Variety in Chemistry 2010

I attended the UK Variety in Chemistry Education 2010 meeting in September at Loughborough University. Variety is always a great meeting, with lots of talks from practitioners about ideas they have had and how they got on after implementing them. This is my fifth Variety, and every year I come away with useful ideas. I’ve sketched out some notes below. I think the talks presented will be available on the Physical Sciences Centre website at some stage.


Two keynote speakers gave talks at Variety. The first was my own colleague, Dr Claire Mc Donnell, who won the RSC Higher Education Teaching award last year. The winner of this award always opens Variety. Claire spoke about various initiatives she is involved in at DIT, including development of effective learning support for first years, development of project based labs, incorporation of e-learning into teaching through wikis and discussion board support and her extensive work on community based learning. There was a lot of interest from the audience in the latter topic.

Prof Tina Overton was the second keynote. She won the RSC Nyholm prize for chemistry education, which is awarded every two years. Her talk covered a very broad range of chemistry education research – consideration of cognitive overload, measuring students learning capacity and their problem solving approaches – in examining how students approach and learn from the problem-based learning approach in chemistry. The outcome from a practical point of view was that problem-based learning, with problems usually set in a context, can overload students cognitively because of the many new pieces of information they are exposed to at once – so this needs to be recognised and supported by scaffolding and facilitating group work. Tina stated that students do become better at solving open-ended problems with practice through the PBL method, but that there was little correlation between their ability to do this and their final degree mark. There was however a strong correlation between students ability to sove algorithmic problems and their degree mark. Tina also received warm praise from the chair for her work in directing the HEA Physical Sciences Centre.

Ideas from Practitioners

The really great thing about variety is the ideas you get from other practitioners. A few of the best are listed below:

  • The on the cutting edge award: David McGarvey, at Keele, always one to try out and report new ideas, spoke of his use of audio feedback for lab reports. He gave some positive feedback on his trials, reporting that after an initial learning phase, the process of audio feedback took no more time than written feedback, but that audio contained very much more information, as well as tone. Students liked the feedback, seeing it as a good substitute for individual discussion. He plans to extend it so that students can respond, hence opening up a dialogue regarding the lab report. David mentioned a useful resource site for practitioners considering audio feedback: (I have also made an online tutorial on how to use Audacity for recording feedback)
  • The techy award goes to Stephen McClean, from University of Ulster. Stephen gave students videos camcorders to record their lab sessions and provide reflective logs on their lab classes. Stephen created a Youtube-type site where students could upload their videos, comment and rate others. Some more details are available here.
  • The simplest idea award (often the best) goes to Martin Pitt, who gave students two lab classes instead of one to compete an experiment. The result of this was that students could use the second class to repeat an experiment having learned from the first attempt, or try out new conditions of the same experiment. It was a nice idea, and Martin reported some good feedback from students – especially around the area of students thinking about their experiment the second time out.
  • The teaching-research integration award goes to Katy McKenzie, University of Leicester, who reported on an impressive programme of PBL labs, where students interact with research groups at the university as part of their early lab studies. Watch this space – I imagine there will be a publication on this shortly, there’s lots of great work going on at Leicester.
  • The I told you so award goes to Steve Hanson, Physical Sciences Centre, who reported on a large scale study of chemistry graduates. A report is imminent on the centre website – but some take-home points were that while graduates feel that their chemistry degrees prepared them well for chemistry aspects of their job, there was a dearth in the provision of generic skills, such as giving an oral presentation, problem solving and working in groups.
  • Useful resource award goes jointly to Nick Greeves/Kirsty Barnes, University of Liverpool and Paul Chin, Physical Sciences Centre. Kirsty gave a workshop on Chemtube3D – an absolutely fantastic resource for school and college chemistry; while Paul reported on the Jorum resource website, a similar idea to the Irish NDLR. Both of these presentations show the healthy state of the OER movement.
  • The irish eyes are smiling award goes jointly to the many Irish contributors to Variety. As well as Claire, there were several talks from University of Limerick, on student difficulites in organic chemistry and misconceptions in chemistry and a report from Mike Bridge of TCD on the CELLT project – involving several Dublin institutions and based on the ACELL model.

There were lots more – check out the Physical Sciences Centre website. All in all, not bad for two days work!

2 thoughts on “Variety in Chemistry 2010

  1. Michael, thanks for the reflections on Variety and your kind words… I am so pleased to have won an award 🙂

    Yes, Variety is one of those really useful events that packs a lot into two days and where sessions are delivered by those who speak from experience. Keynotes were excellent and a lot of good ideas generated via the oral sessions as well.

    1. Hi Stephen,

      I really liked your talk and the idea of It’s a nice way to encourage reflection on lab activity. Talk soon,

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