropriate glassware to use for basic laboratory techniques. The approach includes students’ videoing their peers as part of the review process using mobile phones; and the video recording will subsequently be used as evidence for issuing students with a digital badge for that technique (more on that at the project homepage).

The second approach is to develop the laboratory manual beyond its traditional textbook format to be an electronic laboratory manual, with pre-lab demonstrations included. More on that project to come soon.

In designing pre-lab activities for skills development, the aim is to move beyond “just demonstrating” and to get students thinking through the approaches they will take. The reason for this is guided by work done by Beasley in the late 1970s. Beasley drew from the literature of physical education to consider the development of psychomotor skills in chemistry. He studied the concept of mental practice as a technique to help students prepare for the laboratory.[2] Mental practice is based on the notion that physical activity requires mental thought, and thus mentally or introspectively rehearsing an activity prompts neural and muscular responses.[3]  Students were assigned to groups where they conducted no preparation, physical preparation, mental preparation, and both physical and mental preparation. They were tested before and after completing a lab on volumetric analysis. Beasley reported that students who students entering college from school were not proficient in completing volumetric analysis based on accuracy of their results. Furthermore, there was no significant difference in post-test scores of treatment students (which were all better than students who did no preparation), suggesting that mental preparation was as effective as physical preparation.

Those interested in reading more on this topic may enjoy two reviews by Stephen DeMeo; one in J. Chem. Ed.[4] and an elegant piece “Gazing at the hand” in Curriculum Inquiry.[5]

References

[1] A. Farmer and M. J. Frazer, Practical Skills in School Chemistry, Education in Chemistry, 1985, 22, 138.

[2] W. Beasley, The Effect of Physical and Mental Practice of Psychomotor Skills on Chemistry Student Laboratory Performance, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 1979, 16(5), 473.

[3] J. B. Oxendine, Physical education. In Singer, R. B. (Ed.), The psychomotor domain: Movement behavior. Philadelphia: Lea and Feberger, 1972.

[4] S. De Meo, Teaching Chemical Technique: A review of the literature, Journal of Chemical Education, 2001 78(3), 373.

[5] S. De Meo, Gazing at the Hand: A Foucaultian View of the Teaching of Manipulative Skills to Introductory Chemistry Students in the United States and the Potential for Transforming Laboratory Instruction, Curriculum Inquiry, 2005, 35, 3.

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Reflections on #micer16

Several years ago at the Variety in Chemistry Education conference, there was a rather sombre after-dinner conversation on whether the meeting would continue on in subsequent years. Attendance numbers were low and the age profile was favouring the upper half of the bell-curve.

Last year at Variety I registered before the deadline and got, what I think was the last space, and worried about whether my abstract would be considered. The meeting was packed full of energetic participants interested in teaching from all over UK and Ireland, at various stages of their careers. A swell in numbers is of course expected from the merging with the Physics Higher Education Conference, but the combination of the two is definitely (from this chemist’s perspective) greater than the sum of its parts.

Participants at #micer16
Participants at #micer16

What happened in the mean time would be worthy of a PhD study. How did the fragile strings that were just holding people together in this disparate, struggling community, not snap, but instead strengthen to bring in many newcomers? A complex web of new connections has grown.  While I watched it happen I am not sure how it happened. I suspect it is a confluence of many factors: the efforts of the RSC at a time when chemistry was at a low-point. The determination of the regular attendees to keep supporting it, knowing its inherent value. The ongoing support of people like Stuart Bennett, Dave McGarvey, Stephen Breuer, Bill Byers, and others. And of course the endless energy of Tina Overton and the crew at the Physical Sciences Centre at Hull.

Whatever the process, we are very lucky to have a vibrant community of people willing to push and challenge and innovate in our teaching of chemistry. And that community is willing and is expected to play a vital role in the development of teaching approaches. This requires design and evaluation of these approaches; a consideration of how they work in our educational context. And this requires the knowledge of how to design these research studies and complete these evaluations. Readers will note that Variety now particularly welcome evidence-based approaches.

Most of us in this community are chemists, and the language of education research can be new, and difficult to navigate. Thus a meeting such as MICER held last week aimed to introduce and/or develop approaches in education research. The speakers were excellent, but having selected them I knew they would be! Participants left, from what I could see and saw on social media, energised and enthused about the summer ahead and possible projects.

But we will all return to our individual departments, with the rest of the job to do, and soon enthusiasm gives way to pragmatism, as other things get in the way. It can be difficult to continue to develop expertise and competence in chemistry education research without a focus. The community needs to continue to support itself, and seek support from elsewhere.

How might this happen?

Support from within the community can happen by contacting someone you met at a conference and asking them to be a “critical friend”. Claire Mc Donnell introduced me to this term  and indeed was my critical friend. This is someone whom you trust to talk about your work with, share ideas and approaches, read drafts of work. It is a mutual relationship, and I have found it extremely beneficial, both from the perspective of having someone sensible to talk to, but also from a metacognitive perspective. Talking it out makes me think about it more.

The community can organise informal and formal journal clubs. Is there a particular paper you liked – how did the authors complete a study and what did they draw from it? Why not discuss it with someone, or better still in the open?

Over the next while I am hoping to crystallise these ideas and continue the conversations on how we do chemistry education research. I very much hope you can join me and be an active participant; indeed a proactive participant. So that there is an independent platform, I have set up the website http://micerportal.wordpress.com/ and welcome anyone interested in being involved to get in touch about how we might plan activities or even a series of activities. I hope to see you there.

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PhD Studentship in Chemistry Education

3 Year PhD Studentship in Chemistry Education

Supervisor: Dr Michael Seery School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh

“Learning analytics to enhance the student learning experience in chemistry”

Learning analytics is an emerging discipline considering the measurement, collection and analysis of data about student learning with a view to improving their learning experience. This project involves the design and development of a learning analytics system for chemistry so that students can continually monitor and reflect on their progress, with a view to actively improving their understanding throughout their studies. The project builds on work on using students’ prior chemistry learning to examine future performance (Chem. Ed. Res. Pract., 2009, 10, 227-232) and assessing the impact of learning resources on student performance (Brit. J. Ed. Tech., 2012, 43(4), 667–677).

The project is fully-funded for 36-months starting in September 2016, covering UK/EU tuition fees and an annual stipend at the EPSRC standard rate (in the region of £14,200 in academic year 2016-17).

Applications are sought from UK/EU candidates with an excellent track record in chemistry or chemistry education with an interest in higher education and the use of technology in education. Experience with e-learning software and statistical processing packages is desirable but not essential. Applicants must have or are expected to receive by the start date a 1st class or an upper 2nd class honours degree (or equivalent).

To apply, applicants should send the following to michael.seery@ed.ac.uk:

  • A cover letter detailing interest in the position and any relevant experience.
  • A curriculum vitae.

The successful candidate will be required to apply through the EUCLID system as outlined at http://www.chem.ed.ac.uk/studying/postgraduate-research/applications-and-entry-requirements.

Deadline: 1st Feb 2016

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Date for #chemed diaries: Methods in Chemistry Education Research 20/5/16

Methods in Chemistry Education Research #micer16

Burlington House, 20th May 2016, 11 – 4 pm

This one day conference is being organised in response to a growing demand and interest in chemistry education research in the UK. The meeting will focus in particular on methods; the practicalities of how to do chemistry education research. Invited speakers with experience of completing and publishing discipline-based education research will give talks on particular methods, relating the methods to a theoretical framework, the research question, and discussing the practicalities of gathering data. Approaches to publication will be outlined. Each speaker will be followed by an extended structured discussion so that attendees have time to discuss further issues that arise. The meeting is being organised with the journal Chemistry Education Research and Practice which is free to access at the URL: www.rsc.org/cerp.

Attendance is free thanks to the support of the RSC’s Chemistry Education Research Group (www.rsc.org/cerg) and Tertiary Education Group (www.rsc.org/tertiaryeducation).

Session 1 (sponsored by the Chemistry Education Research Group)
In the first session, speakers will discuss their approach to education research with an emphasis on particular theoretical frameworks (e.g. grounded theory) and how this framework influences their method in addressing a research question.

Lunch

Session 2 (sponsored by the Tertiary Education Group)
In the second session, speakers will discuss their approach with an emphasis on gathering data (e.g. focus groups), the reasons for these approaches in the context of the research question, and the considerations in interpreting this data.

Further information and a final list of speakers will be circulated early 2016.

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Significant omission from my top 10 #chemed post!

0. Text messages to explore students’ study habits (Ye, Oueini, Dickerson, and Lewis, CERP)

I was excited to see Scott Lewis speak at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named during the summer as I really love his work. This paper outlines an interesting way to find out about student study habits, using text-message prompts. Students received periodic text messages asking them if they have studied in the past 48 hours. The method is ingenious. Results are discussed in terms of cluster analysis (didn’t study as much, used textbook/practiced problems, and online homework/reviewed notes). There is lots of good stuff here for those interested in students’ study and supporting independent study time. Lewis often publishes with Jennifer Lewis, and their papers are master-classes in quantitative data analysis. (Note this candidate for my top ten was so obvious I left it out in the original draft, so now it is a top 11…)

I’ve now included this in the original post.

Scott Lewis CERP

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My ten favourite #chemed articles of 2015

This post is a sure-fire way to lose friends… but I’m going to pick 10 papers that were published this year that I found interesting and/or useful. This is not to say they are ten of the best; everyone will have their own 10 “best” based on their own contexts.

Caveats done, here are 10 papers on chemistry education research that stood out for me this year:

0. Text messages to explore students’ study habits (Ye, Oueini, Dickerson, and Lewis, CERP)

I was excited to see Scott Lewis speak at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named during the summer as I really love his work. This paper outlines an interesting way to find out about student study habits, using text-message prompts. Students received periodic text messages asking them if they have studied in the past 48 hours. The method is ingenious. Results are discussed in terms of cluster analysis (didn’t study as much, used textbook/practiced problems, and online homework/reviewed notes). There is lots of good stuff here for those interested in students’ study and supporting independent study time. Lewis often publishes with Jennifer Lewis, and together their papers are master-classes in quantitative data analysis. (Note this candidate for my top ten was so obvious I left it out in the original draft, so now it is a top 11…)

1. What do students learn in the laboratory (Galloway and Lowery-Bretz, CERP)?

This paper reports on an investigation using video cameras on the student to record their work in a chemistry lab. Students were interviewed soon after the lab. While we can see what students physically do while they are in the lab (psychomotor learning), it is harder to measure cognitive and affective experiences. This study set about trying to measure these, in the context of what the student considered to be meaningful learning. The paper is important for understanding learning that is going on in the laboratory (or not, in the case of recipe labs), but I liked it most for the use of video in collection of data.

2. Johnstone’s triangle in physical chemistry (Becker, Stanford, Towns, and Cole, CERP).

We are familiar with the importance of Johnstone’s triangle, but a lot of research often points to introductory chemistry, or the US “Gen Chem”. In this paper, consideration is given to understanding whether and how students relate macro, micro, and symbolic levels in thermodynamics, a subject that relies heavily on the symbolic (mathematical). The reliance on symbolic is probably due in no small part to the emphasis most textbooks place on this. The research looked at ways that classroom interactions can develop the translation across all levels, and most interestingly, a sequence of instructor interactions that showed an improvement in coordination of the three dimensions of triplet. There is a lot of good stuff for teachers of introductory thermodynamics here.

3. The all-seeing eye of prior knowledge (Boddey and de Berg, CERP).

My own interest in prior knowledge as a gauge for future learning means I greedily pick up anything that discusses it in further detail. And this paper does that well. It looked at the impact of completing a bridging course on students who had no previous chemistry, comparing them with those who had school chemistry. However, this study takes that typical analysis further, and interviewed students. These are used to tease out different levels of prior knowledge, with the ability to apply being supreme in improving exam performance.

4.  Flipped classes compared to active classes (Flynn, CERP).

I read a lot of papers on flipped lectures this year in preparing a review on the topic. This was by far the most comprehensive. Flipping is examined in small and large classes, and crucially any impact or improvement is discussed by comparing with an already active classroom. A detailed model for implementation of flipped lectures linking before, during, and after class activities is presented, and the whole piece is set in the context of curriculum design. This is dissemination of good practice at its best.

5. Defining problem solving strategies (Randles and Overton, CERP).

This paper gained a lot of attention at the time of publication, as it compares problem solving strategies of different groups in chemistry; undergraduates, academics, and industrialists. Beyond the headline though, I liked it particularly for its method – it is based on grounded theory, and the introductory sections give a very good overview on how this was achieved, which I think will be informative to many. Table 2 in particular demonstrates coding and example quotes which is very useful.

6. How do students experience labs? (Kable and more, IJSE)

This is a large scale project with a long gestation – the ultimate aim is to develop a laboratory experience survey, and in particular a survey for individual laboratory experiments, with a view to their iterative improvement. Three factors – motivation (interest and responsibility), assessment, and resources – are related to students’ positive experience of laboratory work. The survey probes students’ responses to these (some like quality of resources give surprising results). It is useful for anyone thinking about tweaking laboratory instruction, and looking for somewhere to start.

7. Approaches to learning and success in chemistry (Sinapuelas and Stacy, JRST)

Set in the context of transition from school to university, this work describes the categorisation of four levels of learning approaches (gathering facts, learning procedures, confirming understanding, applying ideas). I like these categories as they are a bit more nuanced, and perhaps less judgemental, than surface vs deep learning. The approach level correlates with exam performance. The paper discusses the use of learning resources to encourage students to move from learning procedures (level 2) to confirming understanding (level 3). There are in-depth descriptions characterising each level, and these will be informative to anyone thinking about how to support students’ independent study.

8. Exploring retention (Shedlosky-Shoemaker and Fautch, JCE).

This article categorises some psychological factors aiming to explain why some students do not complete their degree. Students switching degrees tend to have higher self-doubt (in general rather than just for chemistry) and performance anxiety. Motivation did not appear to distinguish between those switching or leaving a course and those staying. The study is useful for those interested in transition, as it challenges some common conceptions about student experiences and motivations. This study appears to suggest much more personal factors are at play.

9. Rethinking central ideas in chemistry (Talanquer, JCE).

Talanquer publishes regularly and operates on a different intellectual plane to most of us. While I can’t say I understand every argument he makes, he always provokes thought. In this commentary, he discusses the central ideas of introductory chemistry (atoms, elements, bonds, etc), and proposes alternative central ideas (chemical identity, mechanisms, etc). It’s one of a series of articles by several authors (including Talanquer himself) that continually challenge the approach we currently take to chemistry. It’s difficult to say whether this will ever become more than a thought experiment though…

10. Newcomers to education literature (Seethaler, JCE).

If you have ever wished to explain to a scientist colleague how education research “works”, this paper might be of use. It considers 5 things scientists should know about education research: what papers can tell you (and their limitations), theoretical bases in education research, a little on misconceptions and content inventories, describing learning, and tools of the trade. It’s a short article at three pages long, so necessarily leaves a lot of information out. But it is a nice primer.

Finally

The craziest graphical abstract of the year must go to Fung’s camera set up. And believe me, the competition was intense.

ed-2014-009624_0007

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Inquiry learning of chemistry in 19th century girls schools

Consider the following scenario:

Young children are delighted to be so regarded, to be told that they are to act as a band of young detectives. For example, in studying the rusting of iron, they at once fall in with the idea that a crime, as it were, is committed when the valuable strong iron is changed into useless, brittle rust; with the greatest interest they set about finding out whether it is a case of murder or suicide, as it were−whether something outside the iron is concerned in the change or whether it changes of its own accord

The British chemist Henry Edward Armstrong pioneered the use of what is now called guided inquiry in the late nineteenth century. His story is recounted in articles by Rayner-Canham & Rayner-Canham (2011, 2014). Armstrong was a chemistry lecturer a St Barts and was frustrated at the emphasis of examinations on memorization and definitions. Over the decade from 1870, he developed the means for students to explore chemical concepts in the laboratory. Armstrong wrote of his approach:

For the ideal school of the future I picture the teacher no longer giving lessons but quietly moving about among the pupils, all earnestly at work and deeply interested, aiding each to accomplish the allotted task, as far as possible alone

His approach was called the heuristic approach, and it was structured such that it was carefully guided (In contrast with what we might call discovery learning today). While Armstrong himself was antagonistic against women in science, he promoted his method with girl’s schools science teachers from private schools. (Science in most girls schools didn’t feature until the 1950s.) One such teacher, Grace Heath from North London Collegiate for Girls, wrote to Nature in 1892:

…pupils themselves are put into the position of discoverers, they know why they are at work, what it is they want to discover, and as one experiment after another adds a new link to the chain of evidence which is solving their problem

This school had a laboratory with room for 24 girls at a time. Elsewhere St Swithun’s chemistry laboratory was built after girls left a flask of chlorine open deliberately during a tour by the administrative council in an aim to highlight the lack of facilities. We can learn lots from the past…

As the twentieth century progressed, a debate about the role of science education for girls and opposition from Sir William Ramsey and others to the heuristic method led to the rise of the lecture with demonstration method.

Extract from Henry Edward Armstrong's book
Extract from Henry Edward Armstrong’s book: The teaching of scientific method (1903)
References
  • Geoff Rayner-Canham and Marelene Rayner-Canham, The Heuristic Method, Precursor of Guided Inquiry: Henry Armstrong and British Girls’ Schools, 1890−1920J. Chem. Educ., 2015, 92, 463−466.
  • Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, Chemistry in English academic girls’ schools, 1880-1930Bull. Hist. Chem., 2011, 36(2), 68-74.
  • Armstong’s book is available on the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/teachingofscient00armsrich

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The feedback dilemma

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

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

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

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

So what exactly is feedback?

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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10 things to consider for a more accessible curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.      Mind-maps facilitate organisation of thoughts.

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

6.      Surprises mean students can’t prepare.

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

7.      Feedback versus feed forward.

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

8.      Academic writing and presentations.

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

9.      Tutorials.

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

10.  Formatting issues.

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

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

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

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Is all this talk of how we lecture just academic?

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

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

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

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

peanuts-cartoon-about-listening

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Why I love the lecture (at academic conferences)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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William Cullen and the early teaching of chemistry #oldtimechem

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

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

William Cullen
William Cullen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Web sources:

Glasgow Chemistry: http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/chemistry/aboutus/history/williamcullen/

Edinburgh Chemistry: http://www.chem.ed.ac.uk/about-us/history-school/professors/william-cullen

The Cullen Project: http://www.cullenproject.ac.uk/

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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.

Related Posts:

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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