Getting Started in Pedagogic Research #ChemPedR

Last Wednesday I headed to London to attend the Getting Started in Pedagogic Research event at Burlington House (home of the Royal Society of Chemistry). I previously attended this event in 2012, missed last year for some reason and also have missed a few other related events for one reason or another. That is very much my loss.

The day started with Michael Grove and Tina Overton asking very important questions, and encouraging us to ask ourselves questions like ‘why are we interested in pedagogic research?’.  It was widely agreed that those attending the meeting were fairly innovative in their teaching and wished to move from basic evaluation of teaching innovation (and associated dissemination) to more in depth evaluation, formulating research questions and devising studies to obtain new knowledge.

The answers to the question ‘why do we do pedagogic research?’ were quite interesting and some were tweeted. Some people felt it necessary for career progression, others because they wished to understand the impact of their teaching innovations more deeply, and evaluate how they impacted on the learning experience of the students.

We were pointed towards some new, and some older resources that might be of interest to us. These included:

Getting started in  Pedagogic Research within the STEM Disciplines

Getting Started in Pedagogical Research in the Physical Sciences

Evaluating your HE STEM Project or Activity 

They are all sitting on my desk waiting for Monday.

Mario Moustras of the RSC discussed the new initiative to evaluate the impact of chemistry outreach, funded by the RSC. It is a long study, 5 years in duration and will probably result in more questions than answers about the impact of outreach on the choices made by school children. Still, it is good to see that this type of evaluation is being planned and I’m really looking forward to seeing the results.

Where and how to publish was discussed by Tina Overton and three types of publication were noted. The first was magazines, things like Education in Chemistry. They were identified as very important routes to disseminate innovative teaching. They were generally noted to be edited but not necessarily peer reviewed. Following a question from Simon Lancaster, it was noted that blogs likely fell below magazines in this area. A step up from that were grey publications, defined as being somewhere between magazines and research journals. Examples given include New Directions from the HEA. These are peer reviewed publications and generally regarded as a useful way to disseminate work. Finally there was some discussion of research journals and it was noted that we shouldn’t anticipate impact factors in the same league as research chemistry journals. The impact factors of, for example, Chemistry Education Research and Practice are generally in line with humanities journals. These journals were described as being for larger studies with greater evaluation, particularly ones that contributed new knowledge and understanding to issues in HE.

The final session of the day was three presentations by people engaged in various projects. Simon Lancaster updated us on MOOCs, Samantha Pugh on the huge variety of projects she has been involved in and Karen Moss on the work being undertaken to study the use of tablets in the laboratory. It was lovely to see these talks, given from the perspective of work in progress. All too often at conferences we see the carefully polished end product – it is far more interesting to see the intermediate stage and hear of the decisions made and the approach taken. You miss that in the final product but it is far more useful to those contemplating similar work.

As per usual, such meetings inspire a headache full of new ideas. This is made all the more frustrating by my self-imposed idea embargo. I have to finish writing some stuff up before I can do new things. Hopefully the next few weeks of Easter vacation will help me in that respect.



Posted in Academia Nuts, research blogging, Teaching | 2 Comments

Getting Slimy

I think we’re going to hit the 1000 bags of slime target tomorrow. There is an event on campus for 10 year olds, and we’re expecting a fair number. I’ve not been keeping precise count of the numbers we’ve reached, I’ve been back calculating by how far through the stash of 1000 lolly sticks, 1000 plastic bags and 1000 plastic cups I am. I can confirm that I’ve ordered more of all three items.  We started in June last year, and between us (me, and several very willing volunteers), we’ve done quite a bit!

I like PVA slime as an activity because it is tailorable to all age groups and you can relate it to a fair number of concepts of interest depending on the people standing by you. I’m slightly less keen on brewing up the PVA solution – 4% w/w in hot tap water, 3.5 L at a time to be diluted to 5 L. It takes me about 2 hour to get it all dissolved and that’s assuming I do things the sensible way rather than lobbing all the PVA in and hoping for the best.  That’s probably around 25 litres of PVA solution so that’s quite some time!

We usually combine it with making worms from sodium alginate, cross-linking with calcium chloride. Again, it’s a good activity for a range of ages and if  you challenge the group to see who can make the longest worm (not easy in a small cup or beaker of calcium chloride), it get’s quite entertaining. We had some feedback from the Spooktacular Hallow’een event last year that slime was more appealing because you could take the product home in a wee bag, whereas the worms (which don’t really last) were disposed of fairly quickly.

If you think I resent brewing up the PVA, alginate is horrific! No hot tap water allowed so by the time I’ve heated the DI water, and carefully sprinkled in the alginate powder, spent a couple of hours stirring (in addition to the magnetic stirrer), chopping any lumps, burning my self with hot sticky stuff, and filtering it into bottles through a funnel to catch the lumps, I’m usually somewhat fraught. Then there’s the curious mystery of why the red food dye version always decolourises if left for any length of time. Never the yellow, green or blue, just the red one.

Anyway, 10 year olds tomorrow, and perhaps a significantly slimy milestone!

Posted in Academia Nuts, Chemistry, polymer, Science Toys, Teaching | Leave a comment

Recommended Reading (Teaching) #FF

A bloggy follow Friday of sorts.

Education in Chemistry have started a blog, with several posts by Michael Seery. Well worth a look for anyone interested in education as the content is translatable beyond Chemistry.

And if that isn’t enough Michel Seery for you, I recommend his blog ‘Is This Going To Be On The Exam?’ where he’s just marked 4 years of blogging.

You might also check out the Chemistry Vignettes site. And Simon Lancaster’s recent EiC piece on student authored vignettes. [See, when EiC finds its way to my mail box at work, I actually read it...always forget to look at the online version, so it was with great delight (and a degree of terror) that I opened the copy addressed to 'head of undergradute chemistry teaching, Keele University' this week]

If you’re at risk of feeling a bit jaded by teaching, can I suggest Keele’s new journal, the Journal of Academic Development and Education.   Website and current issue.

While we’re looking at Keele, our Learning and Professional Development Centre has started to aggregate good practice in teaching into a website and blog called Solutions.

Happy Reading!

Posted in Academia Nuts, Linkage, Shameless Advertising, Teaching | 5 Comments

Continuous Engagement

We have been using PeerWise this year with our first years. We have given it 10% of two 15-credit modules and the mark is primarily an effort based grade. Our students have to write two questions (with explanation), answer 10 and give feedback on 10. They must demonstrate this level of activity every 2 weeks, to a total of 5 deadlines.

For those unfamiliar with PeerWise, it is a web based site that allows students to write multiple choice questions. The students are anonymous to each other but moderating staff can see identifiers. The theory behind PeerWise is that deeper learning occurs, alongside confronting misconceptions, when teaching a topic. The web interface is rich and allows for a great deal of creativity in question setting (inclusion of YouTube clips, diagrams, equations etc), and also for some detail to be provided in the explanations. Some of our students have made the very best of this opportunity and have written far more questions than required, truly taking the spirit of ‘continuous engagement’ to heart.

I presented on PeerWise back in January at our Sharing Good Practice Event, and true to form, created a screen cast of it.

PeerWise replaced assessed problem sheets that we used last year. Every fortnight we would set a brief problem sheet, mark them and return them sometimes going over the answers with the class. Sometimes we provided model answers. The marks were effort based. This did and didn’t work – most students made good effort to complete the problems, and it highlighted misconceptions very efficiently. It did add substantially to marking loads however, and it was frustrating to mark the sheets quickly (2 hour turn around) and not spend time giving individual feedback.

Some disadvantages of PeerWise that I’ve noticed lately include the ability to find multiple choice questions on the internet and just copy them in. I don’t mind students using those questions as inspiration or using the question then writing an exceptional explanation, referencing the question source, but passing it off as their own work? Not so much. The other disadvantage is predictable – it’s another deadline so a significant quantity of work towards it happens in the four hours before the deadline. This, in turn, reduces the available questions for the students who work more continuously.  Our students haven’t quite got the hang of improving explanations and critiquing questions yet – that’s an area for development for next year. The other gripe is very minor – it’s another account username and password. And that’s an additional barrier to engagement for some.

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I’ve set lecture planning to one side for a week or so while I tackle the growing mound of exam style questions that need producing. That’s pretty hard going really and should inspire some good reflections on what has been taught in a course and, with a pinch of honesty, some reflections on how well it has been taught or how well the students seem to have engaged with the material.

I hate writing exam questions before I have taught a given course. It isn’t present in my head in the same way before I teach it. I haven’t refreshed my memory of the lecture materials, the supporting activities and the like. If it is a new prep, it is almost excruciatingly difficult to assess first time around without some sense of how the material goes across. There is some comfort in exam papers with choice of questions and I’m glad we have them in 2nd and 3rd year.

Our external examiners require us to mark questions as seen or unseen, recall or problem solving, familiar or unfamiliar problem type. That creates a hierarchy of questions. Seen, recall is the most basic question and may be a straightforward way of indicating if a student meets basic ILOs. Those questions tend to start with terms like ‘state’, ‘define’ or perhaps ‘describe’ or ‘draw’. Recall can progress though to something akin to problem solving when ‘compare’ or ‘contrast are brought in – that usually involves additional synthesis of the information over simply regurgitating it on the page. The word ‘critically’ before compare or contrast ups the ante even more, but that may still be a previously seen critique.

Unseen, unfamiliar problem solving is the hardest and should allow the student to apply their subject knowledge and problem solving experiences both in the topic and more broadly to tackle something novel to them. It’s usually particularly difficult to set questions of this type and they really set your mind going with nagging doubts about whether the question is do-able. Again, choice in a paper does help a little, but that may provide a convenient escape route for students wishing to avoid challenging questions if there are more strategically sensible options available. I don’t especially blame students for making strategic decisions when working towards an exam, but it would be better if all questions were equally achievable and picking questions was left to whim not calculation of which bit they would do best on. Of course there are areas of chemistry that some will always feel more confident in.

It is incredibly difficult to set one 25 mark question that includes all of this, that includes some progression from recall through to a decent problem solving part. I’m reminded of crossword puzzles whenever I have to set exam papers – I want a few easy clues to hook me into the puzzle and want to continue. Then I need a few clues that take some effort to solve but increase my general sense of satisfaction with the puzzle. Finally, there will always be a couple of clues that really challenge me and make me think hard. If I get those, I usually feel pretty damn smart. If I don’t (which happens more frequently), I feel pretty frustrated. The important thing is that I don’t regard my frustration as an inability to do crosswords, I just couldn’t do those clues. And it is equally important for students to move away from thinking that they cannot ‘do’ exams if they obtain lower marks.It helps to see them as opportunities to show off progress and development as chemists.

Whether exams are appropriate are not…well, that’s another post entirely!

Posted in Academia Nuts, Chemistry, Teaching | Leave a comment

How do you teach?

With all the discussion of the relative merits or demerits of powerpoint, I thought it might be useful to take a step back and consider broadly what I’m doing in each of my classes and why.

General Considerations

All lectures delivered using a tablet laptop, annotated slides and lecture recordings provided to those students who attend after the session (except 3rd year).

First Year Spectroscopy (9 hours, 2013) & First Year Transition Metal Chemistry (9 hours, 2014)

Mainly powerpoint based lectures with worked examples, self-tests and references to additional reading and problems in recommended texts. Some screencast pre-lectures or on specific concepts. Also supported by problem sheets and problem classes. TM chemistry includes model building workshop for isomers. (generally 20 – 24 slides per hour)

Second Year Multinuclear NMR (4 hours, 2013)

Powerpoint, but low content (approx 20 slides per hour session), mainly taught through examples and problems. Integrated lecture-problem sessions as no discrete problem class for this content. Generally 16 – 20 slides (including title slide and ILOs/textbook per session)

Second Year Catalysis (4 hours, 2013, not taught yet in 2014)

Tablet, talk and technology. Students provided with a study guide containing complex images, tasks to do (e.g. writing out definitions of terms, simple problems) as the lectures progress. Powerpoint used to provide blank slides for in-lecture annotation in ‘chalk and talk’ style. Some powerpoints with complex images for discussion and annotation.  Exam style problems in study guide, integrated lecture-problem sessions as no discrete problem classes for content. [increasing to 5 hours in 2014 with problem class]. Interestingly when preparing this course I hand wrote my notes for writing out in the lecture. I consistently covered 2/3 of the intended content per session due to the slow down in delivery caused by writing it all out by hand. This fits with the notion that powerpoint leads to too much content.  Consequently I removed quite a bit of content from the 1st year TM powerpoints before delivery this year and slowed it down quite a bit.

Third Year Designer Polymers (6 hours, 2014 in progress).

2 hours of standard lecture to cover ‘key concepts required’, 3 hours of flipped content with students reading assigned papers. Lists of questions for each paper are provided then used for discussion in class. 1 hour of problem class where students bring answers to exam style questions and they are discussed.

Omitted: Third Year Inorganic Reaction Mechanisms (6 hours, 5 lectures, 1 problem class; run for first time in 2013, work in progress).

Omitted: Second Year Sustainable Chemistry (18 hours, varied content, run for first time in 2013/14, work in progress).

Omitted: Second Year Bioinorganic Chemistry (3 hours, run for first time in 2014, not yet delivered)

As a general trend, the number of slides seems to decrease from 1st year to 3rd year. That reflects the increasing complexity of the information per slide perhaps? Or perhaps the need to write more on the slides for the first years to provide a better set of notes. An obvious question is why not do the ‘tablet and talk’ catalysis style lectures more. The obvious answer is once you’ve invested the time into creating a set of powerpoints, why revert to hand written? And powerpoint is a greater investment of time than hand written chalk and talk style, but it is more readily edited and modified – hand written notes get fairly messy.

I’m not yet sure where this exercise leaves me, other than a reasonable account of what I’ve done with my time all academic year so far (a lot of new preps…). There are a few things that strike me that I hadn’t noticed before but I need to think more before commenting.






Posted in Academia Nuts, Teaching | 1 Comment

On Techniques and Aspirations

It’s Friday evening and my patience is running short, so I’ll try to keep it brief.

Powerpoint and the like are tools, and the use to which tools are put is important in determining their worth in teaching. Tools can be abused, used to achieve great results but mostly are harnessed to achieve something around-about average. Techniques are also liable to achieve a wide range of outcomes depending on who is using them.  I see a lot of people dismissing particular techniques without any consideration, things like using personal voting systems (this is both tool and technique but half decent use requires changing a lecture to an extent greater than just switching from powerpoint to keynote, hence inclusion here), flipping lectures, or pre-lectures. I’ve got no problem with a considered dismissal of a technique. I know that personal voting systems don’t fit with my general way of teaching – I find it hard enough to get all the bits and pieces* I need for a class to the right room at the right time without worrying about a couple of bags of clickers. I also find them difficult in 1 hour sessions because of the hassle of counting them out and in, so I choose not to use them. I’ve dabbled with pre-lectures and am still somewhat ambivalent about them. And it turns out, after a rather interesting twitter conversation with Simon Lancaster, that I do in fact flip four lectures. Simon was seeking examples of the abuse of techniques such as flipping, I asked for a good definition and it struck me that I do so. For some daft reason I’d had it in my head that I could only flip with a lecture recording.  And a good question for lecture flipping types: how many times did you teach the class in a ‘conventional’ manner before flipping? I have a theory that you need to have outstanding knowledge of the topic and the level of delivery to really exploit flipping to an appropriate standard, and I think one way to gain that knowledge is by delivering it several times by other means.

Generally I try things on a small scale before launching head on in. A pilot study before committing significant resources to a task, always a good plan. But what about the other side of the equation: people who launch head long into the ‘latest big thing’ without real thought or consideration? I see/read/hear lots of things written by people who genuinely seem to believe that by calling their teaching ‘latest big technique’, that suddenly it will all fall into  place and just happen. It just isn’t the case. To make any new technique work in teaching, you have to work extremely hard and be extremely able to deal with emerging issues. While it is nice to aspire to better teaching, jumping on the latest bandwagon is not the way to achieve this. If you’re not a reflective, thoughtful and responsive teacher before you do big technique, it will not work because you don’t have the analytical faculty to trouble shoot and refine it. There are times when I am simply too busy to give a course the appropriate level of reflection and thought that a new technique would warrant and I leave it as a conventional course. I am fearful that to make changes half heartedly and without sufficient time, I would do more harm to the learning experience of my students than good. I will settle for good enough until such time as I find the time to make the course really sing.

Generally I aspire to use exciting and interesting techniques. I am limited by the quantity of time I can spend preparing my courses, and coming from an institution where teaching loads are higher than in other institutions, that’s a significant limiting factor**. What I will never aspire to, and what I would actively discourage, is for teachers at University to jump on the latest technique without good consideration of the appropriate issues. What works for one lecturer will not work for another one. I don’t understand people who just reuse someone else’s lecture notes, I don’t understand why people would just reuse a technique without real thought.

*Teaching bits and pieces: register, pen, my notes, memory key, tablet PC with power lead, microphone and dictaphone, spare batteries, board markers, tissues, mug of tea…

**about 50 lectures a year, plus workshops and labs…spectroscopy, multinuclear NMR, transition metal chemistry, homogeneous catalysis, inorganic reaction mechanisms, bioinorganic chemistry, p-block chemistry, polymeric drug delivery…what kind of chemist am I again?

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On Tools and Aspirations

I hear read things about the role of PowerPoint (and related presentation software like Prezi and Keynote and whatever the free equivalents are called) in teaching and I rarely hear anything particularly positive. At the extreme end I hear people calling for it to be ‘banned’ in teaching. There isn’t another end of that scale, I don’t think you’re going to catch anyone advocating that such software is the only thing that should ever be used for teaching ever. There is probably some driving force in that most teaching rooms are set up to accommodate that style of teaching but that’s a different post.

I have to disagree with the people that dismiss PowerPoint out of hand for a couple of reasons but it really boils down to the question of why one would critique the tool rather than the use to which it is put? Software that facilitates presentations…a tool, no more and no less. And people, lecturers and teachers, will largely use those tools to the best of their  abilities. And perhaps they can be coached into better uses of those tools (and sometimes better uses include moderate use and inclusion of diverse tools).

Thing is, PowerPoint allows some lecturers and teachers to teach to the best of their abilities. There, I said it. PowerPoint is probably the tool that makes some lecturers more engaging and helps them present information in a manner that a class can follow and engage on some level with. Lecturers with the capacity to go beyond PowerPoint, to include different methods and activities, greater interactivity and the like, well they’ll do it regardless. And some never will.

When I consider some of the alternatives, and consider some of the lectures I have experienced, I can only conclude that I’m grateful that such tools now exist. I still recall the first year physics lectures, frantically scratching down 14 sides of proofs and derivations, as the professor whizzed through the class. I can recall the lectures printed onto acetates and available in hideously large font to print on the ‘web’.  Or the lecturer that hooked up the role of acetate on to the OHP from decades earlier and scrolled through it, gesturing and talking away, forgetting entirely that the class were trying to transcribe it all. And I’m thinking that it’s probably a good thing that we’ve learned to be a bit better in presentation now.

Now, Prezi on the other hand…I’d ban that from the classroom on the grounds that making a class seasick is not a good way to develop a decent learning environment!

I’ll warn you all that this post is likely prelude to a far larger series of posts on the nature of teaching and how there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.


Posted in Academia Nuts, Teaching | 3 Comments

Lessons from Week 10

It is week 10 of the semester here and that means that everyone is pretty fraught. Deadlines, marking, the uncovery of under- or un-prepared lectures right before Christmas and for some, the residual effects of REF2014. Despite all that, there are a few reasons to be cheerful, if a little perplexed.

1. Inviting a class to indicate the splitting of peaks on NMR by holding an appropriate number of fingers in the air will (in hindsight, quite predictably) lead to half the class taking the opportunity to stick one or two fingers up at you. What is surprising is that it is fairly challenging to remember to put your own hands round the right (non-profane) way when doing it too.

2. Chemical reactions do not stop because you have turned the stirrer plate off.

3. Most chemical reactions take lengths of time approximately equal to (a) how long the experimenter wanted to go home for overnight, (b) a weekend or long weekend, (c) the length of time between starting the reaction and returning from lunch. The arbitrary nature of these timings mean that it is almost critical to replicate the reason for these timings when performing similar reactions. At least, that’s how the current crop of reactions are going.

4. Sometimes chemical reactions work the way they are supposed to.

5. Sometimes chemical reactions do not do as described in literature preps, and sometimes the ‘common advice’ given in those circumstances is utterly and totally wrong.  Yes, that might be a 1 in a 1000 reaction distinction but it is important.

6. When doing outreach with primary school age children, do not be surprised when they understand the intricacies of having to cook a Christmas cake in advance and let it ‘sit’ for a few days. They pay attention.

7. Making PVA slime is the energy minimum for the room. It exerts an almost gravitational like pull on those in the room to come and do it. Always take extra helpers.

8. This: [yes it is a YouTube video, yes it is safe for work, yes you do need sound]

9. And this:


Posted in Academia Nuts, Chemistry, reactions | 1 Comment

REPOST: To buy or not to buy

This was first posted on February 10th 2009. It’s an issue that’s just cropped up again in 3rd year projects!

That is the chemist’s question, this chemist anyway. In much the same way that one pays for food in a restaurant because the chef has added value by cooking and combining raw ingredients, a chemist’s essential job is to add value to basic chemicals through syntheses or novel applications. If only it were that simple.
Polyhedral Oligomeric Silsesquioxanes (POSS) are a perfect example of the chemist’s dilemma. These are cages of silicon and oxygen, a silicon on each corner and bridging oxygen. As silicon can have four substituents, the empty site is an organic group. I’m particularly interested in the cubic versions of these.
The synthesis of POSS cubes is a perfect example of adding value to simple chemicals. You can buy the starting materials quite cheaply, but many of the reactions are low yielding (20 %) and take a long time (1 – 3 months). There isn’t a great deal of effort involved because you put the reaction on and leave it until beautiful crystals form and can be filtered out. There are other ways but not always to the particular molecules I need.
I make them, but I could buy them. The price is not unreasonable, and I would be more or less guaranteed a certain quantity of product without stirring several litres of acetone solutions for several weeks. There would also be some quality standard in their manufacture, which would be reassuring given that sometimes the synthesis can go a wee bit wrong. I could also order some tomorrow and have it delivered by the end of the week: a far cry from 6 weeks of patient crystal watching.
Make or buy, make or buy. I’m not the first chemist to come up against this dilemma, and I wont be the last. There are many reasons to make your own. The time and precursor cost may be significantly less than the purchase price. The chemical may be particularly sensitive to degradation or fickle to store – fresh may well be best. There may be an educational benefit for a student to make something. There are many reasons to buy it in, particularly if cost is not an issue, or if time is an issue. It’s just something that needs to be weighed up.
Of course, I’m interested in these molecules because I want to do more with them, I literally want to make molecules that money can’t buy. I want to make sure that I start with the best possible materials.
Is there a comparable dilemma in bio-research? Do you worry about growing or buying cells, or purchasing kit reagents rather than making your own? What about other disciplines?

Posted in Chemistry, reactions, research blogging | Leave a comment