Journal Club #2: Approaching Open Ended Problems

The aim of the “Journal Club” is to present a summary of a journal article and discuss it in the comments below or on social meeja. The emphasis is not on discussing the paper itself (e.g. methodology etc) but more what the observations or outcomes reported can tell us about our own practice. Get involved! It’s friendly. Be nice. And if you wish to submit your own summary of an article you like, please do. If you can’t access the paper in question, emailing the corresponding author usually works (CERP is free to access).

Comments on this article are open until Friday 27th September.

#2 T Overton, N Potter, C Lang, A study of approaches to solving open-ended problems in chemistry, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 2013, doi: 10.1039/C3RP00028A

There is a lot of literature that promotes the use of contextualization in our teaching, to generate interest and promote engagement in a topic. This is often coupled with more open-ended activities, reflecting real-life situations. There is also a lot of literature that advocates that teachers should be cognisant of working memory by providing structure to student learning and by reducing “noise” as much as possible. I see these as conflicting viewpoints, and have struggled with over the last few years in thinking where the balance between providing enough of the “carrot”  of context and the “stick” of structure lies.

Tina Overton’s paper on student approaches to open ended problems is useful (and unusual) in this regard; the opening section presents a synopsis of several studies on approaches to problem solving when the problem is structured or algorithmic. But what happens when students are given a problem where the data is incomplete, or the method is unfamiliar, or the outcomes may be open (Johnstone, 1993)? Three examples of such problems are given. One of these is:

 Many commercial hair-restorers claim to stimulate hair growth. If human hair is composed mainly of the protein α-keratin, estimate the rate of incorporation of amino acid per follicle per second.

I have to be honest and say that this question scares the hair out of me, made my hair stand on end, and other hair-related puns, but as an “expert” in the discipline, I think I would have an idea where to start. The research involved listening to students talk out how they approached the problem, and these approaches were coded. They ranged from approaches that could lead to a feasible solution (makes estimations, knowing what approach to take, having a logical reasoning or approach, sensible assumptions) to approaches that are unlikely to succeed (seeking an algorithmic approach, distracted by context, lack of knowledge). When participants were grouped by common approaches, three distinct groupings emerged.

  1.  The first were those who used predominantly positive (scientific) approaches to the problem. They could clarify the aims and identify the data needed and assumptions that could be made. (10/27)
  2. The second where those who couldn’t attempt the problem, they didn’t know where to start in tackling the problem and didn’t have the basic knowledge required to call upon. They weren’t able to take a scientific approach to solving the problem. (10/27).
  3. Finally were students who got caught out with their prior knowledge confusing them (e.g. writing out rate equations), and although they tried to tackle the problem, were unsuccessful (7/27)

The study participants were from all years, but the authors state that there groups identified above did not correlate with stage in degree.

Discussion questions

This study interests me a lot. The headline is that of this (small) sample of students, a majority had difficulty with open ended, highly contextualised problems. I am making a sweeping statement, but I would hazard a guess that students in this institution get exposed to a lot more open ended problems than average. However, some students displayed significant expertise in approaching problems, and frankly their responses recorded are very impressive. Questions I think worth teasing out are:

  1. Do you use open-ended problems of this nature in teaching? Why/why not?
  2. There is clearly a gap in approaches. The middle group are caught in between, making good efforts to solve the problem, but calling on irrelevant prior knowledge. If you were planning to incorporate open-ended problem solving, how could this gap be addressed in curriculum design?

In regard to the second question, I’m trying to think of an approach around the worked example/fading approach used for simple algorithmic problems. Would something similar have a role, or does that approach necessitate a change in categorisation of the problem, back to closed, defined…?

Love to hear your thoughts. Remember the “Be nice” part…

Journal Club #1: Metacognitive Learning Strategies in Science

The aim of the “Journal Club” is to present a summary of a journal article and discuss it in the comments below or on social meeja. The emphasis is not on discussing the paper itself (e.g. methodology etc) but more what the observations or outcomes reported can tell us about our own practice. Get involved! It’s friendly. Be nice. And if you wish to submit your own summary of an article you like, please do. If you can’t access the paper in question, emailing the corresponding author usually works (email details given on journal page linked below).

#1: E Cook, E Kennedy and S McGuire, Effect of Teaching Metacognitive Learning Strategies on Performance in General Chemistry Courses, Journal of Chemical Education, 2013, 90, 961-7.

I am a little biased in choosing this paper as I heard Saundra McGuire speak at Gordon CERP conference two years ago on this topic. This is one inspirational lady! This paper opens by saying that there are many teacher-focussed interventions that work on increasing retention and success. However, this article describes the concept of teaching students how to help themselves in learning and applying new information. The intervention is simple: a single 50 minute lecture on developing metacognitive learning strategies was provided to freshman chemists. Analysis of results shows that there was a significant improvement in their grades relative to those who hadn’t sat in on this lecture.

The timing of the intervention lecture was just after an early semester test. The authors argue that giving students who have done well in school tests information on study skills before they have completed any college tests is a folly, as the students are of the (correct) opinion that their study methods to date have been effective. However, after their first college test, students may be more receptive to thinking about how to study, especially if they haven’t performed as well as they usually had in school tests.

The lecture itself (available in supplementary information) uses the Bloom’s Taxonomy structure to show students the levels of learning, and what different study approaches apply to each level. This keeps it simple and logical, which I think is an attractive element of the work. Armed with an understanding of the different levels of learning, a study cycle is proposed. Students reported in response to questions that they understood the differences between school and college learning requirements having been shown the Bloom framework. The (revised) levels of Bloom’s taxonomy are outlined below:

Bloom’s Level (Revised) Typical Activity Level Typical Study Strategy Rationale
Creating Generating, producing information into new patterns Postgrad
Evaluation Making judgments based on criteria
Analysis Breaking components apart and relating them to each other Undergrad Working through problems without examples; working in groups Working through problems and hearing how others think a problem aids understanding
Application Using knowledge to solve problems, carry out procedures
Comprehension Restating in your own words, paraphrasing or summarising School Previewing lecture material; Paraphrasing/ rewriting lecture notes Helps students organise new information and connect to what they know
Knowledge Memorizing information, recalling but perhaps not understanding

Based on this, a “Preview, Attend, Review” study cycle is proposed, so that students are exposed to the class material three times within a short period (24 h). This is followed by a study session, consisting of four steps:

  1. Set a goal (1 – 2 mins) – what is aim of study session?
  2. Study with focus (40 – 50 mins) – interact with material: mind maps, summarize, process, etc
  3. Reward (10 – 15 min break)
  4. Review (5 min) – go over what was just studied.

The paper has detailed statistical analysis on how this intervention improved student grades. I like it because it is realistic – it can be delivered in a busy semester relatively easily, as it only takes one lecture slot; and it is student friendly – a welcome addition to the plethora of study skills books and strategies that are vague and generic. This to me seems quite focussed in explaining to students why thinking about how they study is important and how they might go about improving their study skills and learning. In the mix, metacognitive skills are being incorporated into the curriculum by stealth.

What do you think?


Prezi arrived on the scene about two (maybe three?) years ago. Since its introduction, conference attendees’ snoozing during a succession of PowerPoints has been interupted by a sense of sea-sickness induced by well-meaning presenters and their carefully crafted Prezis. All Prezis I have seen are like a PowerPoint presentation riding along a rollercoaster. They are linear in format, usually contain bullet-points (a major faux-pas in the eyes of Prezi-purists) and have a start, middle and end. They offer no additional advantage to PowerPoint. I don’t really like admitting this to the learning community, but I don’t really like Prezi.

Exhibit A:

Take the Prezi below. This was my one live presentation I gave at a chemistry education conference, I think in 2009. What attracted me to Prezi was the fact that you could show the audience the overall presentation in one go, and as you go along highlight the sections of the talk you go through as you progress. (This Prezi, for extra nerdiness, was shaped as a reaction profile diagram, which no-one in the audience noticed. For shame, physical chemists, for shame). It had pictures and videos embedded. It took me an age to do and I was very proud of it

I wonder however, in the effort to help peple get a grasp on the overall presentation, whether I lost them in the detail of the talk with a constantly swishing screen. Even now I can see faces in the audience following the presentation as it rolled around, probably trying to wonder where to focus next, as I wished helplessly for the presentation to stop being so gut-churningly jolly. There is something elegant and simple about a well designed PowerPoint slide.

Exhibit B:

Well I don’t like to pick on other people, but if you’ve made a Prezi, can you take a step back and ask yourself, what added value does it have over PowerPoint? There is an add-in for PowerPoint that allows slides to be grouped together. PowerPoint animation is becoming really quite impressive. PowerPoint doesn’t leave you fretting about whether the computer you’re giving the presentation on will have Flash Player. PowerPoint doesn’t make your audience seasick.

Exhibit C

We all recognise there is something terrible about most PowerPoint presentations. But people interested in technology have a terrible habit of ambulance chasing the latest gig (see Exhibit A) rather than taking something that’s quite good and working on it to improve it. For PowerPoint, I think disabling the bullet point, having a maximum word count per slide and creating purposeful handouts for after presentation digestion are three ways to improve.

Exhibit D

Someone very cleverly suggested to me today that Prezi could be a very useful mind-mapping software. I think that has potential. But it’s not a presentation!

I want to be wrong about Prezi. I really do. It looks and feels cool. But I just don’t see it as a good alternative for presentations. Am I wrong?!!

BCCE Day 1

Some thoughts from BCCE Day 1 – including environmental pbl study, lab assessment methods, part 2; research awareness following innovations in lab teaching; cognition studies, using videos of students and developing models if students’ conceptions of acid strength; part 3 – students problems with molarity in chemistry.
Part 1

Part 2

Part 3: