A tour around Johnstone’s Triangle

In a small laboratory off the M25, is a man named Bob. And Bob is a genius at designing and completing reactions on a very small scale. Bob is greatly helped by Dr Kay Stephenson, Mary Owen and Emma Warwick.

I was invited to go down to CLEAPPS to see Bob in action, and try out for myself some of the microscale chemistry he has been developing. I was interested to see it because of a general interest in laboratory expriments and how we can expand our repertoire. But I found out a lot more than just smaller versions of laboratory experiments.

Safety and cost considerations first piqued Bob’s interest in microscale. The traditional laboratory Hofmann voltmeter costs about £250, but the microscale version, including ingenious three way taps to syringe out the separated gases costs about £50. Thoughts about how to do a reduction of copper oxide safely led him to use a procedure that avoided traditional problems with explosions. There’s also a very neat version using iron oxide, incorporating the use of a magnet to show that iron forms.

Electrochemical production of leading to subsequent production of iodine and bromine. Copper crystals form on the electrode.
Electrochemical production of chlorine leading to subsequent production of iodine and bromine. Copper crystals form on the electrode.

Bob promised to show me 93 demonstrations in a morning (“scaled back from 94!”) and I worried on my way there that I would have to put on my polite smile after a while. But actually time flew, and as we worked through the (less than 93) experiments, I noticed something very obvious. This isn’t just about safety and cost. It has deep grounding in the scholarship of teaching and learning too.

Cognitive Load

What I remember from the session is not the apparatus, but the chemistry. Practical chemistry is difficult because we have to worry about setting up apparatus and this can act as a distraction to the chemistry involved. However, the minimal and often absence of apparatus meant that we were just doing and observing chemistry. This particularly struck me when we were looking at conductivity measurements, using a simple meter made with carbon fibre rods (from a kite shop). This, along with several other experiments, used an ingenious idea of instruction sheets within polypropylene pockets (Bob has thought a lot about contact angles). The reaction beaker becomes a drop of water, and it is possible to explore some lovely chemistry: pH indicator colours, conductivity, precipitation reactions, producing paramagnetic compounds, all in this way. It’s not all introductory chemistry; we discussed a possible experiment for my third year physical chemists and there is lots to do for a general chemistry first year lab, including a fabulously simple colourimeter.

Designing a universal indicator.
Designing a universal indicator.

Johnstone’s Triangle

One of the reasons chemistry is difficult to learn is because we have multiple ways of representing it. We can describe things as we view them: the macroscopic scale – a white precipitate forms when we precipitate out chloride ions with silver ions. We can describe things at the atomic scale, describing the ionic movement leading the above precipitation. And we can use symbolism, for example representing the ions in a diagram, or talking about the solubility product equation.  When students learn chemistry, moving between these “domains” is an acknowledged difficulty. These three domains were described by Alex Johnstone, and we now describe this as Johnstone’s triangle.

Johnstone's triangle (from U. Iowa Chemistry)
Johnstone’s triangle (from U. Iowa Chemistry)

One of my observations from the many experiments I carried out with Bob was that we can begin to see these reactions happening. The precipitation reactions took place over about 30 seconds as the ions from a salt at each side migrated through the droplet. Conductivity was introduced into the assumed unionised water droplet by shoving in a grain or two of salt. We are beginning to jump across representations visually. Therefore what has me excited about these techniques is not just laboratory work, but activities to stimulate student chatter about what they are observing and why. The beauty of the plastic sheets is that they can just be wiped off quickly with a paper towel before continuing on.

Reaction of ammonia gas (Centre) with several solutions including HCl with universal indicator (top right) and copper chloride (bottom right)
Reaction of ammonia gas (centre) with several solutions including HCl with universal indicator (top right) and copper chloride (bottom right)

Bob knew I was a schoolboy chemist at heart. “Put down that book on phenomenology” I’m sure I heard him say, before he let me pop a flame with hydrogen and reignite it with oxygen produced from his modified electrolysis apparatus (I mean who doesn’t want to do this?!). I left the room fist-bumping the air after a finale of firing my own rocket, coupled with a lesson in non-Newtonian liquids. And lots of ideas to try. And a mug.

I want a CLEAPPS set to be developed in time for Christmas. In the mean time, you can find lots of useful materials at: http://science.cleapss.org.uk/.

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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)



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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.


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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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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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.


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


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This week I’m reading… Changing STEM education

Summer is a great time for Good Intentions and Forward Planning… with that in mind I’ve been reading about what way we teach chemistry, how we know it’s not the best approach, and what might be done to change it.

Is changing the curriculum enough?

Bodner (1992) opens his discussion on reform in chemistry education writes that “recent concern”, way back in 1992, is not unique. He states that there are repeated cycles of concern about science education over the 20th century, followed by long periods of complacency. Scientists and educators usually respond in three ways:

  1. restructure the curriculum,
  2. attract more young people to science,
  3. try to change science teaching at primary and secondary level.

However, Bodner proposes that the problem is not in attracting people to science at the early stages, but keeping them on when they reach university, and that we at third level have much to learn with from our colleagues in primary and secondary level. Instead of changing the curriculum (the topics taught), his focus is on changing the way the curriculum is taught. In an era when textbooks (and one presumes now, the internet) have all the information one wants, the information dissemination component of a lecture is redundant. Bodner makes a case that students can perform quite well on a question involving equilibrium without understanding its relationship to other concepts taught in the same course, instead advocating an active learning classroom centred around discussion and explanation; dialogue between lecturers and student. He even offers a PhD thesis to back up his argument (A paper, with a great title, derived from this is here: PDF).

Are we there yet?

One of the frustrations I’m sure many who have been around the block a few times feel is the pace of change is so slow (read: glacial). 18 years after Bodner’s paper, Talanquer and Pollard (2010) criticize the chemistry curriculum at universities as “fact-based and encyclopedic, built upon a collection of isolated topics… detached from the practices, ways of thinking, and applications of both chemistry research and chemistry education research in the 21st century.” Their paper in CERP presents an argument for teaching “how we think instead of what we know”.

They describe their Chemistry XXI curriculum, which presents an introductory chemistry curriculum in eight units, each titled by a question. For example, Unit 1 is “How do we distinguish substances?”, consisting of four modules (1 to 2 weeks of work): “searching for differences, modelling matter, comparing masses, determining composition.” The chemical concepts mapping onto these include the particulate model of matter, mole and molar mass, and elemental composition.

Talanquer CERP 2010 imageAssessment of this approach is by a variety of means, including small group in-class activities. An example is provided for a component on physical and electronic properties of metals and non-metals; students are asked to design an LED, justifying their choices. I think this fits nicely into the discursive ideas Bodner mentions. Summative assessment is based on answering questions in a context-based scenario – picture shown.

In what is a very valuable addition to this discussion, learning progression levels are included, allowing student understanding of concepts and ideas, so that their progressive development can be monitored. It’s a paper that’s worth serious consideration and deserves more widespread awareness.

Keep on Truckin’

Finally in our trio is Martin Goedhart’s chapter in the recently published book Chemistry Education. Echoing the basis provided by Talanquer and Pollard, he argues that the traditional disciplines of analytical, organic, inorganic, physical, and biochemistry were reflective of what chemists were doing in research and practice. However, the interdisciplinary nature of our subject demands new divisions; Goedhart proposes three competency areas synthesis, analysis, and modelling. For example in analysis, the overall aim is “acquiring information about the composition and structure of substances and mixtures”. The key competencies are “sampling, using instruments, data interpretation”, with knowledge areas including instruments, methods and techniques, sample prep, etc. As an example of how the approach differs, he states that students should be able to select appropriate techniques for their analysis; our current emphasis is on the catalogue of facts on how each technique works. I think this echoes Talanquer’s point about shifting the emphasis on from what we know to how we think.

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My Education in Chemistry blog posts

A lot of my bloggery is now on the Education in Chemistry blog, and I will keep a running table of contents of them here.

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Lack of literature on flipped lecture rooms

Compiling literature on flipped/inverted classrooms for higher education isn’t easy. A lot of returns are of the “I couldn’t believe my ears!” type blog, which is fine for what it is, but not an academic study. Yet more literature, typically of the Chronicle or Educause type, tends to say flipped classrooms are great, and they lead on to MOOCs (as in the case of this recent C&EN piece), with a subsequent discussion on MOOCs, or tie in flipped classrooms with Peer Instruction, with a discussion on peer instruction. In these cases, and especially so for PI, this is the intention of the writer, so it is not a criticism. But it makes it hard to say what value flipped lectures have in their own right.

I want to think well of flipped lectures, and have piloted some myself, the concept being an extension of pre-lecture activities work that I have spent a lot of time on. While looking for methodologies to rob for a future study of my own, I had a look in the literature. The study most people seem to refer to is an article published in 2000 in the Journal of Economics Education which described the implementation of the inverted lecture. The paper is a nice one in that it describes the implementation well, with the views of students and instructors represented. But there is not much after surveying students in terms of considering effectiveness. I come from the school of thought that says if you throw oranges at students in a lecture and survey them, they will say it helped their learning, so I’m surprised that this study is referred to by evangelists in the flipped lecture area. The course site is still available, and while it looks a little dated, it does seem to align nicely with what the Ed Techs would consider good instructional design (resources, support, social area, etc).

A more recent study is that in Physics Reviews Special Topics: Physics Education Research. While it appears this is more of the pre-lecture type of activity rather than flipped lecture (ie there is still some lectures involved), the lecture room seems quite active. This study found that students who completed the pre-lecture work did better in exams than those that didn’t.

Not much else in my initial trawl. I’ll keep looking, as of course people might have done this and not called it flipped or inverting the lecture. Of course part of this is that education research takes time, and perhaps in the next few years, we will see lots of flipped lecture room literature.


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The Application of Technology to Enhance Chemistry Education

Call for Papers

Contributions are invited for a themed, peer-reviewed issue of CERP on The Application of Technology to Enhance Chemistry Education which is scheduled for publication Autumn 2013. Guest Editors: Michael K Seery and Claire McDonnell.

Topics for contribution may include but are not limited to:

  •  Blended learning to support ‘traditional’ instruction (e.g. online resources, wikis, blogs, e-portfolios)
  • In-class technology (e.g. clickers, iPads or equivalent)
  • Online learning (e.g. distance learning initiatives, online collaborative learning, active and interactive eLearning, computer simulations of practical work, modelling software for online learning)
  • Cognitive considerations for online learning (e.g. designing online resources)
  • E-assessment (e.g. formative assessment strategies, automated feedback)
  • Reviews and Perspectives (‘State of play’ of current trends, historical perspective)

Contributions should align with the principles and criteria specified in the recent CERP editorial (Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 2012, 13, 4-7). To summarise, there is a requirement that papers provide an argument for some new knowledge supported by careful analysis of evidence; either by reviewing the existing literature, analysing carefully collected research data or rigorously evaluating innovative practice.

Submission of Manuscripts

Manuscripts should be submitted in the format required by the journal using the ScholarOne online manuscript submission platform available through the journal homepage http://www.rsc.org/CERP/. Enquiries concerning the suitability of possible contributions should be sent directly by email to: Michael Seery michael.seery@dit.ie and/or Claire McDonnell: claire.mcdonnell@dit.ie.

Important Dates

Manuscripts should be submitted by 4th January 2013 to be eligible for consideration in the theme issue, subject to authors being able to address revisions without too much delay. Manuscripts received after the deadline can still be considered for the theme issue, but the usual peer review process will not be compromised to reach decisions on publication, and if such articles are accepted for publication too late to be included in the theme issue then they would be included instead in a subsequent issue.

As with other CERP contributions, articles intended for the theme issue will be published as advanced articles on line as soon as they have been set and proofs have been checked, ahead of publication in the theme issue itself.

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Variety in Chemistry Education Meeting, 2012

Variety in Chemistry Education is one of my favourite conferences which I attend annually (2010 and 2011 reports here). This year’s meeting was held along with the Physics Higher Education Conference, providing the catchy Twitter hashtag #vicephec. The meeting was opened with a keynote by Prof Martyn Poliakoff, inorganic chemist from Nottingham, but better known to 102,403 YouTube subscribers as the star of the Periodic Table of Videos series, which have been viewed over 25,243,185 times. Prof Poliakoff received the 2011 RSC Nyholm Prize—awarded every other year for Education. He spoke about the development of the videos, working with video journalist Brady Haran to create 120 videos with over 4 hours film time in a little over a month. The urgency was caused by the pending end of a financial year! After completing the periodic table, they continued to work on videos (everything from concrete to Viagra). What struck me most though from this presentation was the sense of collaboration—a world-renowned scientist sharing his knowledge with that of a skilled video journalist. Hopefully it is a collaboration that might inspire others. Prof Poliakoff’s talk—which was personal and beautifully delivered—ended with a special tribute video to Ronald Nyholm (one of the two men behind VSEPR theory), which I suspect had even the quantum physicists choking back a tear.

With the onset of presentations (15 mins) and bytes (5 mins), it became clear that the organisers had carefully thought about the programme, with clear themes emerging. The first of those is the increasing use of technology in education. These included several talks on supporting in-class learning using multi-media resources. Simon Lancaster (UEA) spoke of a trial regarding flipping the lecture, and on a similar concept, David McGarvey and Katherine Haxton (Keele) spoke about pre-lecture activities they developed for their students (See September 2012 Education in Chemistry for a full article on pre-lecture activities). Dylan Williams talked about using multi-media clips for supporting lectures, and David Read on some fantastic worked answer videos for allowing students to engage in self-assessed work (during the summer, which they liked!). Technology continued into workshops on screencasting, wikis and online practicals.

The keynote from David McGarvey (Keele), the 2011 RSC Higher Education Teaching Award winner, stayed with the technology theme. He has used a wide range of technologies to support innovations in laboratory practicals, presentation skills and most impressively, audio feedback. His work on feedback—especially interim feedback—is inspiring. We were spoiled with a preview of this talk at the Irish Variety in Chemistry meeting earlier this year, which I wrote about here. I always come away from his talks with  lots of great ideas, so well thought out, and a concern that he can’t be sleeping much if he is working on so many great innovations at once.

Another theme that arose was that of student support in terms of college experience. Transition from school to college, international students, and distance learning students all have specific issues. An example was the talk by Gita Sedghi (Liverpool) spoke about supporting international students so that they integrated and interacted fully in their new environment, with a suite of supports such as pre-arrival planning, peer mentoring and student monitoring (interviews).

Context and problem based learning continues to be popular, and the recent focus by the RSC and the HE-STEM programme has generated several new resources available to use. These included an excellent package on costing and developing a fireworks display developed by Gan Schermer (Bath), a scenario on the theme of energy by Dylan Williams (Leicester) and talk on the process of redesigning a traditional hardness of water practical to give a multi-week C/PBL scenario for first years (Karen Moss, NTU). Two workshops on this theme were on designing ill-conceived problems and on developing commercial skills for chemists.

The third keynote was given by Paul van Kampen (DCU). This excellent talk outlined his personal journey in becoming a science education researcher as well as being a scientist. It was interesting as he highlighted what aspects of being a scientist could translate into education research, as well as illustrating what was different in the two research fields—for example the inability to “control” the sample in a science education “experiment”.  Many in the audience are actively at the boundary of scientist/science educationalist and the talk was a useful marker in the considerations around designing, implementing and validating educational materials. His talk also highlighted the great advantage of co-hosting the meeting with physicists; as even though we are based in the same city, we as chemist and physicist had never previously met. The closing forum agreed the experiment of co-hosting was successful, and if #vicephec13 is half as successful as this busy, informative, and entertaining meeting, it is a must-see on next year’s calendar.

Some highlights

  • There is a kid in us all: “We made chlorine gas!” Over-excited delegate after the Microscale Chemistry workshop (delivered by Bob Worley, CLEAPSS/Brunel)
  • Useful tip: Use personal whiteboards as a low-tech version of interactive teaching (Simon Lancaster, UEA)
  • Talk that changed my mind: A trio of talks on Peerwise, including Kyle Galloway (Nottingham) whereby students developed quiz questions to help each other study. Students liked having questions specific to their course, and enjoyed writing questions.
  • Simplest idea is the best: Katherine Haxton (Keele) on getting students to do a screencast instead of an oral presentation. It is self, peer, and tutor assessed. Some excellent meta-cognitive concepts included in this well designed innovation.
  • Time saver: Stephen Ashworth (UEA) on using Excel to generate a large number of questions for online VLEs with specific feedback. CONCATENATE is my new favourite Excel function. Absolute genius.
  • Change to teaching: More interim feedback, David McGarvey’s work on using interim audio feedback illustrates what can be achieved.

The entire meeting’s tweets have been added to Storify, which includes many links and references to resources and websites mentioned. I plan to compile a list of these and add them here.

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Showing Worked Examples in Blackboard Quizzes

I’ve been thinking of ways to include worked examples and hints in Blackboard VLE quizzes. Cognitive Load theory has something called the Worked Example effect, whereby learners who receive direct instruction in the form of worked examples perform better than those who don’t. The reason is attributed to providing novice learners with an approach to solving a problem that they can replicate, thus alleviating the working memory load while solving a problem. There’s some more on worked examples here.

The question then was how to provide a worked example (or a hint, a slightly less informative way to guide students) in Blackboard quizzes. I want to have them at the point where students can click on them as they need them, rather than having to leave the quiz and go off somewhere else to get help. I did this in this trial with Javascript buttons. The video below goes through how it looks and the mechanics of it.

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8th Irish Variety in Chemistry Teaching Meeting

DIT played host to the 8th Irish Variety in Chemistry Teaching meeting, modelled on the very successful UK Variety in Chemistry Education (ViCE) meeting on Thursday May 10th. There was a workshop in the morning covering two aspects of technology in chemistry teaching; using wikis, by Claire McDonnell, who demonstrated how to set up, edit and modify a wiki, along with highlighting the advantages of a wiki for monitoring group work – the ability to be able to track who did what and when. Claire identified this as the most useful aspect of wikis from her perspective in teaching. My own part of the workshop was on podcasting using Audacity, as outlined in the recent article in Education in Chemistry.

The remainder of the day was divided into two themes, Supporting Student Learning, and Broadening the Curriculum; followed by the keynote talk from David McGarvey at Keele.

Supporting Student Learning

There’s no doubt technology is becoming more and more common-place in chemistry education to support student learning. Christine O’Connor (DIT) opened this session describing her implementation of the use of podcasts to support lecture material and annotate worked examples. Her ongoing work involves investigating how students use these resources; some key points were that students liked the audio files with their lecturer’s voice, but they liked having print outs too as they could quickly scan through that material, which they can’t do with audio files.

Simon Collinson (Open University) described his work with Eleanor Crabb on the use of online chat-rooms to run tutorials (using Elluminate). The software allowed for voice, video, drawing and text from both instructors and students. Simon reported that while students liked the chat function, he was worried that with a large group the text box may get distracting. While students liked the idea of a microphone, they were reluctant to use it “on the spot”. Simon’s interested in looking at how providing students with some advance material ahead of the chat-room sessions might help reduce the cognitive burden involved in both being online and thinking about chemistry.

Pat O’Malley (DCU) used Articulate to prepare some pre-lab activities for students. Some clever ideas here included a virtual map of the lab, with Articulate Engage used to annotate the image so that students could navigate around the lab and familiarise themselves with where things were kept. along with videos on various techniques, he had a nice resource on how not to use a pipette, along with the result of a broken pipette meeting with a hand and some red stuff appearing. Pat assured us no students were harmed in the filming. In terms of getting students to use the resources, Pat described how he made some questions very specific to the resources, for example; what label (a) referred to in a particular slide.

Finally in this session was Mike Casey (UCD). Mike described the implementation of a student poster assignment, whereby the student had to take a medicinally relevant drug and make a poster on it, including the chemical structure, 3D structure, annotate functional groups in the drug and illustrate some physical properties. The students had to independently use resources to work out how to draw the structure and prepare the PowerPoint slide so it had a professional feel. What was most impressive was that this assignment was administered to class sizes of up to 450 students, and achieved a 96% completion. This was facilitated by using a lab session to introduce the assignment, and assign lab tutors to help students with queries. Each student gave a 5 minute presentation where the core organic chemistry of the slide could be discussed. It was a really simple, effective strategy, and Mike showed some clever ways of highlighting Ireland’s role in the development of pharmaceuticals.

 Broadening the Curriculum

The second session of the afternoon was on the theme of broadening the curriculum. First up in this category was Tina Overton (Hull) who took us through some of her work on dynamic problem-based learning. The idea is that after presenting students with their problem and context as in a normal PBL scenario (for example, designing a green-campus, costing the impl,emtation of bio-diesel for a bus company), students are given some condition change mid-way through the project—for example: changing costs of materials, changing legislation, a natural event (e.g. earthquake), etc. Students would then have to re-assess the intial information they rquested and see how to adjust their project given the changing conditions. All of this was carefully implemented through well-organised card system, which probably accounted for the fact that students didn’t seem to mind the changing conditions, which they were not expecting. Feedback from students was positive. Tina is making several of these resources available on the RSC’s website later in the year.

Marie Walsh (LIT) spoke about her involvement in the “Chemistry is all around us” project—an evolving network of chemists from around Europe collating resources for chemistry education. The website from the original project is http://www.chemistry-is.eu/and the new project is focussed on three themes: (1) Students’ motivation; (2) Teacher Training; (3) Successful experiences. The new website is being developed at http://projects.pixel-online.org/chemistrynetwork/info/index.php.

Odilla Finlayson (DCU) spoke about integrating research awareness into the curriculum, by getting students to talk to research staff and postgraduate students. The process was organised through a lab-session where students would meet researchers in their teams and find out about their research/process of research, and then report their findings in a group presentation. Students reported that they liked the idea, and were much more aware of the research activities within the School.

Keynote Speaker

David McGarvey (Keele) was the meeting keynote speaker, having won the 2011 RSC Higher Education Teaching Award. David gave a broad ranging talk covering various innovations he has initiated over the last number of years. These included developing context-based spectroscopy labs using sunscreens as a basis. As well as experimentation, the labs involved preparing a poster, completing a simulation on sunscreens depending on location in the world. One of the other novel features about this project was getting students to complete a mock assessment exercise using provided assessment criteria, so that students could really get a feel for how the assessment worked. David’s work on sunscreens is available in full at this Education in Chemistry Article.

Another project described was some impressive work with audio feedback. In the example shown, students had to prepare and deliver a PowerPoint presentation on a lab experiment. Rather than just providing feedback after submission, students were offered interim feedback on their PowerPoint slideshow. This was done using audio feedback, recorded with annotations using a tablet PC on the student’s work. David played a few of the sequences, showing the student’s interim submission, his feedback, and the student’s final submission incorporating the feedback points. It was very impressive, and a nice antidote to the notion that students don’t take feedback on board. Perhaps it might be better as a rule to give feedback on an interim basis rather than at the end? David’s work on audio feedback is available from page 5-9 in the July 2011 issue of New Directions [PDF].

David also managed to find some time to talk about his screencasting work, whereby he uses Camtasia to record screencasts to cover material causing difficulty to students, worked examples, etc. He recommended the use of a table of contents feature to allow easy navigation for students so they could jump to the section they wanted to listen to. David has also used screencasts as a means for feedback, in a collaborative project with Katherine Haxton, also at Keele (see New Directions, July 2011, p 18-21).

Thanks to all for a great day. The presentations will be available on the conference website by end of May.

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8th Variety in Irish Chemistry Teaching Meeting – DIT 10th May

The Chemistry Education Research Team wish to invite you to the 8th Variety in Irish Chemistry Teaching Meeting which will be held in DIT Kevin St on Thursday 10th May 2012. The meeting is sponsored by the RSC Education Division Ireland.

Programme and Call for Abstracts

The aim of the meeting is to allow those teaching chemistry at third level to share “what works” – useful ideas and effective practice from their own teaching.

The keynote speaker is Dr David McGarvey, University of Keele, who was the 2011 RSC Higher Education Teaching Award winner.

A call for abstracts is now open for short oral presentations (10 – 15 minutes) on any topic related to teaching and learning chemistry. The deadline for abstracts (150 words maximum) is April 5th 2012.

Attendance is free, but registration is required. Registration forms for those intending to attend/present can be downloaded here and should be submitted by April 5th 2012 by email to michael.seery@dit.ie


An optional workshop will be held on Thursday morning (10.30 – 12.30 pm) on the topic “Using Technology in Chemistry Teaching and Learning” and will cover the following topics: “Podcasting and Screencasting”, “Using Wikis in Chemistry Education”, and “E-assessment”. The cost of the workshop is €10.

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Class Sizes and Student Learning

A recent discussion on an ALT email circulation raised the interesting question of whether there was a threshold for class sizes, above which student learning experience diminished. Unfortunately, what followed was lots of “in my experienceHigginbotham-esque replies (with the exception of details of an interesting internal survey at NUIG), despite the original query specifically requesting evidence-based information.

You up there—in the blue and white jumper—what do you think the answer is?

A clackety-clack into Google Scholar throws up some interesting results on this topic. Unsurprisingly, the general trend is that increasing class size diminishes students’ educational experience, although the extent to which this happens seems to be luke-warm. There are two issues to consider: what is being measured to reflect something like “educational experience”; and what is the discipline.

What students think

In this regard, an interesting paper that caught my eye was one that considered the effect of class sizes in various disciplines (Cheng, 2011). This work dismisses student grades in favour of three evaluation scores derived from students: student learning, instructor recommendations, and course recommendations. Student learning was scored based on a student response to a 5-point Likert scale question “I learned a great deal from this course”. (Many of you, including myself, may be tempted to run screaming for the hills at this point. What would students know?! Cheng does make the point that she is not saying that this measure is superior to student outcomes, just a different measure. She refers to Pike’s (1996) interesting paper on student self-reporting for a discussion on this. Also, Hamermesh’s paper (2005) is worth a read for the title alone—in short, good looking lecturers get better ratings.)

Overall Data

Anyway, Cheng has amassed an impressive data set. “In total, the data span 24 departments, 2110 courses, 1914 instructors, and 10,357 observations from Fall 2004 to Spring 2009.” Before considering subject, on an overall level, Cheng found that for each of her three ratings, ratings fell as class sizes increased (although the smallest class sizes received both lowest and highest marks). Cheng has further used her data to generate a model to predict how student “learning” (**measured as outlined above**), instructor and course recommendations would change, so that for an increase of 50 in class size, these ratings would decrease by 1.4%, 1.3%, and 1.1% respectively. Of course, some disciplines will have smaller class sizes or may require more class-tutor interaction, so Cheng has drilled down into each discipline and determined if it is negatively or positively affected, or indeterminately effected (i.e. mixed results)

Subject Specific

In the sciences, chemistry, biology, physics and maths were unaffected by increasing class size in this model, as were history, philosophy, and visual arts. Almost half of the disciplines surveyed were inconclusive, some showed negative effects: some engineering disciplines, political science, social science. No discipline benefits from increasing enrollment.


Cheng considers that theoretical subjects such as the sciences may have a low correlation with class size, but rather depends on other factors, such as quality of instructor or student effort. While I think there are flaws, or at best limitations to this study (as Cheng acknowledges), it does open up interesting questions. The one I am interested in is the culture of teaching chemistry, which is fiercely traditional. That this data suggests that an increasing class size would have little effect on ratings measured here in a chemistry class would in turn suggest that its teaching is still very much based on a teacher-centred philosophy. Clickers, anyone?


  • Cheng, D. A. Effects of class size on alternative educational outcomes across disciplines, Economics of Education Review, 2011, 30, 980–990.
  • Hamermesh, D., & Parker, A. Beauty in the classroom: Instructors’ pulchritude and putative pedagogical productivity. Economics of Education Review, 2005, 24, 369–376.
  • Pike, G. R. Limitations of using students’ self-reports of academic development as proxies for traditional achievement measures, 1996, Research in Higher Education, 37, 89-114.

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Chemistry Education Research and Practice

I still remember the pleasant surprise of discovering that there was a journal dedicated to the teaching of chemistry in higher education. Sometime in late 2005, I Googled something about assessment in chemistry, and out came a result: “Assessment in Chemistry and the Role of Examinations“, a great paper questioning the value of our assessment system.  The same issue had an article “Experimenting with Undergraduate Practicals“, which was hugely influential in my own consideration of the role lab education. My love affair with University Chemistry Education—which would later become Chemistry Education Research and Practice after a merger in 2005—began.

Early Themes

A Wordle of the titles of the papers published in U. Chem. Ed. from 1997 – 2004 is shown below. These show that the issues we are still tackling today—critical thinking, effective assessment, embedding transferable skills—have been around the block a few times in the chemistry education community!

Wordle of University Chemistry Education Titles Volumes 1 – 8.

The contents of the very first issue is telling in that regard. Among its articles are Alex Johnstone’s classic ‘…And some fell on good ground’, about prior knowledge and cognitive load in learning chemistry, the basis of my own research over the last three years. Tina Overton’s Creating Critical Chemists had themes of group work and discussion, which are interesting prelude to her hugely influential work on problem based learning in chemistry. The then editor of U. Chem. Ed., John Garratt, wrote a paper entitled Virtual investigations: ways to accelerate experience which discussed the use of pre-lab online exercises as a preparation to in-lab work which included a set of aims of practical work that informed the debate around laboratory education. More than twenty-five years later, these issues are still at the core of our discussions on chemistry education.

The new journal must have quickly gained an audience outside the UK. Apart from letters, Volume 3(1) in 1999 saw three non-UK-based submissions: Brian Murphy (IE), then of IT Sligo, on assessment of IT skills in chemistry (my 2012 CERP paper is on this topic!); Onno de Jong (NL) on how to go about researching chemical education (de Jong has done a lot of work on contextualising chemistry); and George Bodner (US) on an action research study of assessment. International submissions continued at a healthy pace.

Towards CERP

Soon after the establishment of University Chemistry Education in 1997 was the development of Chemical Education Research and Practice in Europe (CERAPIE), edited by Georgios Tsarpalis, in 2000. Like U. Chem. Ed., CERAPIE quickly attracted an international audience, and dropped “in Europe” from its title in 2003. In 2005, U. Chem. Ed. and CERP merged to form a new journal published by the Royal Society of Chemistry, co-edited by Stephen Breuer who was editor at U. Chem. Ed. since 2001 and Georgios Tsarpalis. From 2007, the journal was included in the ISI Citation Index, a hugely important step in the development of the journal.

According to ISI, 181 papers have been published in CERP since 2007. Among these, 61 (1/3) have been from US, 20 from England, 14 from Australia, 13 from Germany, 9 from Ireland and 7 from Scotland. The top 10 most cited articles are (note that these are biased by age!)

  1. Donald Treagust’s (AUS) excellent work on two-tier diagnostic assessment
  2. Norman Reid’s (SCO) seminal paper on the role of laboratory work in chemistry
  3. Lewis and Lewis’ (US) work on predicting at-risk students in General chemistry
  4. One of the early papers on clickers in chemistry by Loretta Jones (I have written about that here)
  5. One in Hofstein’s important series discussing laboratory education
  6. Absolutely ground breaking work done here at DIT :) on project based learning in the lab
  7. Cooper and Sandi-Urena’s work on metacognition in chemistry (check out last issue of 2011 for an update to this work)
  8. Mark Buntine and Justin Read’s work on undergraduate practical development ACELL
  9. Stolk and de Jongs’ paper on context based education in teacher training
  10. Domin’s work on conceptual development in a PBL laboratory setting

The Future

Issue 4, 2011 saw the retirement of both Stephen Breuer and Georgios Tsarpalis as editors of CERP. I think the chemistry education community has much to be grateful to them for, as they have provided a platform for practitioners and researchers in chemical education to share and debate ideas for more than a decade. For new and continuing lecturers, it is a great resource for stimulating a consideration of how we teach chemistry.

Interestingly, this last issue under their stewardship had themes which were very similar to those mentioned in the first issue of U. Chem. Ed.—technology in education, including laboratory education; conceptualising chemical concepts; and developing critical thinking through enquiry. The new editor, Keith Taber, has a big task ahead of him continuing on the work of this great journal. His own association goes back to 2000, when he wrote an article on teaching chemistry with a consideration of prior knowledge.

I am planning a follow-up article to consider some of the themes highlighted in CERP in more detail. If you’d like to be involved, or have any particular favourites, let me know!

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Implementation of Research Based Teaching Strategies

The traditional, almost-folkloric, based approach to teaching science is a stark contrast to the evidence-based research approach scientists consider in their everyday research. The quote by Joel Michael* highlights the contrast:

As scientists, we would never think of writing a grant proposal without a thorough knowledge of the relevant literature, nor would we go into the laboratory to actually do an experiment without knowing about the most current methodologies being employed in the field. Yet, all too often, when we go into the classroom to teach, we assume that nothing more than our expert knowledge of the discipline and our accumulated experiences as students and teachers are required to be a competent teacher. But this makes no more sense in the classroom than it would in the laboratory!

In discussing the implementation of innovative teaching techniques, this post is drawing on the work of Charles Henderson who spoke at a conference earlier this year on his analysis of the impact of physics education research on the physics community in US. I think there are lessons for chemists from this work. (The underlying assumption here is that moving from traditional methods of teaching based on information transmission to student-centred or active teaching improves student learning. This position is I think consolidated by a significant body of research.)

Change Mechanisms

The decision to use what Anderson called Research Based Instructional Strategies (RBIS) by a lecturer follows five stages, described by Rogers: (1) knowledge or awareness about the innovation; (2) persuasion about its effectiveness;  (3) deciding to use the innovation; (4) implementing the innovation; and (5) confirmation to continue its use.

Awareness of RBIS obviously underlies this process. A 2008 survey by Henderson and Dancy of 722 physics faculty showed that 87% were familiar with at least 1 of 24 identified RBIS applicable to introductory physics, and 48% reporting that they use at least one in their teaching. Time was reported as the most common reason why faculty did not implement more RBIS in their teaching.

A subsequent study by Henderson examined the individual stages of the implementation process in more detail and found that:

  • 12% of faculty had no awareness
  • 16% had knowledge but did not implement (Stage 1-2, above)
  • 23% discontinued after trying (Stage 3-4)
  • 26% continued use at a low level (Stage, 5, 1 – 2 RBIS)
  • 23% continued a a high level (Stage, 5, >3 RBIS)

Innovation Bottleneck

Henderson uses his data to demonstrate that on the whole, the physics education community does a good job of dissemination of RBIS to the community of educators. Just 12% of faculty had no awareness, and 1/6 of those who did, made no attempt to implement any. Therefore it can be argued that the fall-off in innovation is at a later stage in the change process. Hence efforts to encourage innovation should aim to address the one third of those with awareness who discontinue after a trial and those with a low level of continuance to build on their success. These groups may be a more suitable focus for consideration, in terms of percentage, as well as the fact that they were willing to give an innovation a go, when compared to those who had knowledge but did not try any innovation.

Teasing this out appears to be difficult. The decision to continue seems to come down to personal characteristics, such as desire to find out more, and gender (female twice as likely to continue than male, but the paper does dispel some traditional conceptions about who is innovative and who isn’t!).

However, in terms of practical measures that can be made the following are listed:

  • Practice literature can present an overly rosy picture of implementation. Therefore, when someone trys it and hits an unexpected hurdle (student resistance and complaints, concerns over breadth of content, outcomes not as expected), there is a sense that it isn’t working, and the innovation is discontinued. Therefore it is important that practice literature gives a full and honest account of implementation.
  • Implementation can be modified to the person’s own circumstances, and in modification, the effectiveness of the innovation is lost. Therefore, pitfalls and important issues in the dissemination stage (workshops, talks, etc) should be highlighted.
  • There is evidence that if an innovation is supported by the designer during the implementation phase, the innovation is more successfully implemented.

Now, who wants to do this analysis for UK/Ireland chemistry?!


Charles Henderson, Melissa H. Dancy, Magdalena Niewiadomska-Bugaj (2010) Variables that Correlate with Faculty Use of Research-Based Instructional Strategies, 169-172. In Proceedings of the 2010 Physics Education Research Conference.

Charles Henderson & Dancy, M. (2009) The Impact of Physics Education Research on the Teaching of Introductory Quantitative Physics in the United States, Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research, 5 (2), 020107.

*Thanks to my colleague Claire Mc Donnell for giving me this quote: Joel Michael, Advances in Physiology Education, (2006) 30, 159-167.

Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.

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Variety in Chemistry Education 2011

Variety in Chemistry Education (ViCE) UK is one of those conferences. Unmissable, pragmatic, friendly, and always informative. I’ve gone every year since I started teaching, and love catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. Its value lies in the fact that it is based on presentations by chemistry lecturers on things they have tried in their own teaching—so it is a treasure trove of new ideas of things to try. This year we found out using clickers in David Read’s talk that 48% of attendees were first-timers, a good measure of a well-established and thought of conference. Like last year’s Variety (which I wrote about here), I came away with a real boost in motivation for the start of the new academic year.


The opening keynote is traditionally given by the RSC Higher Education Teaching Award winner which for 2010 was David Read. I’ve heard him speak before about school to university transition, outreach, contextualising learning, lecture capture, and more. His background as a school teacher now working in the university system gives him a good view on transition issues. He spoke, amongst other things, about going full circle in developing a really nice suite of resources on worked examples—first at A-level and then at undergraduate level—which aim to demystify the assessment process. The latter were made using Camtasia Studio, which accompanied video lectures of key aspects of chemistry causing difficulties. An example of these is on YouTube. There’s also a nice example of a department tour that I’d like to try myself for pre-induction information. Those interested in the forthcoming review of Leaving Cert Chemistry might be interested in David’s analysis of A-Level chemistry. As if that’s not enough, he also pointed us to an bank of copyright free images for use in lecture-capture in chemistry (physical chemistry at the moment). This is a busy man.

Simon Belt, from Plymouth, was awarded a UK National Teaching Fellowship and his entertaining lecture Karaoke Chemistry used the talk titles of several previous Variety talks since 1993 to show how trends in chemistry education were changing, slowly. This provided the background to addressing a wholescale programme redesign for chemistry programmes in Plymouth. The approach was novel—considering what outcomes were desirable, picking just five of the most important of these (usually quite generic – e.g. research skills, project management, lab skills, etc), completing an outcomes audit, gauging the level of the outcomes addressed (usually quite low or not at all, which as the speaker noted was unsurprising as the original design did not include those) and then identifying how outcomes could be introduced into the curriculum. The process took a year and is still ongoing. It was brilliant to see a live example of a meaningful programme redesign and how it could occur in practice, incorporating mechanisms to get all staff on board. Simon is one of the best speakers in the business, and he used pictures of singers to underline several of his points (hence the title of the talk).

Ingo Eilks from Bremen gave a talk on the history of the lecture. I was a bit disappointed not to see more about his work in rethinking how lectures can be given, although this work, at an early stage, should be interesting to follow.


Lots of presentations (15 mins) and bytes (5 mins), so it is hard to pick out ones to mention. In terms of themes, lecture capture is one of interest. It seems to be evolving, moving on from full lectures to shorter screencasts on topics that are causing difficulties. Simon Lancaster gave a talk on a collaboration with David Read (yes, him again) on chemistry vignettes which they are developing on a variety of topics; something similar is being developed at Leicester by Dylan Williams. Another theme was lecture or lab preparation, with our own talk on pre-lecture activities, and Gita Sedghi presented a talk on Liverpool’s VITAL pre-lab tutoring system. Visualisation is a component of this, and Liverpool’s excellent (and technically amazing) ChemTube3D project was well represented by Neil Berry and virtual experiments described by Charles Harrison, a student of David Read’s (yes, him, again). Jmol also featured in a brilliant talk by Nigel Young which had vibrations of molecules in tune with classic hits (open access but I can’t find the link).  Eleanor Crabb from the OU gave a great talk on supporting students using chat rooms and forums.

Following last year’s publication of Hanson and Overton’s Skills Audit, a lot of talks looked at professional skills, and all of them embedded the teaching of these skills into the chemistry curriculum. From writing chemistry books in an intensive week at Teeside to a communications module in Birmingham and a development of a suite of modules across a programme in Reading, there were lots of ideas for how to develop our delivery of these key skills. Kyle Galloway completed an impressive audit of student opinion of what they considered to be important key skills at various stages. There was a nice byte from James Gaynor on using wikis (with a useful reference: Educ. Assessment, 2006, 11(1), 1-31) which I would have liked to have been a full talk as he had some nice stuff to talk about on self- and peer-assessment, something which scares me greatly and I’d like to know more about it! My podcasting workshop reduced some people to song, better than tears I suppose. Lorraine McCormack nearly had us all in tears with an excellent talk on the gap between what Piaget says should be the cognitive development of our students and what her results actually find (for Irish students).

Ends of Eras

The Variety was the last one to be organised by the amazingly excellent UK Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre which has closed following a reorganisation of structure at the HEA. We could only look on in envy at our UK colleagues with the support the Centre provided, and they were always generous in making their resources and workshops available beyond borders. It’s conferences like Variety that were the hallmark of the Centre, pragmatic and immediately useful, but backed up by a core of good research and scholarship. They will be missed. Variety will continue though under the auspices of the RSC Tertiary Education Group, which is good news.

Stephen Breur, editor of the excellent Chemistry Education Reseach and Practice journal wil also be missed, as he hands his editorship over to Keith Taber this week. CERP, and its predecessor University Chemistry Education are a place where reports on the scholarship and practice of teaching in chemistry had a good home. Stephen, along with his co-editor brought the journal into the ISI citations and saw it get an excellent impact factor—a real testament to the editors dedication to the promotion of the journal among all interested in chemistry education.

Twitter (#VCE11) featured prominently and a nice storyful (day 1, day 2) was compiled by @kjhaxton. Pathetically, I couldn’t tweet on Day 1 as I forgot my wifi code and on Day 2 I was just too, er, tired.

Looking forward to ViCE 2012 already! Got my kilt ready…

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E-learning (dis)traction

I think the start of my teaching career coincided with the rise of the VLE. Early on, I remember being told about these new learning environments and the array of tools that would help student learning. Encouraged, in the nicest possible way, to upload material and use the institution’s expensive new toy, many lecturers complied and uploaded course materials, support papers, practice questions and so on. In this ideal world, the students couldn’t have had more learning resources at their fingertips. Learning was going to happen.

In reality, this has not been the case. The DRHEA e-learning audit (2009) reveals some disappointing figures across the Dublin region. Students regularly log into their VLE, but mostly access it to access course materials (lecture notes). This makes VLEs a very expensive version of Dropbox or other online repository.

This is also reflected in the UK. In my own subject (chemistry) and in physics, the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre review of student learning experience showed that e-learning came bottom of the pile when students were asked to say which teaching method was most effective and most enjoyable.

A Distraction

For most lecturers, e-learning is not part of their day to day practice, perhaps because of lack of confidence, probably because of lack of awareness. Mention e-learning, and the discussion quickly moves to whether to use PowerPoint and whether those notes should go online.There may also be subtle fears of replacement – that if learning can happen online, perhaps it can happen without lecturers at all! (Of course, anyone who has taught online knows the truth here!). And as the DRHEA survey shows, if academics engage with the VLE, it tends to be in the form of mimicking what they do in lectures, rather than supporting what is done in lectures.

Institutions, bless them, are concerned with e-learning from a perspective of usage and branding – how does their toy compare with next door. There have also been subtle and not so subtle undertones about how e-learning can provide cost-savings in the future, which is a naive viewpoint. Institutions need to be protected from themselves. If, as a community, we don’t consider valuable uses for incorporating into our practice, institutions will want to fill the vacuum, just as was done previously with pushing content online. Lecture capture, a spectacular waste of tax-payers money, is looming large and is already catching on in the UK. It looks good, makes for good PR and students “love” it. The fact that there is little or no evidence to show that it helps with learning is disregarded. As a community of educators, we should be concerned about this “innovation” being pushed on us [I recommend reading this for a fuller discussion of lecture capture]

Students, well bless them too. Students are clever, articulate, funny and they are our future. But they are also sometimes a bit stupid. Students will always want more – more notes online, more resources, more quizzes, self-study questions, more more and more! In the relaxed days several months before exams, they mean well and plan to engage with all of this material. But all the evidence points to the fact that students rarely engage with the material until it is too late, just before exams. At this stage, they find the nature of the content, often not even re-purposed for an online environment (substitution of what they have rather than supplemental to help them understand what they have), useless for their learning.

Finally, we have my very good friends, the learning development officers, who try various strategies, sometimes against all the odds, to assist lecturers in incorporating e-learning into their teaching. Locally, their help has been of great value to me, but reading about e-learning on blogs and on The Twitter Machine, there is a sense that the ideas and conversations within the learning development community does not reflect what is happening on the ground. There is perhaps a false sense of advancement, buffered from the great unwashed of PowerPoint debaters by early adopters and innovations in the literature. This can lead to a disconnect in language – acronyms, gadgets and tech jargon which results in the lack of confidence among lecturers who may wish to change. The term “learning technologist” does not help, as it immediately imposes a (false) divide between learning and e-learning.

Gaining traction?

So, what to do? The high participation rates in VLEs indicate that this is a place where learning opportunities can be provided. Students are hungry to engage, if material is there. One of my favourite authors in the literature on e-learning for practitioners is Gilly Salmon (Gill-e-Salmon?). A core component of her approach is for practitioners to ask themselves: “What is the pedagogic rationale for implementing any proposed change?“. I think  this is a very powerful position – it speaks in language all perspectives can understand, or at least appreciate (institutions I am looking at you). Lecturers, identifying problems or issues in some teaching practices can consider how to integrate a change, perhaps harnessing technology, into their teaching. Because there is a need; an underlying rationale even; the implementation has a value and a role to play in the module delivery. Lecturers may refer to it, and better still integrate it into their class work. Students are now presented with specific, often bespoke learning materials with specific purpose of supporting their learning at a particular stage of their learning in the module. Instead of just representing lecture information all over again, there is a reason at particular stages in the module, to interact with these reasons – they have a value. Learning development officers can offer their considerable expertise in supporting lecturers in developing the resources, so that they are fit for a purpose. And institutions are happy because students are happy and access statistics look good. In our own work here at DIT, we have enjoyed some success at the micro-level employing this approach – moving away from mass content upload (“shovelware”) towards specific learning resources tailored for and incorporated into specific modules. It takes time and is harder work, but the value of what is produced is greater for all.

Now, I feel better after that.

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Pre-Lecture Resources Webinar 26 Jan 2011


I’ll be giving a webinar as part of the fantastic Sligo IT webinar series this Wednesday at lunchtime. You can register and find out more here: http://www.eventbrite.com/event/1135441135. The webinar will cover some of the work I’ve done on my Teaching Fellowship on the area of pre-lecture resources. It’ll be my first webinar – I’m quite nervous about it, but looking forward to the instant interaction of the audience as I give the talk!


This presentation will outline the use of online pre-lecture resources to supporting in-lecture material. The design rationale is to develop a cyclical approach between online resources and lectures, so that the two are mutually dependent. The aim of the resources are to introduce students to some key ideas and terminology prior to the lecture, so that their working memory during the lecture can focus on application
and integration, rather than familiarising with new terminology. These had a short quiz associated with them which was linked to the gradebook in the VLE. Some design principles behind developing these (and any) e-learning resources will be presented, along with implementation strategy and some analysis of the effect of using these resources with my own students.

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Using Pre-Lecture Resources in your Teaching

Using Pre-Lecture Resources in your teaching

Much of my study on educational research this year has focussed on Pre-Lecture Resources, working with Dr Roisin Donnelly at DIT’s Learning Teaching and Technology Centre and my colleague Dr Claire Mc Donnell. I’ve turned into something of an evangelist for pre-lecture resources, so in order to spread the good word, I have prepared this resource guide for others thinking of using a similar strategy. I’d love to hear from anyone who has considered this approach or is using a similar approach. The guide accompanies a presentation at the 12th Annual Showcase of Learning and Teaching Innovations, DIT, Jan 2011. Click on the image to access Using Pre-Lecture Resources in your teaching”

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