Study and Communication Skills for the Chemical Sciences

A few months ago I reviewed a book Study Skills for Science, Technology and Engineering Students. While I couldn’t fault the authors on the content or their good intentions to pass on useful information gleaned from years of experience of giving students advice, it reminded me of a book I once used as a student myself (long ago). For me, both of these books fell into two traps; they had a lot of densely packed pages full of text with endless tips and strategies that despite good intentions left the reader (if it was read at all) confused and secondly, they had a secret ambition of being a book for lecturers teaching study skills rather than a book for students. This latter purpose may not have been intentional by the authors, but as the gold standard in this category (Stella Cottrell’s The Study Skills Handbook) shows, a huge amount of effort is required to make a book of this nature applicable to the student reader. For this very reason though, it is most suited to lecturers teaching this topic.

As it was, I had to ask my brother what studying entailed. I wish I had this book, Study and Communication Skills for the Chemical Sciences though, which was published this month. It gets its audience perfectly, just as Cottrell does. The books designers have done a great job with the clear design and typeface, and the authors are consciously presenting concise, useful information, without trivialising or over-simplifying. From the areas of the content that I know about, it is obvious that everything the authors are writing is underwritten by best practice and research, but this does not burden or impose on the clear narrative. There are useful metaphors, with chapters on various topics, outlined below. What makes the book a keeper though and in my opinion one that will run for several editions, is its very intentional situational and subject context – everything is considered from the student perspective. The authors say they mean business right at the very start when they write on page four what is essentially the philosophy underlying the book:

We have identified the need to manage your time well… but that doesn’t mean we are going to deal with it in an abstract way – with a chapter just about time management, for example. Instead we address it in what we think is a much more helpful way: giving you advice about how to manage your time wherever it is relevant, in context…

The book considers all areas of students’ academic activity during their degree, including lectures, tutorials, group work and lab work as well as the various forms of communication expected of a modern scientist – writing, presenting, posters. Exam preparation and feedback are also discussed. Each chapter is short and in general, self-contained, and the book, while readable as a whole will be most used as a reference for specific topics or specific times of the year. I can’t fault any chapters, although I would have brought the feedback chapter either right to the front, or embedded into the other chapters (e.g. feedback on lab work, feedback on and within group work), as in reality it is probably not a chapter a student will read as a stand alone unit. The chapter on career planning and PDP might have been brought to the front, and/or perhaps various skills that would be incorporated into that highlighted in various subsequent chapters (i.e. use the book to actively construct a PDP). However, the chapter on lab work does discuss skills from lab work effectively. The chapters on writing and plagiarism are really excellent – just detailed enough without being pedantic. The chapters on presentations, especially the chapter on posters, should be mandatory reading for all students! Similarly, the chapter on group work will be useful to students, but to staff also for helping students undertake the often misunderstood process of group work. The revision chapter is a difficult one to judge – it is excellent, but I wondered, like the feedback chapter, whether it should be embedded in the lecture and other chapters, as as it is, its placement may be an unintended contradiction – revision is not something considered towards the end.

The use of diagrams is excellent, but I hope that in future editions the authors make much greater use of these, as they are carefully considered and demonstrate how diagrams can very effectively summarise a lot of text. Not including more does their work a disservice. The diagram illustrating note making while reading is exactly the kind of thing students get confused about, and it is a beautiful example how a diagram can immediately inform.

Finally, the authors are being far too humble. This book is easily applicable to many more students than those just in chemical sciences – certainly any science student will find everything in here applicable. I’ve ordered copies for the library already and this is definitely a reference to include in induction sessions and module handbooks.

Book Review: Study Skills for Science Technology and Engineering Students

This review was written for the HEA Physical Sciences Centre Reviews publication, Vol 20, No. 1. The entire issue can be downloaded from their website, and my review is posted below.

This book presents the topic of study skills to both students and tutors in science and engineering topics. Students are encouraged to interact with the material by considering their own personal development, which is a nice approach. There are lots of start and end of chapter activities encouraging students to think about their current approach, but future editions might benefit from a format encouraging periodic review of these questions and activities, which would stimulate reflection during and after learning process, consistent with good practice of personal development plans. In addition, the personal development is very piecemeal, and one doesn’t get the sense of developing a portfolio or compilation of skills, which students could subsequently use in their search for employment. The companion website, whose content is poor, could easily contain compiled templates for the areas students are asked to consider their skills, along with prompts for periodic review. The book is very text heavy, diagram light. It is crammed full of materials and suggestions but it is visually not engaging. It would benefit from incorporation of more activities where students can consider their own experience, and replacing a lot of text with diagrams. Some text is just unnecessary. For example, the section on solving by design is dominated with a discussion on programming, whereas a much more beneficial process would be the scaffolding of a design process, which is afforded only a few pages. It would be difficult for a student to filter out particular strategies and techniques that would be immediately useful and applicable. For example, in a section on extracting useful text and keywords from a lecture, it would be a more useful activity to provide structure for students to extract information from one of their actual lectures, rather than a hypothetical one.

There is a lot of material for tutors to incorporate into professional development aspects of modules. As well as generic information on managing time and learning in a lecture-based environment, the book devotes three sections to applying skills (e.g. working in the laboratory), developing technical writing and solving mathematical problems. There are useful sections on poster presentations and oral presentations, although incorporation of a peer/mentor feedback form would be useful for students to elicit feedback in their real scenario. The chapter on writing process, one of the most difficult areas for science and engineering students could benefit from much more interactive, structured activities from the outset, although the chapter does provide a good overview of the writing process, if students are willing to read it. The section on technical writing is again very text heavy – the sub-section on diagrams would have benefited enormously from examples of different types of diagrams! For the purposes of this book, it isn’t clear why the writing and technical writing sections are in different chapters. The final section on mathematical skills is useful, although I am not sure of its direct relevance in this book – students will probably prefer to use a dedicated book on that topic.

The companion website is advertised throughout the book and on the first page. On viewing this (April 2010), I found very little of the content directly related to the book, with nothing on technical writing, laboratory skills, and so on. The personal development logs are very basic, and again do not relate to the content in the book. As mentioned above, this would have been the ideal space to host personal development plan templates to encourage students who wished to reflect on their development of the various skills as they progressed through their college programme.

In summary, this book has a lot of useful content, but this is lost in a sea of unnecessary, text heavy material. The extent and amount of diagrams in the text is poor with little visual engagement compared to, for example, The Study Skills Handbook, by Stella Cottrell, from the same publisher which uses extensive diagrams to represent the material in a way that is more useful and accessible for both student and tutor. The concept if incorporating a personal development process is useful, but could be very much improved upon by allowing students to pull together the various elements of their development records and allow for a periodic review of these skills throughout their learning. The companion website is very poor, providing no added benefit.

Book Review: How to write a lot

How to Write a Lot, Paul J Silvia, APA Washington, 2007.

This is a great little book. Apart from its content and central message (which is obvious), I love the style. There are no boxed asides, no “Top Ten Hits from the Best Writers“, no planning charts,  or any other visual false idols, which make you feel like you are going to be a better writer having looked at them. Instead, it’s like a book of old, containing just paragraphs of text (imagine that!), with a simple but elegant imprint. The occasional New Yorker cartoon matches the author’s dry sense of humour.

Writing takes time

The message of the book is simple – allocate time to writing. But you don’t need a book to tell you this. The first chapter sets the theme for the book. Writing is hard, and there is no easy way to write a lot. To write a lot takes hard work – so you need to allocate time to it. The honesty is refreshing.

The honesty continues into chapter two, where several “specious barriers” to writing are easily (and amusingly) dismantled. I must admit to holding onto a few of these barriers myself (“needing a space to write” being among them), and as a practical outcome of reading the book, I am willing to approach writing anew. Chapter three discusses motivation, and the very important aspect of monitoring. In monitoring my own writing of a major document last year, I couldn’t refute the damning evidence that I was, like most academics, a binge writer. Binge writing is an uncomfortable, unpleasant experience. Deadlines loom, writing is fast and there is little time for reflection. The output is satisfactory at best, and one is left with a sense of “I could have done that better but I didn’t have the time”. I admit (as the book itself astutely states) that there are a few major writings of mine, including some academic articles, that I look at now in horror and wish I could rewind the typewriter and redo. Regularly writing means that the notion of binge writing no longer holds.

After reading the book you are left with a sense of "Yes We Can!" (Picture Credit: Marcn on Flickr - link below)

Style and academic output

Chapter four outlines the benefit of writing in groups – simply because social pressure is a useful motivational tool. This shouldn’t be a surprise to academics, as we recommend with good reason that students study in groups for similar reasons, and more. Chapter five discusses some elements of style, and while I don’t think it is necessary in this book, there are some amusing pet-hates the author clearly needs to get out of his system. The comment on “existing literature” (p. 62) makes the book a worthwhile read in itself. Chapters six and seven discuss journal articles and books. While there are some elements in these chapters that will be useful to newcomers to this area (including some details on layout of paper and what to do when a reviewer gets nasty), the core message of the book is in the earlier chapters – allocate time to writing and many of the problems associated with writing disappear.


The book is easily read over two or three cups of coffee, during times when you could be writing I suppose. But after reading it, I am left with a clearer sense of “a writing approach”, that a book with lots of plans and graphics could never have given me. This is mainly due to the author’s own style of writing, which to coin a favourite phrase, gives me a feeling of “Yes I Can!”.

Link to Picture Source

Book Review: Podcasting for Learning in Universities

Gilly Salmon and Palitha Edirisingha (eds), SRHE/OU Press 2008, reprinted 2009.

I really liked this book, or at least the parts that I read. As with anything by Gilly Salmon (or Gill e-Salmon as I like to write her), it is pragmatic for the practitioner but based in research, without the research being shoved down your throat. She writes the kind of stuff you could give to a colleague who doesn’t care about how their epistemology affects their approach to teaching, so to speak.

Image of book
Image taken from IMPALA website (

The book is slightly strangely organised. I read it in the order Chapter 1, 15, 2, 4, 3, 5, 6 then glanced through other chapters. Chapter 15 is very useful. The chapters 4 – 14 are reports from lecturers who have implemented podcasting into their practice.

Chapter 1 overviews the book, and is very jolly, as well as being quite inspirational – you can do it! I was a little surprised at the emphasis placed here (and throughout) on audio alone podcasts – do they really work? I’m not sure I could listen to a detailed lecture just on audio. Nevertheless, chapter 4 looked at using such audio podcasts to provide students with pre-knowledge before lectures in introductory physics – in an attempt to iron out those dratted misconceptions. There was some evaluation, which looked a little shaky, but the description o fthe impementation is useful.

Chapter 5 wsa interesting to me, as it detailed the use of podcasts to teach software, something I have spent a lot of time developing over the last few years. The chapter described the irony in the proliferation of paper based materials/books on teaching an essentially dynamic topic; and showed how screen videos could be useful in teaching software to students. Again, the evaluation didn’t show great “enhancement” or whatever, but from my own experience, students support and feedback are as crucial as the notes/videos etc. Again, the chapter was practical wth tips and advice.

The chapters detailed experiences in a range of disciplines including physics (ch 4); GIS (ch 5 – 7); engineering (ch 8); law (ch 9); veterinary med (ch 10) as well as a range of scenarios: on-campus students, distance students, audio, video, feedback, student podcasts.

However, it is Chapter 15 that gets the tradtitional e-Salmon stamp. Here, a clear ten point plan is spelled out, based on the details and experiences discussed in the previous chapters. Number 1, and perhaps often ignored, is the rationale. I thikn Salmon has said elsewhere – does the online environment have added value? If so, use it, if not consider why not and don’t use if so. Then comes practical issues such as the medium, their role (eg in a blended module), the structure, contributors and content, their reusability**, length, framework and access method.

**It was with horror in year 2 of implementing web-videos that I realised I had given specific dates for submission of assignments in the first year in the audio and video, I had to re-record the podcasts again to make them “timeless”

I really recommend this book if you are interested in podcasting, there is a companion book on the mechanics of podcasting, the three copies of which have mysteriously disappeared from our library. There is an associated website

It has inspired me to think about how podcasts might be useful to support my lectures, so that in itself is a good indication of its usefulness.