Chemistry, Laboratory, Supporting Virtual Communities

Using the Columbo approach on Discussion Boards

As pat of our ongoing development of an electronic laboratory manual at Edinburgh, I decided this year to incorporate discussion boards to support students doing physical chemistry labs. It’s always a shock, and a bit upsetting, to hear students say that they spent very long periods of time on lab reports. The idea behind the discussion board was to support them as they were doing these reports, so that they could use the time they were working on them in a more focussed way.

The core aim is to avoid the horror stories of students spending 18 hours on a report, because if they are spending that time on it, much of it must be figuring out what the hell it is they are meant to be doing. Ultimately, a lab report is a presentation of some data, usually graphically, and some discussion of the calculations based on that data. That shouldn’t take that long.

Setting Up

The system set-up was easy. I had asked around and heard some good suggestions for external sites that did this well (can’t remember it now but one was suggested by colleagues in physics where questions could be up-voted). But I didn’t anticipate so many questions that I would have to answer only the most pressing, and didn’t want “another login”, and so just opted for Blackboard’s native discussion board. Each experiment got its own forum, along with a forum for general organisation issues.


A postgrad demonstrator advised me to allow the posts to be made anonymously, and that seemed sensible. Nothing was being graded, and I didn’t want any reticence about asking questions. Even anonymously, some students apologised for asking what they deemed “silly” questions, but as in classroom scenarios, these were often the most insightful. Students were told to use the forum for questions, and initially, any questions by email were politely redirected to the board. In cases close to submission deadlines, I copied the essential part of the question, and pasted it to the board with a response. But once reports began to be due, the boards became actively used. I made sure in the first weekend to check in too, as this was likely going to be the time that students would be working on their reports.

The boards were extensively used. About 60 of our third years do phys chem labs at a time, and they viewed the boards over 5500 times in a 6 week period. Half of these views were on a new kinetics experiment, which tells me as organiser that I need to review that. For second years, they have just begun labs, and already in a two week period, 140 2nd years viewed the board 2500 times. The number of posts of course is nowhere near this, suggesting that most views are “lurkers”, and probably most queries are common. Since students can post anonymously, I have no data on what proportion of students were viewing the boards. Perhaps it is one person going in lots, but given the widespread viewership across all experiments, my guess is it isn’t. The boards were also accessible to demonstrators (who correct all the reports), but I’ve no idea if they looked at them.


The reception from students has been glowing, so much so that it is the surprise “win” of the semester. (Hey, look over here at all these videos I made… No? Okay then!) Students have reported at school council, staff student liaison committees, anecdotally to me and other staff that they really like and appreciate the boards. Which of course prompts introspection.

Why do they like them? One could say that of course students will like them, I’m telling them the answer. And indeed, in many cases, I am. The boards were set up to provide clear guidance on what is needed and expected in lab reports. So if I am asked questions, of course I provide clear guidance. That mightn’t always be the answer, but it will certainly be a very clear direction to students on what they should do. But in working through questions and answers, I stumbled across an additional aspect.

One more thing

Me, when asked an electrochemistry question
Me, when asked an electrochemistry question

Everyone’s favourite detective was famous for saying: “oh: just one more thing“. I’ve found in the lab that students are very keen and eager to know what purpose their experiment has in the bigger context, where it might be used in research, something of interest in it beyond the satisfaction of proving, once again, some fundamental physical constant. And in honesty, it is a failing on our part and in the “traditional” approach that we don’t use this opportunity to inspire. So sometimes in responding to questions, I would add in additional components to think about – one more thing – something to further challenge student thought, or to demonstrate where the associated theory or technique in some experiment we were doing is used in research elsewhere. My high point was when I came across an experiment that used exactly our technique and experiment, published in RSC Advances this year. This then sparked the idea of how we can develop these labs more, the subject of another post.

Again I have no idea if students liked this or followed up these leads. But it did ease my guilt a little that I might not be just offering a silver spoon. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I am certainly going to continue with discussion boards for labs while I work it out.

Chemistry, Pedagogy, Royal Society of Chemistry

#ViCEPHEC16 – curly arrows and labs

The annual Variety in Chemistry Education/Physics Higher Education conference was on this week in Southampton. Some notes and thoughts are below.

Curly arrows

Physicists learned a lot about curly arrows at this conference. Nick Greeves‘ opening keynote spoke about the development of ChemTube3D – a stunning achievement – over 1000 HTML pages, mostly developed by UG students. News for those who know the site are that 3D curly arrow mechanisms are now part of the reaction mechanism visualisations, really beautiful visualisation of changing orbitals as a reaction proceeds for 30+ reactions, lovely visualisations of MOFs, direct links to/from various textbooks, and an app at the prototype stage. Nick explained that this has all been developed with small amounts of money from various agencies, including the HEA Physical Sciences Centre.

Mike Casey from UCD spoke about a resource at a much earlier stage of development; an interactive mechanism tutor. Students can choose a reaction type and then answer the question by drawing the mechanism – based on their answer they receive feedback. Version 2 is on the way with improved feedback, but I wondered if this feedback might include a link to the appropriate place in Chemtube3D, so that students could watch the associated visualisation as part of the feedback.

In the same session Robert Campbell spoke about his research on how A-level students answer organic chemistry questions. My understanding is that students tend to use rules of mechanisms (e.g. primary alkyl halides means it’s always SN2) without understanding the reason why; hence promoting rote learning. In a nice project situated in the context of cognitive load theory, Rob used Livescribe technology to investigate students reasoning. Looking forward to seeing this research in print.

Rob’s future work alluded to considering the video worked answers described by Stephen Barnes, also for A-level students. These demonstrated a simple but clever approach; using questions resembling A-level standard, asking students to complete them, providing video worked examples so students could self-assess, and then getting them to reflect on how they can improve. David Read mentioned that this model aligned with the work of Sadler, worth a read.

Laboratory work

Selfishly, I was really happy to see lots of talks about labs on the programme. Ian Bearden was the physics keynote, and he spoke about opening the laboratory course – meaning the removal of prescriptive and allowing students to develop their own procedures. Moving away from pure recipe is of course music to this audience’s ears and the talk was very well received. But you can’t please everyone – I would have loved to hear much more about what was done and the data involved, rather than the opening half of the talk about the rationale for doing so. A short discussion prompted this tweet from Felix Janeway, something we can agree on! But I will definitely be exploring this work more. Ian also mentioned that this approach is also part of physics modules taught to trainee teachers, which sounded a very good idea.

Jennifer Evans spoke about the prevalence of pre-labs in UK institutions following on from the Carnduff and Reid study in 2003. Surprisingly many don’t have any form of pre-lab work. It will be interesting to get a sense of what pre-lab work involves – is it theory or practice? Theory and practice were mentioned in a study from Oxford presented by Ruiqi Yu, an undergraduate student. This showed mixed messages on the purpose of practical work, surely something the academy need to agree on once and for all. There was also quite a nice poster from Oxford involving a simulation designed to teach experimental design, accessible at this link. This was also built by an undergraduate student. Cate Cropper from Liverpool gave a really useful talk on tablets in labs – exploring the nitty gritty of how they might work. Finally on labs, Jenny Slaughter gave an overview of the Bristol ChemLabs, which is neatly summarised in this EiC article, although the link to the HEA document has broken.

Other bites

  • Gwen Lawrie (via Skype) and Glenn Hurst spoke about professional development; Gwen mentioned this site she has developed with Madeline Schultz and others to inform lecturers about PCK. Glenn spoke about a lovely project on training PhD students for laboratory teaching – details here.  This reminds me of Barry Ryan‘s work at DIT.
  • Kristy Turner gave an overview of the School Teacher Fellow model at Manchester, allowing her to work both at school and university with obvious benefits for both. Kristy looked forward to an army of Kristy’s, which would indeed be formidable, albeit quite scary. Even without that, the conference undoubtedly benefits from the presence of school teachers, as Rob’s talk, mentioned above, demonstrates.
  • Rachel Koramoah gave a really great workshop on qualitative data analysis. Proving the interest in chemistry education research, this workshop filled up quickly. The post-it note method was demonstrated, which was interesting and will certainly explore more, but I hope to tease out a bit more detail on the data reduction step. This is the benefit of this model – the participants reduce the data for you – but I worry that this might in turn lead to loss of valuable data.
  • Matthew Mears gave a great byte on the value of explicit signposting to textbooks using the R-D-L approach: Read (assign a reading); Do (Assign questions to try); Learn (assign questions to confirm understanding). Matt said setting it up takes about 30 minutes and he has seen marked improvements in student performance in comparison to other sections of the course.
  • David Nutt won the best poster prize. His poster showed the results of eye-tracking experiments to demonstrate the value or not of an in-screen presenter. Very interesting results which I look forward to seeing in print.

The conference organisation was brilliant and thanks to Paul Duckmanton and Charles (Minion) Harrison for leading the organisation. Lots of happy but tired punters left on Friday afternoon.

I couldn’t attend everything, and other perspectives on the meeting with links etc can be found at links below. From Twitter, Barry Ryan’s presenation on NearPod seemed popular, along with the continuing amazingness of my colleagues in the Edinburgh Physics Education Research Group. One of their talks, by Anna Wood, is available online.

Chemistry, Pedagogy

Getting ready to badge and looking for interested partners

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

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

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

Looking for interested parties to trial it out

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

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

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

So if you are interested, let’s badge! You can contact me at: to follow up.

Chemistry, Laboratory, Pedagogy, Royal Society of Chemistry

Planning a new book on laboratory education

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

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

Why a book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chemistry, Pedagogy

Alex Johnstone’s 10 Educational Commandments

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

Ten Educational Commandments 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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