Managing and recovering from serious interruption to teaching

The internet has been full of amazing advice over the last few weeks on technical issues relating to moving online. I’ve nothing to add to that, but thought I might offer our perspective from managing the whole process overall. Below are some notes I have sketched out on how we have dealt and are continuing to deal with with events of the last few weeks. We are sharing these with other chemistry departments in UK/IE, and I am publishing here for more general interest. As well as sharing, I am keen to learn. What is missing, what isn’t clear… (what’s wrong…) from the compilation below.

Phase 1: Immediate Disruption – managing teaching alternatives

Aim: to continue the curriculum as much as possible, with clear communication to staff and students as to what options are available, and where resources are. This is done by time release (week by week) of prepopulated online class links and other details on the course homepage of the VLE.

  • Clear decision making process with authority delegated to key stakeholders. One person responsible in this phase for all staff and student communications with a back-up nominated and cc-ed from the outset; staff communications crucial at this stage;
  • Lectures: We mapped our existing timetable online and delivered a combination of:
    • Live lecture via webinar system (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate) – good for staff who have a full slide deck and little board work
    • Lecture recordings (full or in parts) released to students with live lecture discussion via webinar (a form of flipped lecturing) – good where existing recordings are available and staff comfortable with live classrooms
    • Lecture given live and live streamed, with questions via email (assuming building is open) – good for staff who are uncomfortable giving webinar type lecture
  • Tutorials were managed in a similar manner, and staff typically:
    • Go through tutorial answers with discussion in online webchat
    • Release tutorial answers and have discussion in online webchat on any difficulties
    • Release tutorial answers and have discussion by email or discussion board
  • Labs: We were at the end of our lab cycle so finished just short of the finish line. Clearly future contingency will need to consider laboratory alternatives (see Phase 4).
  • Coursework: all activities moved to online submission. Some events, such as presentations, changed to students submitting PowerPoint decks with outline of presentation, or were cancelled.

Phase 2: Preparing for Alternative Examinations

Aim: to introduce an alternative to in-person closed book exams, that matches similar assessment of learning outcomes, allows students to handwrite, can be completed anywhere in the world, being as low tech as possible, and allows students to perform in an equitable manner

  • We have opted to issue our exams as open book assessments.
  • Students will be given paper in advance, password protected, which they can download from a special VLE site for each paper. This reduces internet connection concerns on the day.
  • Students will be asked to agree to a revised Code of Conduct.
  • Students use the password released at the start time of the assessment. Password release by email, on VLE, and possibly by text.
  • Students take photos of their work, and generate a PDF, which can be concatenated (using Adobe Scan mobile app, a solution I am currently exploring – thanks to Ross Galloway for this tip) and uploaded via mobile to VLE, on a question by question basis (use grayscale to reduce size of file). We are exploring a parallel e-mail bin for each exam. Option with advance notice of students sending papers back by registered post.
  • Process will be issued using existing published timetable, assuming no clashes within (exactly) 24 hours of start times.
  • Answer files then distributed to markers in a batch zip file for anonymous marking.
  • Note: at Edinburgh, all non-honours exams were cancelled centrally, so course (module) marks for these are generated by known existing marks – lab and other course marks in our case.

 Phase 3: Get students’ focus back on studying chemistry

Aim: to “normalise” the new arrangements, online teaching, preparation for open book exams, and make sure isolated students’ welfare is closely monitored

  • Return to regular communication with central focus on two streams – one on academic matters and one on student support. At Edinburgh we split this activity across two people (Director of Teaching and Senior Personal Tutor).
  • In academic terms, communications around getting on with study, study advice for different assessment formats, making sure students are pushed back to thinking about tutorials, revisions, thesis writing etc. The tone is regular, even mundane (by design!), just to aim to get students to focus in the current chaos. In addition, we will be releasing a mock exam system so that students can interact with it, get a feel for it and check it out in their situation, for reassurance (on both sides) more than anything else. All academic guidance about new arrangements located on a single webpage, with all VLE course (modules) linking to it. This means students have information centrally as well as in email.
  • In student support terms, we are worried about isolation. We pushed strongly in all email correspondence and Twitter unambiguous messages that we want to stay in contact, and prompting students to contact DoT/SPT/PT for anything; the language here was personal and casual. This is then followed by regular webchats – twice weekly online Q+As where students can ask anything. These have been very popular, and have moved from lots (and lots) of queries about exam paper format to students (and staff) sharing pictures of their dogs. We don’t care, the intention is to just keep a conversation going. We’ve also created a “kudoboard” which will act as an online Yearbook (see: – students can just post anything they want there.
  • These approaches have been very well received by students. The key message is: you cannot communicate enough, but that communication needs to be well planned, and unambiguous. We have a policy of getting every major email second read, at least, with relevant stakeholders.

Phase 4: Mop up and prepare for future?

Aim: once immediate task is completed, what can we learn? And how do we prepare for a more serious (mid-semester) interruption.

  • We have garnered a huge swell of goodwill from staff who have seen many benefits of lecture recordings, online interaction, and dialogue, and the importance of dialogue in general. We plan to consider how to continue this, even in low tech ways, when teaching returns to normal.
  • The move to open book assessments will open a big opportunity for chemistry to really rethink assessment for 21st century. Lots of opportunities to pursue here.
  • The chemistry community (worldwide) is very underprepared for major interruptions to laboratory teaching, and I think there is scope for significant collaboration in generating datasets and banks of materials for alternatives to lab classes in the event of future interruptions.


A Year of Ups but also Downs

It has been an interesting (academic) year at Seery Towers and our fridge has had plenty of bubbly alcohol flowing through it. Some of the many highs of the year include becoming Director of Teaching, becoming Editor of Chemistry Education Research and Practice, running another MICER, publishing the Overton Festschrift, being elected Chair of the 2023 CERP Gordon Research Conference (wut?), and of course finding out in February (May, of course I mean May!) that I was promoted to Professor. Yay!


Academia is generally a place where we are used to talking about success. I think this is a good thing – the work involved in new publications and prizes and promotions (P3), sometimes against the odds of university systems they were achieved in, should be celebrated and lauded.

There is much less talk of associated “downs” – I am reluctant to call them failures as I believe they are part of the successes that we are more public about. Certainly we see more openness about grant/paper rejections on social media, and while that is ephemeral, it does help contribute to a more realistic perspective of the full breadth of academic life. In many ways I wonder if we should have a “Not Successful” part of our official websites – wouldn’t that make the successes all the more special? Beckett said to “fail again, fail better!” – isn’t that academia?

Further to that, even failing is bloody hard work, and maybe we should be honest about times when we are just floating a bit. I’m coming around to an idea that academic life isn’t a marathon, but a mountain hike. There are times when you can give your all, creative juices flowing, outputs both good and bad are in overdrive. But also times when you just want to sit and watch the clouds go by while you eat your cheese sandwich. Coming to terms with the fact that there might be times when easing off the accelerator and just being has helped me deal with the near constant concern of burning out, the stress of feeling that I should be writing those papers in the queue or replying to those emails or doing something – anything – above the normal baseline. But perhaps for periods of time, like a kind of academic circadian rhythm, the baseline is just ok.

Recently I had email correspondence with someone who was looking for help with something. It was something I would have loved to have done, but knew that I wouldn’t have time to do properly. I (eventually) replied, full of apology. The response was that the reader had gained solace in reading that I was too busy, and was happy that I was able to say no because it resonated with their own sense of feeling too busy while wanting to do things. If we only project all of our successful things, will others who just see our shiny websites only see that side of us? The knowledge of our “failures” can put the extent of our success into context, including what those successes truly mean to us.

I’ve been battling with my own failures this year. I’ll mention two. I haven’t had any serious writing time and therefore my output has reduced. This is a “not success” for me because the reason I am an academic is that I love reading and writing (and teaching, naturellement!). Not being able to write means I am not doing the part of the job I enjoy most. I don’t intend this to be a statement reflecting how super busy I am – I could find the time but I have not been successful in protecting it, nor using the time I have properly. Knowing that failure helps me redouble efforts to protect time to write, or just to enjoy a cheese sandwich, and therefore being allowed to indulge just a little more when that final “accept” email does come.

To offset the glorious opening, I will conclude with sharing that I did not receive a National Teaching Fellowship this year. I thought I met the standard, but somehow did not convey that in my application. Colleagues have kindly played the Victor Meldrew role for me, but I am ok about it (hearing in Tuscany en route to a glass of prosecco meant I was quickly consoled). But if I ever were to receive it in future, wouldn’t everyone know that it meant more because I didn’t get it first time around? And I guess that is the point.

Building evidence for teaching-focussed promotions

Almost all academic promotion criteria will list teaching activities as one of the core areas where candidates will need to demonstrate evidence, but there is a growing population of teaching-focussed/teaching-only/teaching and scholarship/teaching fellow staff where this criterion will obviously be much more important. Having been on a working group on this matter in my own university, been asked to write quite a lot of references for people in this population, and thinking about my own career, this topic has been close to my heart for the last few years, and I plan here to share some observations that might help others focus their work on generating different types of evidence for promotion.

One major caveat to all of this is that the whole area of teaching focussed promotions is disruptive to the academic norm, and therefore impossible to generalise. Therefore what I say below in no way means to get away from the fact the topic of teaching focussed promotions will likely depend on institutional policy, on particular local circumstances, and on a general unspoken matter of who the local gatekeeper is. A head of school who has notions about what is or isn’t The Path to Promotion will likely be undeterred from The Path by any policy or guidance. All I can say is that I think and hope things are improving generally.


When talking about promotions, the terminology becomes complicated, so I have set out the kinds of terms used that I am familiar with and show how these align with standard grades we use here at Edinburgh, which because is out of 10 means it is easy. This alignment isn’t exact, but I can explain my reasoning if anyone wants.

Grade /10 Teaching Fellow Categories Usual UK Categories US-influenced UK Categories
7 Teaching Fellow
8 Senior Teaching Fellow Lecturer Assistant Professor
9 (Senior Teaching Fellow -> Senior Lecturer) Senior Lecturer Associate Professor
Platform 9 ¾ Reader  


10 Professor


Some key things to remember about teaching focussed promotions are:

  1. As you move up the scale, the evidence necessary moves further from the chalkboard. This is a sad reality, but ultimately just being a really great teacher, year in and year out, is unlikely to be enough to make a case beyond grades 7 & 8.
  2. What changes is increasing leadership in teaching, certainly at grades 9 & 10, so that beyond the baseline of doing a really good job in your own teaching, you influence the teaching of others. This aligns well generally with the notion that academic promotions are associated with increasing leadership in the field.
  3. Being a busy bee is less valuable than being a strategically busy bee. Aligning teaching and leadership activities to your school and university strategies, or problems that emerge on an ongoing basis, or demonstrating something new that offers an advantage for your School in your university or compared to other departments in your discipline, means it will more likely get noticed. Doing things because you think they should be done but don’t resonate with anyone else (read: anyone involved in making decisions) will not carry much weight. I’ve a whole cupboard full of stuff that I have done but no one cares about. It’s personally satisfying, but won’t add to a promotion case.
  4. As well as recognising the emerging role of leadership, the second main thing is recognising the importance of evidence of your activity and its impact. Ultimately a case is going to be: (1) here is the sad state of affairs; (2) here is what I did; (3) this is how it is better and this is how I know. I’m going to dwell on the last point below. If you do something, and no-one knows what happened as a result of it, it might as well not have happened for the purposes of promotion.
  5. Finally, get used to saying “I”. It is your promotion case, so the evaluators will look to see what you did beyond anyone else. So make it clear what you did. This means not being humble. “We redeveloped the lab course” – did “we”? Or was it you who stayed on working through everything to get it finished. Similarly with committee work; are you on a university or Society committee? If so what did you do that made a difference on that committee? Many people are on committees so they can say they are on committees, and any decent evaluation would look to see what the individual’s actions were. While things are naturally collaborative, make it clear what it was that you did that made a difference.

Some suggestions follow…

A: Activity within your school

More than just a safe pair of hands

Teaching focussed people are generally busy with teaching, and it can be hard to move beyond just dealing with the freight train of workload each year. One approach is to identify what the hot topics in your School are. What is coming up in NSS? Are students moaning about labs (yes, they always are)? What kinds of issues emerge at Staff Student meetings? What emerged as things that needed some firefighting? These kinds of things tend to get on the radar of heads of school and similar, and they can be useful places to start building a narrative: “Here is something that was not working well” (make sure that is logged in the minutes of any meeting if you intend to approach it). It may be that the teaching work you are doing could, with some tweaks, help to address the issue you identify. If students are moaning about labs, and you are involved in labs, making some change that will likely have some impact. The narrative extends to: “this is what I did”. Then you need some way of capturing impact – and this can be tricky, as students are less vociferous when things are going super. I’ve found that students talking across different year groups helped surface changes (“that was awful”… “no it’s actually ok now” – GET THAT LITTLE BEAUTY MINUTED!). Sometimes if you’re lucky it might emerge in course questionnaires. Or sometimes someone senior in the department might say something about how things have really improved (MINUTE IT!). Keep emails with anything indicating improvement in a special folder. And so the narrative concludes with: “it’s better now, and here is how I know”. The point is that if you do something but don’t think of the narrative, it is hard to retrospectively include that narrative in promotion paperwork.

Introducing change

As well as improving things to address known issues, improving things just to make things better is probably a better form of leadership. If you see that staff are killing themselves all working on some piece of busywork assessment, and you can think of a better way and introduce it, this is likely to make those who are concerned about workload happy. This can be tough, and usually involves a bit of ongoing communication to assuage concerns, but if you can make a case of over-assessment or considering learning outcomes, it helps with your narrative. Or perhaps you developed a new course in response to a particular need identified by external examiners or course review. Again, documenting impact or outcomes is important. Usually this kind of activity can be incorporated with being on the School T&L Committee, as that is where activities beyond your immediate control of your own courses can be surfaced. I think it is worth noting here that this likely extends to changes not directly relating to teaching and learning, but the broader student environment. Have you worked on student connections, departmental culture, career developments, widening participation, and so on…

For higher grades of 9&10, it is likely that this change is going to need to be more widespread. What can you say you have done that impacted teaching approaches in the whole school, or university, or your discipline more broadly.

Teaching innovation

While I do worry about students being experimental laboratories for people thinking about promotions so that they can show they are “innovative”, there is a general sense that someone looking for a teaching focussed promotion should as a baseline be a good teacher themselves. Course evaluation questionnaires can be useful evidence but are known to be flawed; so look to comments from senior colleagues, or classroom observations, or emails/comments from particular students. If you are looking for some innovative ideas, buy this book

There are some other forms of evidence. One way to highlight teaching innovation and excellence is to win an award for it, and so teaching awards have become important career milestones in recent years, which I personally think is a real pity. Another way is to document any invited talks given on teaching approaches, with invitation being more important as you move up the grades. And if you are invited to give one talk, contact some other universities nearby and let them know you are in town. Invited talks are something senior academics understand. Finally, perhaps you can be part of (grades 7 and 8) or lead (grades 9 and 10) applications to teaching grants in your university for teaching developments. Working with or supervising interns or colleagues on these can make for useful narratives.

Reporting what you did

As well as introducing change or doing things well, reporting what you did in an education publication can be a useful piece of evidence. It has the advantage of looking and feeling like something people unfamiliar with this world know about (academic publication), is a formal piece of evidence that you did some good (it is peer reviewed), and is a contribution to the wider community. There is a saying that an education publication is an education publication, and lord knows there are some shockers out there. I think this is probably still true, but I think that evaluation panels will become increasingly a little more savvy about the type of publication it is, and where it is published.

A really sad thing about not publishing is that everyone benefits from your activity apart from you – the students and your school benefit from your work; the publication would be an important piece of evidence for you and your promotion. Reporting what you did can extend to beyond formal publishing – blogging is a way to get your name out there as Someone Who Does Things. I still remember the extreme joy I felt when a former line manager referred to my blog as a potential output. Remembering the word “blog” emit from a chemical physicist still makes me happy.

B: Wider influence

As you move up the grades, it is likely that wider influence will become more important to demonstrate, so that it moves roughly from Grade 8 being influential at school/university, Grade 9 at university/outside university, and Grade 10 at outside university/internationally. Usual caveats apply. Things become much more nebulous here, because it will depend on particular activities, and the same principles apply – look for narratives that include evidence addressing things of strategic importance, or things that senior academics will understand and can relate to.


Accreditation with professional bodies is a way to demonstrate professional recognition in a field. While the RSC’s CChem is not quite understood in academia, Fellowship is much more so. Being an FRSC gives some reassurance that you are “in the club”. I have to say publicly that I really battled to get my own FRSC. I was turned down twice; once many years ago, perhaps unsurprisingly, and once about two years ago, which was a genuine shock. After adding a supplement to my application to show I really was, like super amazing, the imperial thumb turned upwards. I mention this only to highlight that accreditation, much like promotion, is still stifled by the “be in my mould” mindset.

As well as professional society accreditation, there is the Advance HE accreditation. This is becoming more the norm, because many professional development courses in the UK align with it, so you just “get it”, but going for Senior or Principal Fellow would be a good way to demonstrate that there is more widespread recognition of you as an educator. In honesty I am not sure senior people really know what P/S/FHEA really means, but they likely know it is “a thing”.

Professional activities

Just as committee work in university is a way to document influence, committee work on external bodies is also a way to document wider influence. The important thing will be to demonstrate what it is you did, and how that went down in the community of the profession. You need to distinguish yourself from The Committee Careerist, who is just on the committee to say they are on it. This can include organising events, or contributing to community in some way, been seen as a leader or champion for particular activities. Be clear with your narrative – what was the demand/reason for some activity, what did you do, and how did it go. Number of attendees/feedback are useful pieces of evidence. Sometimes very nice people write to you with testimonials. (Be nice: write to people when they have done something that has been valuable to you. It is important evidence and shows impact beyond university.)

I think that’s enough for now. What have I left out? What could be clearer or what is plain wrong…


Timeline entry page on VLE

VLEs are choccaful of information and we are doing a lot of thinking about how to make it as easy as possible to get to the relevant information. Previously our model has mimicked essentially what a computer folder on your desktop might look like – logically arranged but you sort of need to know the structure first before you can find anything. A nice idea I picked up while externing at MMU was a kind of “what’s new this week” timeline that is the entry page for a course. The model we’ve gone with is below.

timeline VLE

As each new week approaches, a new tab is added (scheduled by date release). These link to lecture information, labs and tutorial work etc and relevant text book reading that is the focus of that particular week. The aim is that rather than having to navigate through, the things most necessary for that week are in one place.  Linking to things is a bit clunky because, …Blackboard, but it seems to work ok. The reading links to reading list application which connects to library and has gotten good feedback from elsewhere.

This is fine for week-by-week info, but of course when students come to study, they are likely to want all topic information in one place, so the left hand menu links to topics. A small problem is that this left hand menu doesn’t auto-show when you are on mobile, you need to click it out, but hopefully this isn’t too terrible as the links to course topics shown in the weekly tabs will still bring people to the topic folder.

While scouting around how best to do this, I noticed very little online in terms of structuring VLEs, so welcome any thoughts/links to how other people do it.

Promoting teaching focussed academics

I read with interest this series of blog posts on promotion in academia, discussing external promotions (having to move beyond your institution to get promoted), internal promotions, and using the former to achieve the latter.


There is an additional layer of considerations for promotion of teaching focussed academics working in disciplinary departments (as opposed to education departments). The first is whether teaching focussed academics should be promoted on the basis of their work in teaching. The argument against is that if research is the traditional metric, then one who does not do research should not be promoted, and certainly not to professorial rank. This is still a prevalent view, although one that is changing somewhat. In the UK, there are not many Professors of Chemistry Education for example; I can think of a handful. In the last year there has been quite a few examples of people being promoted to Associate Professor (Reader) level. But it is still early days.

One of the difficulties is even if an institution wishes to promote someone to senior level, what criteria do they use? Typical criteria of funding and to a certain extent publication record are more difficult to apply. A general finger in the wind idea is whether the candidate has an international reputation, which seems sensible enough, but then I might say that. In a world of professional social media, a reputation and a reputation online are becoming confused. So instead, institutions might look for candidates to be Senior or Principal Fellow of the HEA, as an externally judged metric of reputation. This requires quite a commitment on the part of the applicant, and reflects back on what is the promotable action – teaching quality itself, or impact of that on others within and beyond the institution. For professorship, my own institution seeks things like external awards, student nominated awards, contribution to university policy, development of a MOOC (what?!), authorship of influential textbook, author of publications, invites to major conferences, or PFHEA. Perhaps I am blinkered, but one feels that if this level of criteria was equivalent across the board for all promotions, we would have very few professors generally.

One of the ironies of teaching focussed promotions is that it somewhat focusses on shiny new things that appear above the baseline of just doing the regular teaching grind. Things have to be excellent and innovative and while in a way that is good to encourage creativity, I do fear a little for students who are exposed to some crazier ideas so that the (ir)responsible academic can write about their snap-bang-whizz in appropriate promotion documentation.

A second concern is that publish-and-be-damned is even more enticing for education focussed academics looking for evidence. Promotion panels are unlikely to know the difference between reputable education publications with some merit in the field and The Secret Diary of Chemistry Education, promising all the latest news in the field. An education publication is an education publication, and to a passing eye, might appear so. One would hope that at least in this instance, an external reviewer might comment on that.

Finally, there is the issue of external reviewers. If someone is going for promotion on the basis of their teaching, and internally the university finds it difficult to judge quality, how can an external person do so? It will come back to perception, and perceptions are going to be influenced by bias. Over the last few years, I have been asked to write review letters for a whole variety of teaching focussed academic promotions from junior to professorial levels. One thing is very common – the difficulty in moving beyond perception and basing references on something tangible – there is often a lack of tangible evidence, often for the reasons above. So while the horizon isn’t clear and the pathway isn’t quite mapped out yet, recording and documenting evidence will be useful to support applications when the clouds clear. I’m open to suggestions as to what that might entail…

Reflecting on #MICER18

This week I ran the third Methods in Chemistry Education Research meeting (MICER18). It was a really interesting and useful day – we had a good range of speakers and lots of discussion; certainly the scope of the meeting this year was the most ambitious so far. As the meeting is beginning to settle into a space on the calendar, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to take it forward.

Micer Timeline

For me MICER operates on three levels. At one level this meeting has a very simple purpose – to share approaches that can be used when doing educational research, and especially applied to chemistry education research. This is achieved by asking speakers to give talks on how do undertake particular approaches, accompanied by activities and discussion – effectively a series of workshops. Over the series (2016, 2017, 2018) we have covered things like doing interviews, thematic analysis, using Likert scales, designing questionnaires, statistical approaches, thinking about theoretical frameworks and ethics, and the holy grail of writing a decent research question. The purpose is to give insight into the language and processes around educational research for the audience of people with a scientific background, who are moving towards the light. The emphasis on sharing methods of how things were done, rather than what happens as a result of doing things means that this meeting can eek out a little bit of light beyond the shadow of the annual Variety in Chemistry Education meeting. 

A second level is about identity. Most people working as a discipline based researcher in the U.K. and Ireland will likely be doing this as a kind of part-time hobby, in the few gaps available when doing a full time teaching position. Lack of funding means that the discipline is amateur; people are doing things with not much time and less money. If we are to professionalise, people need to feel confident in saying that they are a “chemistry education researcher”, loud and proud. This is very difficult to do if you don’t feel professionally grounded in that discipline. To gain that confidence, there needs to be a community into which they can situate themselves, and a sense of personal expertise to allow them to make the claim. By sharing methods and approaches, and demonstrating that there is a community, the meeting aims to help raise this confidence. This year we included a “reports from practice” section; hearing from people who are just like us doing CER in their own situation. It was wonderful, and a real highlight of the day, a kind of showcasing of what real live chemistry education researchers look like. I was also struck this year by the number of people in the room who spoke about projects they are working on, or where they were situating themselves on the spectrum of evaluation, reflection, and research. This highlights to me that the landscape is shifting slowly. But there needs to be considerable support; financial yes, but also in terms of identity. This is something the RSC needs to grapple with firmly. 

Finally, the entire education landscape is shifting. The growing emphasis on teaching at third level means that those situated in a teaching and scholarship roles are thrust into a political ping pong. At school level there is an expectation that teachers will engage with education research with little support or guidance, save for some grassroots heroes. We aimed to address this head on this year with a keynote talk about this very landscape; one which I think well characterised it and also offered clues as to how we might navigate it. We also included a talk on managing student projects; standing firm in a world where in some institutions, the presence of such projects is contentious. 


In setting out on the MICER journey, I was only ever really concerned with (and indeed thought about) the first level. I knew from conversations that people wanted to know about the how of doing education research. The additional levels have grown, partly thrust upon us as a nascent community, partly necessary for us to be a community. But there is a danger that in aiming to do everything, the meeting tries to do too much, and as a result, does not achieve the sum of its parts. It is only a one-day meeting after all, and I am left wondering whether we should refocus our thoughts on the first part, and the others will work themselves out elsewhere (come on RSC!). 

I’m planning to send out feedback survey and hope to use that to guide the focus of future meetings. There are other less lofty considerations; the meeting was full by February and likely needs a bigger venue. The characteristics of attendees is broadening. While the registration cost is cheap, getting to London is expensive. Getting funding to support the meeting is getting more difficult; there is a limit to the hit that the supporting interest group budgets can manage.  

But the interest in, and outcomes of, the meeting mean that I think the effort will be worth the while. 


A memorable teaching scenario for #Chemedcarnival

Katherine Haxton has challenged us to write a blog post on a memorable teaching situation.

When I was 19 I attended a Scout training weekend as part of a course to become a canoe instructor. I had been canoeing for several years under the patient instruction of canoe instructor, Keith, who was also a former scout leader. Keith is tall and patient and a scientist and has a clipped English accent with excellent projection. “Lean downstream, Mick” he’d boom up and down rivers, while I’d lean upstream, and capsize.

All this made Keith very exotic. Coming from a small country village where everyone mumbled and there were no scientists, much less well-spoken English ones, he was very different. We adored him. He had rare qualities of being The Adult but never condescending, paternal but never patronising. We mimicked him constantly (out of earshot) but woe betide anyone who even hinted a bad word about him.

So the country fellows went to training course to learn how to be leaders. The teachers on the course seemed tough and scary and, well, from Dublin, which is to say they were under the influence most of the time. When we arrived we found out that Keith was going to give one of the sessions on this weekend of the course. This is more than half a life ago, but I recall the excitement that news brought. We were used to him in the context of our own canoeing, going down (and upside-down) the rivers of Wicklow, but now we would see him somewhere different. We knew him and these chaps from Dublin didn’t. He was ours and we were loaning him to the mob and he would be amazing.

He was amazing. The session was about safety, and the kinds of decisions that need to be made quickly when on rivers. He was clear and authoritative and we sat and listened in total silence. Bursting with pride. Everything he said made sense.

But then; one of the Dublin fellows shouted out in the silence: “But Keith – that’s WRONG!” You can guess our horror. Keith listened, and responded, and moved on. And then; another interruption!

A game was afoot. Even for simple country chaps, it was clear that the whole lesson had been structured, with planned interruptions prepared well in advance. Tension eased, we all played along, throwing out ideas and suggestions and discussing various scenarios and decisions.

It is a “teaching moment” that has always stuck with me. There aren’t many lessons from half a life ago that I remember so well. A few months ago I was in the newly refurbished National Gallery of Ireland, and wandered into a wing featuring some new artists. I came across this portrait of our hero. The link explains more.


When is a conference real?

Respected Dr Dr Mrs Seery, we hope that you can come to our conference in somewhere you’ve never heard of and tell us about your interesting and exciting work in Pre-Lecture Resources for Reducing Cognitive Load at our Conference on Chemistry and Chemical Engineering in Sub-Oceanic Conditions. Please reply.

Most of us now receive daily invites to conferences around the world – oh the travel we could do! – and the usual fare is a greeting like that above; a dodgy mail merge of incorrect title, a paper title you have published and a conference that has a theme that bears no resemblance to the topic that you have been on. But the targeting is getting cleverer, and there are now quite a few Chemistry Education “conferences” doing the rounds.

These conferences are organised to make money. The model is that academics are invited to speak at conferences, and they, like all attendees will pay to attend.  The organisers know nothing about the topic, and the conference will not have any coherent theme, but the organisers will have delivered on their promise to host a conference, and gather all the money raised in the process as profit. Academics will provide free labour by presenting at the conference, perhaps peer-reviewing, being members of the “Advisory Board”… It all mirrors an actual conference very closely, but of course the problem is that the themes of these “conferences” are so broad that little meaningful discussion could take place. So how do you know what is real or not?

Three key places to look are: (1) who is on the advisory board (2) is there a professional body underpinning the conference, and (3) what are the conference themes.

ICCE2018Organisers and Advisory Board

If you are going to a conference on chemistry education, and the advisory board is populated by Professor of Forestry from Transylvania, then an alarm bell should ring. Are the names familiar? If you were to Google some of them, would you come up with some CER publications? Pictured are the Local Organising Committee and International Advisory Board of the very real 25th ICCE 2018 conference happening in Sydney in 2018. A cursory glance at this list for anyone involved in chemistry education would show that these are people with a genuine investment in the discipline.

Sadly, this check on authenticity is becoming more difficult, as academics are bounded by a singular characteristic: we love doing things for free. So when you get an email that asks you if you want to be part of an organising committee for a conference whose title interests you, well why not? If you don’t look into it too much and you’ve always wanted to go to the Mongolian mountains for a hike, this fits the bill. Before you know it you are profiled on the conference website and credence is added to the meeting because of your affiliation.

Professional Body

A second thing to check is if there is a a professional body underpinning the conference. The very real 25th ICCE 2018 conference happening in Sydney in 2018 is being organised under the auspices of IUPAC, as have all of the conferences in the ICCE series, and the national chemistry body, RACI. This lends an air of authority to the meeting – these are professional bodies who are interested in promotion of chemistry education, rather than just out to make money.


Conference Themes

But what if there is a conference that is out to make profit but means well and wants to host a good conference on a particular theme, where it has identified a gap. This isn’t illegal or morally wrong. We can use the conference themes to get a sense of how invested the organisers are in organising a conference about a topic that will bring a lot of like minded individuals together. I’ve pasted below an image from a tweet from the organisers of the “8th Edition of International Conference on Chemistry Education and Research” (note the ‘and’).


Exercising Judgement

It is in the interest of organisers of conferences such as these to spread the net widely; the more themes they cover, the more people will likely match. But of course, the broader the net, the more useless the meeting will be. It is worth exercising some judgement by considering the three points above. Even the conference title needs consideration: including an “and” is very popular as it allows a much broader range of topics while sounding like another very well established conference. Compare:

  • 25th IUPAC International Conference on Chemistry Education (ICCE2018)


  • 8th Edition of International Conference on Chemistry Education and Research

At a passing glance in a busy email reading session, both look similar.

Many readers of this will likely have received an invitation from the “Journal of Chemistry: Education, Research and Practice” and perhaps confuse it with the journal Chemistry Education Research and Practice. In this case, punctuation reveals very different intentions.

Take care, and if you do go to one of these “conferences”, I hope the scenery is nice!

Seeking thoughts about running a webinar

Later this month I am hosting a webinar, hopefully first in a series. The speaker is Alison Flynn, who will be talking about organic mechanisms. Registration is available here:

How do you run a webinar? I have given webinars and remember that it was a bit like speaking into a void as you can’t get a sense from the room as to how much people are enjoying your talk… Instead you just keep talking, hoping that the internet is still working, and that someone on the other end of the line is listening. It is a bit of a bizarre experience first time out.

There are some strategies for avoiding this: occasional polling, or using the chat box. I have mixed feelings about allowing the chat box being open during the talk. On the one hand, it is really nice to see comments come through – essentially text versions of body language and perceptions you might gain from speaking to a live audience. But they can also be distracting, albeit in a positive way – someone might post a comment that is interesting – for example an aside to the presentation that you weren’t going to discuss – but now that it is raised you are wondering in that moment whether to. It can mean you lose your train of thought. So my inclination is to turn them off, or else turn them on for defined periods, although ultimately I intend to leave the decision to the speakers.

Anyway, I am looking for thoughts on what experiences people have had either as a presenter or attendee that can help create a positive webinar. Comments below or on Twitter please :)

And do join us for #CERGinar on 25th October. Alison is a fantastic speaker.

10 thoughts on VICEPHEC

  1. I enjoyed VICEPHEC this year. I like meeting friends and colleagues and hearing about what people are doing.

2. Everybody has a different view on what VICEPHEC is. The two parent organisations need to outline some overarching guidelines as to what VICEPHEC is (and isn’t).

3. These guidelines can then frame abstract calls and conference themes, with local hosts free to offer initiatives such as the (reportedly excellent) Labsolutely Fabulous.

4. I detected several instances of quite pointed commentary this year disregarding/dismissing any sense of evaluation of output or serious data. In my view this is anti-intellectual.

5. Sharing good ideas is a valuable part of the meeting; but we have an ethical responsibility to consider evaluation. Do you want to be the next “Learning Styles”?

6. Evaluation does not necessitate diving into the pedagogical glossary. But let’s not dismiss those who chose to do this. After all Variety is in the name.

7. But should we change the name? I think the combined meeting should have a new name. It is only physicists and chemists for historical reasons.

8. Sponsorship is welcome and beneficial. But we need to keep clear boundaries between sponsors and the academic programme. See 2.

9. Disagreement and debate within a community is healthy. But let’s do it respectfully. We are all on the same side.

10. MICER is a very different and much more niche affair than VICEPHEC. If I thought for a minute that MICER meant that talks at VICEPHEC became evaluation-free, I’d shut up shop.

While I have you… MICER18 is on 14th May 2018 :)

What does active learning look like in college science classrooms?

A new review addressing this topic was recently published. I love reviews (someone else does all the hard work and you just have to read their summary!) and this one does a good job of categorising many of the approaches under the “active” umbrella. There are some limitations (for me) in their analysis, but the categorisation is useful nonetheless.

Most interestingly, the authors present a framework to consider active learning. There are two components to this. One is perhaps obvious: considering active learning means that you must first have an overall approach (i.e. are you teacher/student-centred, constructivist, etc); a strategy – a basis for why you will design particular activities in the classroom; and finally what these activities are. That seems pretty obvious.

The authors then draw on social interdependence theory (no, I hadn’t either) which identifies whether there is positive, negative, or no benefit from cooperating with others in attaining a goal. This is interesting. They then place on a grid the various activities depending on whether there is benefit from interdependence or not (positive or none) and what kind of peer interactions an active learning strategy might employ. The grid they come up with is shown, and they highlight:
– the difference between one and two-stage polling (clicker questions vs more formal peer-instruction)
– there are a lot of activities that depend on only ‘loose’ peer interactions; interactions which are short lived and do not involve the same peers.

active learning social interdependence

Types of active learning

The review is useful as it offers a smorgasbord of the kinds of activities people undertake. These are categorised into four main headings:
1. Individual non-polling activities such as the minute-paper, writing exercises, individualy solving a problem, concept maps, building models…
2. In-class polling activities formalised in terms of peer-instruction (question, vote, discussion with peer, revote) and sequence of questions, and non-formalised such as one-off voting, poll followed by written answer…
3. Whole class discussions involving an activity, a facilitated discussion, and questions/answers…
4. In-class activities such as POGIL, lecture-tutorials, PBL activities, and jigsaws (different groups do different parts of a problem and then it is all brought together).

Defining active learning

The authors define active learning as: “active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasises higher order thinking and often involves group work.

I think it is useful piece of work, and certainly the social interdependence piece is interesting. But I do wonder how they searched for information. They give details on this, but they seem to be missing a whole tranche of work around the flipped lecture movement, for example, and it would have been interesting to read about how active learning scenarios were facilitated in terms of curriculum design and what kinds of things were done in class once that information was available (or indeed relied on that process). Also they describe how they got papers but have a very worrying (in my view) statement about not looking at discipline specific journals, such as CERP. But a CERP paper is referenced. In fairness they do not declare to be comprehensive, but this kind of thing makes me wonder about the extent of the literature surveyed. But that is a minor gripe, and I think it is well worth a read.


Arthurs, L. A., & Kreager, B. Z. (2017). An integrative review of in-class activities that enable active learning in college science classroom settings. International Journal of Science Education, 1-19.

Lessons from a decade of ‘doing’ chemistry education

It’s been 10 years since “Developing practical chemistry skills by means of student-driven problem based learning mini-projects” was published in Chemistry Education Research and Practice, and it marked the kick-starting of an accidental career invested in chemistry education. This paper was published with two colleagues and friends, Claire Mc Donnell and Christine O’Connor, who inducted me into the ways of all things chem-ed. We would continue to work together; Claire and I guest-edited a special issue of CERP on technology in chemistry education in 2013, writing an editorial that is surprisingly cited quite often (for an editorial – I think it is because we say… something). And Christine and I wrote a book-chapter for the 2015 Wiley book on Chemistry Education, which in full respect to the editors, has quite a list of names assembled as authors. But wait: this is not an article about how great Seery is (that’s the next one, and the one before).


Can I say anything sensible about making this a profession? I’m often asked by people who are interested in teaching and learning and education-focussed careers what kinds of things they should think about to achieve this. I don’t know if I am qualified to answer that as much of what has happened was unplanned, fostered by a benevolent, and often indifferent department, working in a REFless, TEFless culture. Moving to Edinburgh has meant that this is now my ‘proper job’ rather than a hobby, but I wouldn’t call the transition or the journey a career path. So much of what follows is what I would advise, considering the REFful, TEFful culture we now live in. With that caveat, here are the top tips…

1. Separate the inner scholar from the teacher

One of the biggest difficulties for someone invested in teaching and learning chemistry is that all aspects of teaching and learning chemistry are probably of some interest. I remember going to conferences and wanting to see everything and #ohmygodthatssocoolwemusttrythat and being overwhelmed very quickly, because of course you don’t have time to try everything. You will not have time to think about everything at once, so my headline piece of advice is to identify what it is you will focus on; what will become your niche. You as a teacher will need to think about labs and lectures and tutorials and online marking and placement and professional development and…

But what will you as a scholar focus on? What is going to be the topic you will be able to have an intellectual basis in? Name it and begin to be strict with yourself about focussing on it. I see a lot of people who don’t produce any outputs even though they are doing good work because they are trying to do too many things.

Imagine an organic chemist. They of course know about most aspects of ongoing organic chemistry generally – they could teach any 2nd year course, but they specialise in their research on one or two particular aspects.

2. Read

If you are going to be scholarly about something, then you must read. I find it very surprising how little people read, or worse, how people cherry-pick some literature. Reading is important if we are going to move on from “gut feeling” or “in my experience” that drags down our academic standing. It is impossible to read everything, but that doesn’t mean you don’t read anything, and certainly doesn’t mean you rely on 140 character summaries as your academic insight. Twitter is amazing for pointing out unusual highlights and what other people who you respect consider important; and I have discovered countless gems that way. But you must be more systematic. This involves identifying a series of journals that you think are of interest and keeping up to date with what is published. If getting into a new area, it involves surveying the literature (hopefully finding a review!), finding out who the key players are. Reading also helps develop a kind of cultural capital – how do people go about things in this field; what are the acceptable norms? What the hell does being ethical mean?

How do you read? The challenge of reading 1000 papers might be a bit daunting. So of course you don’t need to read every line (except mine, for those: read every, single, line), but rather you are reading with a purpose. Perhaps you are making notes on how people implemented online quizzes in their courses. It doesn’t really matter if someone in University of West Nowhere scores went from 45.6% to 52.1%; what matters in this initial survey is what was their rationale and context, how did they go about it, how did they measure, what limitations did they state, and who did they cite to be of influence. You can very quickly build up a map of studies so that you now have a basis for designing your study on exploring how online quizzes; you can state what other people have done, give a rationale for your approach, and compare your results to others. Too often, this analysis is done post hoc. This is not a scholarly approach.

Reading also involves becoming familiar with learning theories. Again, just reading lots of learning theories is a passive way to approach this. Everybody is a constructivist because everybody is a constructivist. But what does that even mean? I thought you liked cognitivism too? How do you marry those thoughts?

3. Generate outputs

Many people do identify an area and do read, but never “get around” to publishing. This is tragic, because it means everyone has benefited from their scholarship except them. Developing outputs; at the very least conference presentations; is the only way the world (and also promotion and interview panels) know something exists. Everyone is a great teacher, everyone can quote some line of good feedback; don’t get that confused with the work of a scholar – producing some output to share with the world that is the result of academic work. The obvious output is a journal publication, but what if you made artefacts as part of some study – can you publish them online – maybe even have a link on the department website. Especially for those new to the field, this will be a useful indicator to show that you have demonstrated interest and will be a useful talking point at interviews.

One of the difficulties people find with writing outputs is that they don’t know how to write. They had a great idea, they got some nice results, and now they’ve got to make it look academic, which involves finding some references that look appropriate (See reading, above). Of course this is not the way to go about things. Our organic chemist does not just go into the lab one day and mix some things, happen across an interesting result, and then think about finding some sensible rationale as to why those chemicals were mixed. And it is unlikely that our educator was similarly flippant – there is likely some rationale in there but it makes life so much easier if the reading was done in advance to give that rationale some basis.

In my own experience, I cannot understate the value of keeping a blog has been to develop writing (yes I know this one is a long waffle). When you write something, you learn to think of how to present arguments, write a narrative, and in cases of academic blogging, have to have read something before writing about it. They say you don’t understand something until you teach it; trust me: you don’t understand something until you blog about it and expose your thoughts to the world. The world, in return, is usually grateful for you sharing those thoughts. And it all ends up being an accidental output.

4. Make friends

It’s nice to discuss your work and have support. One of the best things I had was the support of my original two co-authors. Claire and I went on to formalise this in a study we subsequently did and developed a critical friendship – one that was grounded in the knowledge that we both wanted what was best for each other, but not afraid to call the other up when something was awry about some aspect of the work or a conclusion. It was fantastic, not only for the actual conversations, but for the imagined ones too; I would wonder what Claire would think about something even before I would talk to her. This isn’t easy to find but worth seeking out. At the very least, connecting with others at conferences – yes we would all rather stand facing a corner and check our phone occasionally but come on now everyone, turn around. Talk. Introduce yourself. I was taken aback recently when someone I had always been afraid to talk to came up and introduced. We had a great chat and ended up with a group hug (it’s the way I roll). The point is, people go to these things because we have a common interest. Very often, there is someone else in the department who is interested in teaching. Talk with them (not at them).

One key aspect of making friends is the ability to listen. One thing that is slightly grating (to me) is that people will listen to you long enough to find out about how they can link onto something you are saying to something that they have done that is much better. This is not a way to learn about people and how they do things. Use your blog to show off. A better approach might be to think about how what the thing the person is talking about and what your own experiences are might marry into a useful collaboration? You’re a constructivist aren’t you?

In terms of making friends in the UK, the annual VICE conference is a good place to start. Registration deadline for this year is imminent (



Student study approaches

Many thanks to Scott Lewis/USF who put an interesting paper on students’ approaches to study in introductory chemistry my way. The paper describes the development of a framework for learning approaches in chemistry, and they come up with four levels: (1) gathering facts; (2) learning procedures; (3) confirming understanding; and (4) applying ideas.

Do students know how to study? In an exam dominated system, one might reasonably expect students to focus on the second approach – if they learn the procedures and have the facts to hand, then they will be able to use these in an exam. Of course, as teachers we hope students will aspire to developing (and confirming) understanding, and begin to see how this understanding is useful in a wider sense.

So my initial reaction was to make a poster on these learning approaches. It seems that both levels 2 and 3 have similar outcomes; students are able to use procedures in assessments; but the motivations are very different for both. My first attempt at a poster is below, but having spent an afternoon making it and refining it, I am wondering if it now immediately needs a friend in the form of a poster detailing specific strategies. The intention is to (a) make it clear to students that different approaches exist, and then (b) give them some strategies (beyond rewriting notes) that they can put into place.  (Note I left level 4 off this poster for reasons I think I can defend).

More thought needed…

Study Approaches

On the sublime

“Sublimity,” Hauptmann says, panting, “you know what that is, Pfennig?” He is tipsy, animated, almost prattling. Never has Werner seen him like this. “It’s the instant when one thing is about to become something else. Day to night, caterpillar to butterfly. Fawn to Doe. Experiment to result. Boy to man.”

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Moonlight Scene, James Arthur O'Connor
Moonlight Scene, James Arthur O’Connor

On learning “gains”

I have heard the term learning gain on and off but considered that it was just an awkward phrase to describe learning, a pleonasm that indicated some generally positive direction for those needing reassurance. And I am sure I have read about the concept of learning gain in the past but never took too much notice, likely too busy checking Twitter to focus on the subject at hand. But it was through Twitter this week that I was released from my gains-free bubble, and enough neurons aligned for me to grasp that learning gains is actually A Thing.

And what a horrendous Thing it is. HEFCE have a website dedicated to it and define it as “an attempt to measure the improvement in knowledge, skills, work-readiness and personal development made by students during their time spent in higher education”. If that isn’t clear, then how about this: a 125 page document published by RAND for HEFCE define learning gain (LG) as

LG = B – A’

They put it like this too – an equation on a separate line so that the scientists can nod along but the humanities people can just skip to the next piece of text. Good scientists should note that the variables should be italicised. Neither route offers any solace. This seemingly placid text masks one of the most remarkably awful ideas – gosh darn it THE most remarkable fuckwittery – I have come across in a long time.

Devoid of being able to monitor very much about teaching and learning in higher education, some genius has dreamt up this clanger. Rather than wondering why it is difficult (impossible) to achieve this task, the approach instead is to quantify with a number how much individual students have learned each year. A student will be measured at the start of the year, and again at the end of the year, and the difference is… well it’s obvious from the formula – there’ll be gainz. Each student’s own gain will be individual, so these poor lab rats exposed to this drudge are going to have to sit in an interview in a few years’ time and explain to someone what this garbage is about. Not only that, but this insidious beast is going to creep into every aspect of students’ learning. Degree transcripts will list a learning gain of 3.4 in career awareness and 2.9 in self-sufficiency. You were on a student society? Add 0.5 to your learning gain. Is this who we are now? How many centuries have universities existed, and now, at our supposed pinnacle, we have been reduced to this tripe. Don’t trust experts, Michael Gove said. Lots of very clever people are involved in this, and while I hope their intentions are good, I don’t trust the motives behind it. Writing an introduction to a special issue of HERD on measurement in universities, the editors cited Blaise:

A measurement culture takes root as if it is education because we are no longer sufficiently engaged with what a good education is. (HT)

HEFCE have funded several universities to wheel out creaking wooden horses, under the guise of pilot studies. It’s a cruel move, throwing some breadcrumbs at an education sector starved of research money to do anything. A horrible irony, it is, that in the name of ensuring value for money for taxpayers, that money is being spent on this. Don’t those involved see the next act in this tragedy? Institutional comparisons of average learning gains, far removed from the individual it was supposed to be personalised to, are easily computed. And numbers, whether they have meaning or not, are very powerful.

So when your student is sitting with you at the end of the year, and you have to measure their career awareness improvement, and your institution is under pressure as its gains are not as good as their protein-fuelled competitor, most likely a private operator in the dystopian near future the Tories are setting up, you might think again about their ability to discuss career pathways. Worse still is the difficulty in measuring a subject gain, or the even greater idiocy of using a proxy to measure something that can’t be meaningfully expressed as a number in the first place.

Another problem with measuring anything half as complicated as this, as a century of predictive studies has found, is that it is very easy to measure the large changes and the little changes, but the mass of students in the middle is mostly a muddle. And with LG = B – A’, there will be lots of muddle in the middle. What about the very bright student who actually knew most of the content at the start of the year because of prior schooling, but was shy and wanted to settle in for the first year of university. What about the one who enjoys just getting by and will focus in Year 3, but in the meantime has to be subject to self-efficacy tests to demonstrate improvement. What about the geniuses? What about first time in families? What about the notion that university is more than a number and the very darn fact that these are not things that we should try to measure.

I want my students to graduate mature and happy and adult and functioning members of society. If they learn some thermodynamics along the way, then that’s great. I can measure one of these things. It will be a sorry state of affairs if we have to measure others, and our future graduates, burdened with this heap of gunge won’t thank us for it.

Practical measures for practical work

There is something about reading old educational literature that is simultaneously reaffirming and depressing. Reading a point of view from over three decades ago that confirms your current thinking belies the notion that you are jumping on “the latest fad”, while the fact that it is still an issue for discussion three decades later makes you wonder about the glacial rate of change in educational approaches.

Education in Chemistry published a series of articles on practical work by Alex Johnstone. This article from 1982 sets the scene:

It is not uncommon in undergraduate laboratories to see students working as fast as possible just to get finished, with little or no thought about what they are doing.

Students, he argues, see practical work as “an intellectual non-event”. Johnstone used this article to elaborate on his hypothesis that practical classes presented a significant challenge to students, because the idea being taught is simultaneously needed at the start of the practical to organise the information presented in the class. In the lab, they need to recall the theory of the lab, remember how to use apparatus or read new written instructions about apparatus, develop new lab skills, listen to verbal instructions, and process whatever experimental data the experiment produces. It is difficult to discern which of this information is immediately important, and which is incidental.

Information overload in a lab environment (from Education in Chemistry, 1982)
Information overload in a lab environment (from Education in Chemistry, 1982)

The result is that students will follow the laboratory procedure like a recipe, without any intellectual engagement. Or they might take unnecessary care so that they won’t regret any experimental actions later – for example using an analytical balance when only a rough estimate was needed. Or they might go all British Bake Off Technical Challenge and just look around and copy others, without knowing why they are doing what they are mimicking.

Johnstone makes an interesting point which I don’t think I have seen elsewhere. When we lecture, we start off from a single point, elaborating with examples and developing connections. However, in practical work, students are exposed to all information at once, and must navigate their own way through to find the main point, often obscured. He used the idea of a pyramid and inverted pyramid to model these approaches.

Different approaches in class work and practical work (Johnstone and Wham, from Education in Chemistry, 1982)
Different approaches in class work and practical work (Johnstone and Wham, from Education in Chemistry, 1982)

Teaching strategy

How then can this information overload be alleviated? Johnstone provides some examples, including

  • making the point of the experiment clear;
  • a consideration of the arrangement of instruction manual so that it is clear what information is preliminary, peripheral, and/or preparatory.
  • ensuring the experiment has not acquired confusing or irrelevant aspects – this resonated with me from experience: some experiments involve students making a series of dilutions and then performing experiments with this series. Students spend so much time considering the process of dilution (preparatory), this becomes the main focus, rather than the main purpose of the experiment. This involves thinking about the goals of the experiment. If it is required that students should know how to prepare a dilution series (of course it is), then that should have primary prominence elsewhere.
  • ensuring necessary skills are required before exposure to investigative experiments.

A new manual

in 1990, Michael Byrne from what was then Newcastle Polytechnic decided to put Johnstone’s ideas into practice and reported on a new first year manual with the following design considerations:

  1. Experiments included a brief introduction with key information needed to understand instruments and the principle behind the experiment.
  2. Objectives were explicitly stated, indicating exactly what the student should be able to do as a result of carrying out the experiment.
  3. The language of procedures was simplified and laid out in sequence of what he student was meant to do.
  4. Information was provided on how to present results and what the discussion should cover. Students were prompted as to how they should query their results.

These ideas aren’t exactly what we would consider radical now, but students were tested after five weeks and those using the revised manual scored significantly higher in tests about techniques and results of experiments than those who had the old manuals.

Tenacious J

In 1990s, Johnstone continued his attempts to effect change in our approach to practical teaching. In 1990, he discussed the use of student diaries to record views on their lab experiences during their second year at university. The diary consisted of short response questions that the student completed after each practical. The responses were analysed iteratively, so that the experiments could be grouped into layers of criticism. Unsurprisingly, physical chemistry experiments came out as the most unpopular. My poor subject.

Why were they unpopular? Johnstone analysed the “load” of each experiment  – the amount of information they had to process, recall, digest and interrelate in the three hour period. I’ve reproduced his table below:

Load caused by experiments, Johnstone and Letton, Education in Chemistry 1990
Load caused by experiments, Johnstone and Letton, Education in Chemistry 1990

The total load of physical chemistry experiments is much greater than the inorganic or organic labs, primarily due to theoretical aspects. Furthermore, those physical lab experiments which were subject to most criticism had a theory load of 40, compared to the average physical lab theory load of 33. The result of this was evident in the student diaries: comments such as “not learned anything” and “no satisfaction” indicates that the students had not engaged with the experiment in any way.

Practical measures for practical work

In 1991, in the final of my trio of his articles here, Johnstone reported how he addressed the issues arising from the study of load in the manuals. Five strategies were considered:

  1. Noise reduction in the lab (noise meaning extraneous information): clearly labelled solutions, provided without need for further dilution unless required as part of experiment, highlighting where a particular procedure may differ from what students have previously experienced.
  2. Noise reduction in the manual: clearer layout of manual, with consistent icons, diagrams of types of balance beside instructions, etc. (this is 1991, people…)
  3. Allowing for practice: design of the overall practical course so that required skills are progressively developed.
  4. Time for thought: requiring students to prepare some of the procedure in advance of the lab as part of their pre-practical work – e.g. amounts to be measured out, etc.
  5. Time to piece it together: arranging the lab programme so that skills are developed in one week, used in a second week, and applied in a third week in a more open-ended lab that took about half an hour of lab time.

Johnstone’s trio of papers shown here show an impressive sequence of developing a theory as to why something has gone wrong, testing that theory with some analysis, and grounding an educational approach based on these findings. It’s one of the reasons I admire his work so much.


Michael S. Byrne, More effective practical work, Education in Chemistry, 1990, 27, 12-13.

A. H. Johnstone, A. J. B. Wham, The demands of practical work, Education in Chemistry, 1982, 19, 71-73

A. H. Johnstone, K. M. Letton, Investigating undergraduate laboratory work, Education in Chemistry, 1990, 27, 9-11.

A. H. Johnstone, K. M. Letton, Practical measures for practical work, Education in Chemistry, 1991, 28, 81-83

Rethinking my views on LGBT in STEM

I’ve never been sure where I stand with the association of sexuality and professional status. I’ve always leaned towards the side of considering it a private matter, not something to be either concealed or promoted. It is a personal identifier, not a professional one. Yet I’ve agreed with the notion that, as one clever person put it to me recently, if it helps someone, then it is a good thing. Maybe I’ve just been reluctant to be the one helping.

Recently there was an LGBT-focussed seminar day, where scientists and engineers came together to present their work and discuss issues around being LGBT in STEM. While I didn’t attend, I did follow the tweets and it has prompted some thought and several incidental conversations since. I wondered why all of these extremely clever people thought this to be an issue of great importance, while I was sitting on the fence.

I came out in the last year of my PhD; the imminent void facing me probably prompted a desire to remove at least one future concern. My main memory from that time is the terrible sadness I felt when a very lovely colleague asked me why I hadn’t said so before. They were bringing another colleague to a gay club every Sunday and I could have joined them. The utter futility of all those years of secrecy seemed such a waste.

So when I started my post-doc, I was an out person. On my first day, there was a query about a partner and who she was, and I mentioned a he, and all was well. I’m not sure whether it is on purpose, but ever since I’ve opted to tell the most trusted gossip I can find early on, and any awkward pronoun conversations are avoided evermore. I even managed (accidentally) to get it into my interview presentation at Edinburgh.

So why don’t I see it as an issue? It’s probably because it’s never been an issue for me. My memory of not being out has faded as it is half a lifetime ago. My experience has only been in academia, which has always been an actively supportive environment. That’s my frame of reference.

There can be no doubt that there are issues around supporting LGBT people in a university environment. It’s well documented that at school level, there is significant stress and trauma and associated mental health problems regarding LGBT pupils. And there are workplace studies that discuss the reticence of employees and the associated discomfort of coming out in an unsupportive environment. So while there is not much research for UK (although see here for a good article) it would be folly to think that in between these two phases of life, that there are not issues for our students at university which are worrying.

And it is sad to think that at a time when they should be most free to express and explore, and focussing on my thermodynamics notes, some of my students are instead worrying about how to distract their peers from conversations about what happened at the weekend.

So back to that fence: is it my role to advocate? What does that even mean? I am uncomfortable about the term ‘role model’. Conversations in the last while have certainly changed my thinking, in that I am now leaning towards the feeling that doing something is a good idea, but now I’m not quite sure what that something should be.

Some useful links from the LGBT STEMinar:
Dave Smith’s keynote:
Elena Rdz-Falcon’s keynote:
Good blog post on this seminar: 
Tweets from the day are under the hashtag #LGBTSteminar

ChemEd Ireland, DIT Kevin St on Sat Oct 11th

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

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

Contributors include:

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

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


Please register at the Eventbrite website at this link:

So-called “Radical” education reforms

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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