Teaching Fellowship

I’ve been lucky enough to be awarded a DIT Teaching Fellowship for 2010 to 2011. The purpose of this scheme is to support members of staff to develop or evaluate a project that will support the enhancement of learning and/or curriculum development, to paraphrase DIT’s Learning, Teaching and Technology Centre (LTTC) website. In practice, that means they give you some money, funded by SIF2 (down a bit from last year though), and support from the centre. While the money is useful (although I always find it ironic when teaching awards give money to buy out teaching hours) it will be really great to work with staff from the ever excellent LTTC on implementing my project.

I have to give a presentation on Thursday on my project, and a summary of this is posted below.


I have completed some previous work on the area of prior knowledge, which demonstrated that there was a strong correlation between prior knowledge of chemistry (i.e. at Leaving Certificate) and first year chemistry exam marks, with students who had prior knowledge of chemistry scoring an average of about 14% higher than those who had not. Interestingly though in Year 2 and subsequent years, there was no correlation. (The work on this can be examined in more detail in Seery 2009). This leads to the hypothesis that students who had done chemistry before were not necessarily better at chemistry at the end of year one, but that their familiarity with terminology gave them a head start over students who had no prior knowledge. To illustrate this, the picture below (generated by the excellent wordsift.com – think Wordle on steroids) shows an example of terminology that a year one university level chemistry student would be exposed to in their first and second lecture on the structure of the atom.

Analysis of words used in a typical first year introductory chemistry lecture – science words highlighted (graphic generated using wordsift.com)

So why is this a problem? Well, when we consider how the brain processes information, as discussed elsewhere, it has been demonstrated that processing and storing new information is limited by working memory capacity, a small information processing area that can easily become overwhelmed. Therefore, the working memory of novice learners who are unfamiliar with terminology can become saturated before they even begin to process what the words mean, and subsequently do not get an opportunity to integrate into their long term memory by relating it to some prior knowledge. Learners in this situation are likely to cope by a surface approach – learning words and definitions, rather than their meaning.


The proposal therefore is to reduce the cognitive load of students by introducing them to some terminology before they come to the lecture, via an online pre-lecture resource.This (hopefully) means that learners will approach the lecture with some familiarity of terms, and can spend more time in the lecture discussing their context. The approach also facilitates using in-class clickers, based on the pre-lecture resource, which in turn can inform tutors on what kind of things are causing difficulties so that they can be covered in tutorials. The ultimate test of these resources will be to see if it reduces the gap in end of year mark between students with and without prior knowledge.Based on work done in Glasgow using a paper based system, I am confident that there is a rational basis to be optimistic.

So that’s the bulk of the fellowship in a nutshell. There are some finer points that I will thrash out in subsequent posts – obviously my teaching style will change a little as well because of this, so that will be interesting for me to reflect upon. posts related to the fellowship will be tagged and available as a group from the Categories menu. Watch this space…

3 thoughts on “Teaching Fellowship

  1. V interesting. Looking forward to your findings.

    Not on the same scale at all but I have started (Sept 2009 & 2010) doing a mini-revision course with 5th yr students when they start Chemistry going over basic JC ideas before they launch headlong into the LC syllabus. Just little things like balancing eqns, valancies, predicting cmpds based on valencies etc.

    It seems to have made a difference to re-introduce some terms they haven’t heard in over 12 months to them.

    Best of luck

    1. Hi Mairead

      Thanks for the note. That’s a nice idea, and I think based on good principles. If students are comfortable with the basics, then they’ll be capable of moving on more effectively, as they’ll be able to call on this knowledge easily when required. I’d be interested to see how it works out.

      All the best

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