ViCE 2010 Talk

This is a written version of the 5 minute oral byte presentation given at Variety in Chemistry Education 2010 at Loughborough University on the 2nd of September 2010.

This talk is about using a tablet PC to improve the teaching of spectroscopy to undergraduate students.  The tablet PC was purchased as part of a larger Teaching Innovation project on spectroscopy teaching.

For those who are  unfamiliar with a tablet PC, it is a laptop computer whose screen can rotate to sit on the keyboard, and comes with a pen to write on the screen.  It is pretty similar to an iPod touch or iPad but can be used as a regular lap top as required.  Powerpoint slides in display mode can be annotated or highlighted, and most other programmes come with a function that allows handwritten comments and annotations (e.g. word).

This project was born out of some frustration at trying to teach NMR interpretation or the fundamentals of  crystallography X-ray diffraction in a lecture theatre.  I found the constant switching between powerpoint slides and the whiteboard for worked examples was wasting time – I was spending half of the time redrawing the problem on the

white board before working through the solution.   I’ll mainly focus on NMR today.  I remember being taught NMR interpretation in small groups with a pile of (quite poor) photocopied spectra.  We were all told to bring a ruler, and the academic in charge worked through examples photocopied onto acetates on the overhead projector.   There is quite a lot of free and paid software available now to help with NMR interpretation but I still find myself sitting down at my desk with the paper copy and a ruler.  The spectra quickly start to look like the one in the picture here – scribbled on with the integrals, rough assignments of the protons, the chemical structure etc.   The question becomes: how do we translate that process into a larger lecture theatre?  Before I continue I should point out that most aspects of this project could be carried out using an interactive whiteboard or an overhead projector.  The beauty of the tablet PC is that it makes it easy to plan around – you know that you’ll have the facility to annotate powerpoint slides regardless of the technology available in the room.

Handling spectroscopic information is a data handling challenge.  If students can implement a strategy to solve the problem, they will be better equipped to tackle complex problems having learned from simple problems.  Anyone who

regularly interprets spectroscopic data has a successful strategy for doing so, its just difficult to take a step back and explain it step by step in a classroom.  While it is obvious to me to draw out the expected structure when interpreting a proton NMR, or draw fragments as I identify the functional groups in an infrared spectrum, it is not obvious to most students to start that way.  By breaking down the process of interpreting the data into clear steps and demonstrating how you move between those steps in real time, in front of the class by annotating authentic data, the students understand more rapidly where the ‘answer’ comes from.  For first year students I used MestreNova to simulate ‘perfect’ NMR spectra for use in lectures, problem classes and exam questions.  This often involved deliberately adding impurities such as water, solvent, to make it more authentic but still clear to interpret.

One of our second year modules includes a few lectures on multinuclear NMR and the main focus is predicting what the spectra will look like.  Essentially this involves applying a series of rules in a certain order to get to the desired outcome.  That’s easy for me to say when I have the luxury of sitting in a quiet office for several hours working on the

perfect examples.  It is less easy for students packed into a lecture theatre to grasp in the 50 or so minutes available.  Using a tablet PC requires modifying your presentations sufficiently to leave a lot of empty space or blank slides for annotations and working through problems.  I came up with a generic table for predicting NMR spectra that took the students through the four key steps: identifying the shape of the molecule (generally applying VSEPR theory), determining which nuclei were NMR active, determining the coupling that would occur (applying the N+1 rule) and ultimately sketching the spectrum including key features (labelled axes, appropriate coupling constant, integration).  To analyse whether this was effective or not, I analysed the exam question attempts from 2008/09 (no tablet PC) and 2009/10 (with tablet PC).  For both XRD and NMR, the number of attempts at questions had increased dramatically.  More students felt able to tackle the problems set.  The average marks obtained for those questions also increased.

Student feedback was also very positive with students feeling like the tablet increased the interactivity in the classroom.  I provided the annotated notes on webCT after each lecture which was useful to the students who missed the lecture or who failed to make good notes.  It did, however, increase the number of students sitting listening without making any notes at all.  I’m not sure whether I will continue to provide the annotated notes.  One student with dyslexia noted that it was easier to follow things on the screen without having to constantly adjust from lit screen to dark whiteboard.

The tablet pc provided a convenient means to annotate slides in lecture theatres or laboratories.  There was an improvement in student achievement in modules where it was used.  It does take a bit of getting used to but  also allows for written worked examples to be distributed electronically.

A longer version of this talk was given at Keele University’s Teaching Innovation Day in 2010, covering the whole teaching innovation project.  The slides can be viewed here.

Comments please!