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.
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:
developing practical skills and techniques.
being a problem-solving chemist.
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.
How do we prepare students for practical skills they conduct in the laboratory?
Practical skills involve psychomotor development, as they typically involve handling chemicals, glassware, and instrumentation. But how do we prepare students for this work, and do we give them enough time to develop these skills?
Farmer and Frazer analysed 126 school experiments (from the old O-level Nuffield syllabus) with a view to categorising practical skills and came up with some interesting results. Acknowledging that some psychomotor tasks include a cognitive component (they give the example of manipulating the air-hole collar of a Bunsen burner while judging the nature of the flame for a particular task at hand) they identified 65 psychomotor tasks and 108 cognitive tasks from the experiments studied. Some of these psychomotor tasks are defined as having a key role, in that the success of the experiment is dependent on the successful completion of that task, reducing the number of psychomotor skills to 44. Many of these key tasks were required in only a few experiments, so the set was again reduced to number of frequentkey tasks – those occurring in more than 10 experiments. The 14 frequent key tasks subsequently identified are described in their table below.
Thus of the 65 psychomotor skills listed, only 14 are defined as frequent key tasks, limiting the opportunities for pupils to develop the skills associated with completing them. Indeed this paper goes on to demonstrate that in an assessment of 100 pupils, there was very poor demonstration of ability in correctly completing the practical tasks, which they attribute to the design of the syllabus and the limited opportunity to do practical work.
This article prompts me to think again: how do we prepare students for the laboratory skills aspect of practical work? I think the most common approach is to demonstrate immediately in advance of the student completing the practical, explaining the technique or the apparatus and its operation. However, demonstration puts students in the mode of observer; they are watching someone else complete an activity, rather than conceptualising their own completion. It also relies on the quality of the demonstrator, and is subject to local hazards, such as time available, ability to see and hear the demonstration, and so on. Therefore, there may be benefit in shifting this demonstration to pre-lab, allowing students time to become accustomed to a technique and its nuances.
Such pre-labs need to be carefully designed, and actively distinguished from any pre-lab information focussing on theory, which has a separate purpose. At Edinburgh, two strategies are planned.
The first is on the development of core introductory laboratory skills: titrations involving pipetting and buretting; preparing standard solutions including using a balance; and setting up Quickfit glassware to complete a distillation. Pre-lab information is provided to students in the form of videos demonstrating each technique, with key steps in each procedure highlighted in the video. Students will be required to demonstrate each of the three procedures to their peers in the laboratory, while their peer uses the checklist to ensure that all aspects of the task were completed appropriately. The purpose here is to incorporate preparation, demonstration, and peer-review into the learning of core lab skills, as well as to set in mind early on in students’ university careers the correct approach and the appropriate glassware to use for basic laboratory techniques. The approach includes students’ videoing their peers as part of the review process using mobile phones; and the video recording will subsequently be used as evidence for issuing students with a digital badge for that technique (more on that at the project homepage).
The second approach is to develop the laboratory manual beyond its traditional textbook format to be an electronic laboratory manual, with pre-lab demonstrations included. More on that project to come soon.
In designing pre-lab activities for skills development, the aim is to move beyond “just demonstrating” and to get students thinking through the approaches they will take. The reason for this is guided by work done by Beasley in the late 1970s. Beasley drew from the literature of physical education to consider the development of psychomotor skills in chemistry. He studied the concept of mental practice as a technique to help students prepare for the laboratory. Mental practice is based on the notion that physical activity requires mental thought, and thus mentally or introspectively rehearsing an activity prompts neural and muscular responses. Students were assigned to groups where they conducted no preparation, physical preparation, mental preparation, and both physical and mental preparation. They were tested before and after completing a lab on volumetric analysis. Beasley reported that students who students entering college from school were not proficient in completing volumetric analysis based on accuracy of their results. Furthermore, there was no significant difference in post-test scores of treatment students (which were all better than students who did no preparation), suggesting that mental preparation was as effective as physical preparation.
Those interested in reading more on this topic may enjoy two reviews by Stephen DeMeo; one in J. Chem. Ed. and an elegant piece “Gazing at the hand” in Curriculum Inquiry.
 A. Farmer and M. J. Frazer, Practical Skills in School Chemistry, Education in Chemistry, 1985, 22, 138.
 W. Beasley, The Effect of Physical and Mental Practice of Psychomotor Skills on Chemistry Student Laboratory Performance, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 1979, 16(5), 473.
 J. B. Oxendine, Physical education. In Singer, R. B. (Ed.), The psychomotor domain: Movement behavior. Philadelphia: Lea and Feberger, 1972.
 S. De Meo, Teaching Chemical Technique: A review of the literature, Journal of Chemical Education, 2001 78(3), 373.
 S. De Meo, Gazing at the Hand: A Foucaultian View of the Teaching of Manipulative Skills to Introductory Chemistry Students in the United States and the Potential for Transforming Laboratory Instruction, Curriculum Inquiry, 2005, 35, 3.
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.
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.
0. Text messages to explore students’ study habits (Ye, Oueini, Dickerson, and Lewis, CERP)
I was excited to see Scott Lewis speak at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named during the summer as I really love his work. This paper outlines an interesting way to find out about student study habits, using text-message prompts. Students received periodic text messages asking them if they have studied in the past 48 hours. The method is ingenious. Results are discussed in terms of cluster analysis (didn’t study as much, used textbook/practiced problems, and online homework/reviewed notes). There is lots of good stuff here for those interested in students’ study and supporting independent study time. Lewis often publishes with Jennifer Lewis, and their papers are master-classes in quantitative data analysis. (Note this candidate for my top ten was so obvious I left it out in the original draft, so now it is a top 11…)