But it wasn’t fair.

Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidyuweb/  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidyuweb/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My life, as a marker of student work, would be infinitely easier if we had a set of standards for the production of work that all students followed. Such a ‘house style’ is used by colleagues in other subjects and covers formatting, word count requirements (penalties for exceeding the limit etc), reference style (specifies the precise variant of Harvard or Vancouver), expectations around structure drawing, figure and table format etc etc etc.  For a start, I’d have to specify less when I write my assessment guidelines. Then I’d be able just to apply an agreed set of standards to any bit of work that crossed my path, and I’d be familiar with the standards by virtue of seeing them in everything.

My life, as a writer of scientific papers and grant applications, would be infinitely easier if we had a set of standards for the production of such things that we all followed.

My life, as someone who applies for jobs and who serves on recruitment panels, would be infinitely easier if we had a set of standards for the format and content of CVs, applications forms, covering letters and supplementary information that all jobs required and all applicants followed.

The thing is, house styles deny students some very key learning experiences. Firstly, it denies them an appreciation for a variety of styles and formats  and the subtlety that some are better than others depending on the context.  Secondly, it often squelches that much desired quantity of ‘initiative’.  And initiative, specifically, ‘using one’s own initiative’ is something that needs practice just as much as working hard and studying does. House styles, and assessment guidelines in general can risk being so prescriptive, that it denies some students the opportunity to exceed in ways we could not conceive of. It also fosters the development of far more strategic behaviours – ‘I didn’t include it because it wasn’t in the assessment guidelines’ – which may actually restrict learning.

The existence of a vast range of styles of journals, referencing, funding applications, CVs and job application formats means that we should be aiming to help our students identify the requirements of a particular task and complete the task to those requirements. We should be helping them realise that they should verify the required formats rather than assuming they will fit the comfortable mould of the familiar. And we should be teaching them that there are consequences for failing to follow guidelines such as the work being dismissed with out consideration. Of course, we must balance this against the need to provide a constructive environment for our students to learn in. As assignments are rarely about the formatting alone, any kind of punitive action based on formatting alone will deny the student valuable feedback.

My life, as a reasonable human being, would be infinitely easier if my students read the assessment guidelines that were produced. Then re-read them. Then checked their ‘just about submitted work’ against them.  That seems like good practice for real world things where guidelines are provided but leave room for initiative. And differ from each other.

Now, don’t get me started on explicit assessment criteria. That’s for another day.

Lectures at Conferences – again!

A while ago, there was a discussion on Twitter about the role of lectures at academic conferences and whether more sessions should be discussions or interactive. There was some discussion around the notion of providing active learning opportunities at conferences. Michael Seery has waded in  (http://michaelseery.com/home/index.php/2015/11/why-i-love-the-lecture-at-academic-conferences/) as has Anna Wood (http://learningfrome-learning.blogspot.com/2015/11/lectures-at-conferences-good-or-bad.html). Sometimes the 140 character format of Twitter is insufficient!

I’ll be honest, I’m a notorious fence-sitter when it comes to things like this. I can see it from both/all sides pretty much simultaneously and find that my general dislike of the format of scientific conferences colours my view considerably. I’d refer you to this blogpost by Jan in the Pan (https://brainthatwouldntdie.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/surviving-academic-conferences-without-crying/) for further hints on why conferences can be tough going.

But what of lectures at conferences. Well, I think the format of any presentation should suit the purpose and goals of the presentation. If you are a world-leader in a field and are invited to a conference to present your work, you are expected to deliver a summary of the highlights of the work in an accessible format for the audience.  There is likely no obligation to open up the session to a discussion of the work (beyond the standard questions format) or include activities to help the participants ‘get it’. But there is very definitely an obligation to present competently, concisely and thoughtfully.

If, on the other hand, you’re leading a session on a new method that has sufficient time to allow for discussion or other interactive means to illustrate why the new method is really good, you should probably do it. I wouldn’t say you are obliged, but in some fields and for some topics it would be odd not to.  So if you’re going to do a presentation on why we should use personal response systems in teaching, you probably need to use that system in the talk. Again though, there is an obligation to design your session in a manner that is fit for purpose and respectful of the conference aims and audience.

See, there is no excuse for poor presentations in any context. From teaching undergrads through to the most nerve-wracking conference presentation in your life: if your presentation does not have a clear purpose, don’t bother giving it. If that purpose is learning, persuasion, or scoping out what is felt or known, you’re going to need something a bit more than standing talking over slides. If the purpose is conveying information, you’re probably OK with slides but please (for the love of all that is good in this universe), devise them kindly and with the audience in mind.

From other parts of the discussion I conclude that academics, like students, do like to just sit and ‘listen’ to presentations from time to time. That’s probably OK, conferences (and full days of classes) are tough and it’s nice to be able to disengage from higher level thinking for a time. And if you’ve got a great presenter, you’ll be compelled to pay attention.

At no point, however, should the format of a conference force a presenter into one format or another. There should be freedom to present in a manner that suits the presenter’s topic, style and circumstances.  We already give up some presentation styles when we submit abstracts, picking between poster, workshop, long presentation, short presentation and ultra-short formats. We know that we’re not going to conduct a discussion in a 5 minute oral byte, and we pick posters where we hope for engagement with the most interested in the work. But when formats are forced, such as Pecha Kucha, promoting a poster by some kind of lightening talk, or making a ‘flipped format’ compulsory rather than optional, a lot of the value in the presentation is lost.

Flipped lecture format at conferences requires the presenter to carefully and thoughtfully prepare the pre-lecture resources and activities. Pecha Kucha usually requires more slides than a short presentation needs, and doesn’t allow for detailed descriptions of data sets (putting the same graph up for 10 slides to satisfy the format seems superfluous). Poster sessions are often aimed at students rather than academics, and poster sessions where the main questions come from the poster judges are pretty contrived as well.

So I’m sitting on the fence on the whole active vs passive conference stuff. I’d just like people to do better at presenting regardless.


What is the ‘Smell of Science’?

Two students have just walked into the building, probably not chemistry, physics, astrophysics or forensic science students. They were discussing the smell of the building and claimed it ‘smells like science’. I’m guessing I’m pretty much immune to the building’s normal odour, far more likely to pick up strongly scented deviations (yes I do want to know who’s using the stuff that smells like skunk – they need to take more care).
We’ve got chemistry, astro/physics, forensic science labs in the building, research and teaching for chemistry. Anyone know what the ‘smell of science’ is?

Choice is Multiple, Context is Everything

I feel like writing multiple choice questions has characterized this semester so far. It’s unusual in that I normally feel that battling with my exam questions characterizes the early week of the semester (perhaps this year I’ll learn to write next year’s as I teach the material this year but that’s another issue entirely). But this year has been MCQ central.

I normally write them on train journeys. Particularly train journeys like this one (late Monday evening…somewhere in the Scottish Borders) where there is no wireless (no, the driver’s feet aren’t sticking out the bottom of the train in a Flintstone-esque way). Or I can’t face paying for wireless. It’s quiet and free from interruptions so I can hold a train of thought (heh).

I’m starting to develop very strong opinions on what constitutes a good MCQ, and very strong opinions about defining what you want to achieve in setting an MCQ. For example, something that tests for conceptual understanding may initially want to test only a single concept. Something that’s for discussion through peer instruction may need to be more complex, at least towards the end of a course. And like most things, I know bad questions when I see them. You know, the type of question where you wonder what the point in writing it was.

For example: which group of the periodic table is carbon in? Group 13, 14, 15 or 16.

I’d call that a bad question because it’s either testing someone’s ability to read (doing chemistry questions without a periodic table??) or someone’s ability to recall a simple fact. It might be a good pub quiz question but it doesn’t cut it for learning. The context for use is everything.

A better question would be: Which of the following best describes why carbon is in group 14 of the periodic table. (a) carbon forms four single bonds to hydrogen; (b) carbon has 6 electrons; (c) carbon is chemically similar to silicon; (d) carbon has the electron configuration 1s2 2s2 2p2

At least there is something to argue about there if it’s some kind of social (torture) learning activity. It’s not a great question but it’s also not on the kind of stuff I teach. Great questions are very hard to write and it’s hard to see sometimes how an MCQ can be used to get people to think about more complex concepts (inorganic reaction mechanisms anyone?).

MCQs are no substitute for writing extended responses to questions either. Yes, I can accept that in a social learning environment, making a case about why your answer is correct probably stretches your knowledge and skills at argumentation. Provided you’re the one talking rather than the poor student who didn’t have time to do the pre-session thingumabob (I’m not sure I agree with the autocorrect spelling here) and is completely out paced. But there’s a difference between speaking it and being able to write a coherent response in a high pressure, high stakes environment like the end of module exam.

All things considered, I think I’m coming out in favour of blended learning in the broadest conceivable sense. I think mixing up the activities keeps sessions feeling fresh and that good MCQs used in thoughtful contexts have great potential. But so does just about everything else, including spurts of more traditional lecturing.

HEA Chat #HEAChat

Last night I made it home in time to take part in the HEA Chat on twitter.  I’ve been a lurker for some time in LTHEChat (http://lthechat.com/ Wednesday 8 – 9pm) but find it quite overwhelming. Which is a strange thing to say for someone who regularly tweets from conferences with active twitter streams and manages to handle all that. I think my brain’s just in a different gear on a Wednesday evening.

The Storify from the HEA Chat is available: https://storify.com/HEA_chat/hea-chat-27-october and this months theme was Teaching and learning in STEM: new challenges, new opportunities which got my interest straight away. They have a blog post with the future topics: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/about/blog/heachat, and about this specific chat: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/blog/teaching-and-learning-stem-new-challenges-new-opportunities.

I arrived 10 minutes late (no food, had to go get curry) but managed to get the thread of the conversations fairly quickly and really enjoyed thinking about the 5 questions that were posed. As another participant noted, there were fewer participants than LTHEChat which may have made it easier to follow.

One thread that emerged was on digital scholarship and the issue of getting recognised for blogging and other online activities. An overlapping issue was having somewhere to share or discuss good practice or simply ideas and it’s easy to see how blogging can fulfil that role. Julie Peacock shared a link: https://teachingfocusedgeesnetwork.wordpress.com/2015/07/ where GGE academics can contribute and share ideas. I like that idea a lot but share the concerns of many that such informal scholarship (by traditional measures) is not adequately recognised. It’s sad when people say they no longer blog because its not thought of as worthwhile. I guess for me, I get more out of it and don’t feel the need for people to recognise it. It would be nice but I’m not doing it for that. To be honest, I’m mainly writing this to avoid cleaning up my office.

But it did get me thinking about using this blog to work through some teaching ideas. Then I came to a screeching mental halt when I started wondering how my students would feel if I was deliberating over teaching sessions in their recent past.  So perhaps this is a useful place to think about the less recent past and an amalgamation of various year groups.


In any case, I recommend the twitter chats for those who tweet. And I recommend twitter for those who don’t.

When September Ends…

This seems like the longest shortest summer so far. I’m really not sure what precisely I’ve done and yet I know I’ve done quite a bit. I also know I haven’t done much of what was personally important to me, and a good bit of stuff that wasn’t but that needed to be done.

I’m still thinking of Variety a few weeks ago. I really enjoyed both workshops I went to – one on lecture flipping and one on publishing pedagogical research. The lecture flipping one (run by the excellent duo: Anna Wood and Ross Galloway) looked at theoretical underpinnings and I really needed a reminder of that stuff. I’ve now encountered it several times but this is the first time that I’ve listened to it and thought ‘ah, now I see the point in this’. Previously it’s all seemed a bit too handwavy-jargon for my taste. This was then reinforced in the publishing workshop (lead by Claire McDonnell, Michael Seery, Derek Raine). It was really well put together and helped me see some of the projects that have been languishing on my desk in a new light. Particularly useful was the discussion (and small group exercise) surrounding defining research questions.

It’s actually the first time in a couple of years I’ve been back at work straight after Variety – normally I head off on holiday. Perhaps this has lead to the persistence of recollections!

I’ve been gearing up for semester though, swimming through the paperwork and thinking about changes to various teaching sessions. I am not going to flip my teaching in the ‘conventional sense’ if such a sense exists – everyone seems to have different variations. With the timetable we operate on, I cannot see my students putting in the time before lectures to engage with substantial stuff. I’m aiming to focus on key concepts and include more development of those concepts during class time. I think this will blur the lines between lecture and workshop but that is no bad thing. It worked pretty well for some second year stuff back in December.

So where are they then? The concepts I mean. Everyone seems to go on about it now, particularly at conferences – develop better understanding of the underpinning concepts etc etc. Cut out content to focus on concepts. OK, fine, I see that. I see that it’s better to conceptually understand how to prepare vegetables with a decent knife than to learn the individual context of preparing chopping each kind of vegetable. Memorisation of different categories of thing versus understanding and applying thing. However, where is the list of key concepts that ought to be covered? I ask this slightly tongue in cheek, but only slightly.  Our courses, textbooks, resources are bloated by contextualisation, examples, rules and their evil cousins – the exceptions to the rules, and it’s very very difficult to find one that can simply boil it down to the essential stuff. I’m not volunteering to rewrite the textbooks but it occurs to me that we could take a lot more shortcuts if there were some lists somewhere of core concepts for specific topics.

I can see some of you gesturing dismissively – what do you mean she doesn’t know what the concepts are? And she calls herself a teacher? Well quite. Firstly I’d like some tried and true list of concepts because there is a limit to the extent to which I would be able to identify personally held misconceptions. I root out a few every year but I know that I do not have the time to really get in there and exorcise them all. Secondly, why should I reinvent the wheel? I’ve been pouring through various journals, particularly those articles focusing on concept inventories, or innovative teaching surrounding concepts and they are pretty darn cagey about the whole thing. Whole paragraphs of discussion, tables and figures, charts and quotes, all discussing conceptual understanding and rarely disclosing the full set of survey questions. It’s like the equivalent of writing a synthesis paper and omitting the full methodology but discussing the characterisation data in full!

Unlike some aspects of teaching , concepts strike me as being more robust to individual circumstances. I’ve never understood people who feel they can take a teaching idea ‘off the shelf’ and deploy it as is, and I’ve understood even less those who simply adapt another person’s lecture notes (and other course materials) without considering whether that style suits their style. But concepts should be irrefutable to a point, incontestable, and fully tagged with a ‘handle with care, mis-use may cause educational catastrophe’. So where are they? Where’s the secret book of chemistry lecturer basic concepts from which we might construct more engaging courses?

So I’ll keep dreaming of such things while I get down to boiling down aspects of some of my courses to their conceptual skeletons and re-dress them with elaborate problems designed to help students piece them together. I’m aware that it sounds somewhat daft to call for a handy guide to concepts at the same time as slating those who wish to use off the shelf teaching methods but it’s the difference between chopping all of those vegetables and using pre-prepared stir fry mix. You know what gives better results in the end.  And I liked like things to be easier this academic year please, without having to resort to convenience.


Lecture Recording Redux

Back in January I wrote about lecture recordings (http://www.possibilitiesendless.com/2015/01/on-the-recording-of-lectures/) which was a bit of a ramble about their use as a revision tool. I’ve been thinking more about it recently as I’m drafting a paper for Keele’s JADE publication (https://jadekeele.wordpress.com/) and it’s timely because we’re starting to look at campus wide lecture capture. Over the past 6 months I’ve visited several universities in England with lecture capture as part of a team from Keele. The key differences between the institutions were the technology used to capture the lectures but the end result for the students is mostly the same: a recorded lecture appears on their virtual learning environment.

One thing that has become clear is that there are limited resources out there on how to make the most of recorded lectures. From my data, my students seem to understand that a lecture recording exists as a backup rather than a replacement for the lecture. They indicate that it’s good to be able to go over specific bits again and again if required rather than watch the whole thing. Of course my survey was to a self-selecting bunch that turned up to the class in question which was at a poor time. I’d back that up – a typical science student has around 100 lectures per semester and they cannot hope to re-watch them all boxset style to revise. Further evidence for the usefulness of specific bits of the recordings comes from students who request screencasts on specific topics and emphasise that they want short screencasts.  Even with good use of powerpoint titles to create an index for my recordings, many students would prefer to have something more specific than wade through the full recording to re-watch a bit.  There is some pretty awesome analytics available for some forms of lecture capture that can show which bits of a full recording are watched the most – this would be very useful in redesigning content.

So if lecture recordings are just a backup, why should we spend time on the student development side of things and help students make more of the recordings? As with all suggestions of this type, we’re talking about making an impact with a subset of students. There will be a few students for whom pointing out how to use a recording to enhance written notes, or planting the idea that you don’t have to watch the full thing, just the bits where your attention wained, will be very useful indeed. And there will be a few students that need reminding that familiarity with a procedure is not the same as being able to carry it out. Alongside requests for screencasts go requests for more and more model answers. I’m not convinced by that either – I think that many students can follow a model answer but remain unable to carry out the procedure on an unseen problem. Familiarity breeds contempt, in this case, contempt for the actual knowledge and conceptual understanding necessary to succeed. There are many studies that show mixed and often contradictory impact on students achievement which may or may not be down to lecture recordings (because these things are near impossible to prove to any degree of reliability).

Why then are lecture recordings really popular with students? Like popular to the degree that institutions invest substantial sums of money in the provision. Is the notion of a backup for a lecture so important? And what does that say about how students view the content that is being delivered in that lecture? It certainly isn’t irreplaceable. It is valuable, particularly if you consider a more traditional lecture to be a guided tour of essential knowledge with a subject expert as tour guide, but you can get that knowledge by other means (Thanks to JaneB for that specific idea: http://what-was-i-doing.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/lectures-as-important-part-of-teaching.html).  Is it just a function of the netflix/boxset mindset where binge watching is a thing that you do? Or is it a tacit acknowledgement that so much content is conveyed in so many non-ideal teaching rooms/times/circumstances that knowing you can just watch it again is the ultimate intellectual comfort blanket? And perhaps that allows your mind to wander, guilt free, during a lecture.

In any case, we need some good resources to help students make the most of lecture recordings. We can’t assume that our standard advice for making the most of attending a lecture is sufficient – we need to point the way to add value to the whole endeavour. As I’m going to be trying to write some resources of this type later in the summer, if anyone has any they would like to share, drop a comment. I’d also love to hear your tales of the effectiveness of lecture recordings.


A Stinky Colourful Chemical Mystery

I’m running an outreach activity and we’ll be making alginate worms. I was testing my sodium alginate solutions yesterday as they tend to go off a bit. Usually this is demonstrated by no longer forming beautiful worms or spheres on addition to calcium chloride solution but rather forming slime. I suspect the polymer chains are being clipped. I add food dye as well  – coloured worms are more fun.

One bottle yesterday was colourless and was a 2% solution of sodium alginate (food grade) that had been prepared a few months ago and was dyed with indigo carmine food dye (powdered). It had been stored in the dark (filing cabinet, my office)  at 22 deg C for 4 months. On opening it stank of rotten eggs so I quickly recapped the bottle and turfed it in the sink for cleaning. When I came back to it 30 mins later, it was a blue solution and still stinky!

The other solutions were the appropriate colour and all formed decent worms.

I thought it was quite a nice wee chemical puzzle – anyone want to take a guess at what was going on?  I have a working hypothesis which I’ll share later.





Exam Style Question – an Experiment

We’ve been discussing exam style questions this weekend and have some frustrations about a certain style of question, one of the general form: [scenario] [two aspects that should be compared in context of scenario][selection of best aspect and justification]. In the interests of subject neutrality, I’ve drafted an exam style question of this nature. How would your (weaker) students answer this?  Or how would you  answer it if you are a student? And how would that differ to how you would want it to be answered? Answers in the comments (anonymously of course), and please state your discipline and if you are a student or lecturer!

I’ll post our thoughts on this tomorrow.


1. Abigail is planning a dinner for her parents and would like to make crumble for pudding. She has apples and oranges and must decide which to use. Critically compare the use of apples and oranges in crumble and suggest which would be most appropriate, justifying your answer fully.

(10 marks)



Academic Conductivity

This article bothered me when I read it*. I didn’t catch the TV show that it was based on but the allegation that 40,000 UK university students were disciplined for academic misconduct (source appears to be FOI requests to universities by the programme).  Of the 58,000 students who were investigated, 40,000 were disciplined and 400 were expelled or excluded from HE and 12,000 had marks deducted. The headline of the article ‘Cheating found to be rife in UK education system’ says it all really. Academic conduct is an issue that occupies more of my time than it should do but I still found the notion 40,000 students disciplined for academic misconduct were in fact cheating.

It is my experience that genuine, intentional cheating in assessments is comparatively rare. When found, it brings a range of punishments up to and including exclusion. And rightfully so. There is no place in academia for cheating, fraud or anything else at any level. Comparatively rare compared to what I hear you say? The number of students who simply get on with it and do their assessment? Or the number of students who face academic conduct hearings over their work each year?

I’d argue that the majority of students who face disciplinary action under academic conduct procedures do not actually cheat.  There is a range of issues that are covered by the broad umbrella of academic conduct and these include failure (or simply forgetting) to cite a source, failing to put quotation marks around a quote, and then progress through collusion through to passing off others work as your own. Many of the cases dealt with are simply part of the learning process, where a student has failed to grasp the instructions fully and act on them in their work. Many others are due to the blurred lines between collusion and working collaboratively. Studying is a more social endeavour than ever before so it is hardly surprising that students are helping each other out with work. I’m sure that the vast majority of people would like academics to deal with these cases compassionately, consistently and fairly, and view them as part of the learning process that is academic development rather than simply branding them as cheaters. Yes I find it incredibly annoying to deal with students who have discussed their work then written down identically wrong answers (and no we wouldn’t catch them if they both had the right answer).

Of course, there is a line somewhere that distinguishes the inadvertent misadventures into academic conduct from the intentional and knowing attempt to obtain marks by deception, theft or other unfair means.  Before I look at the far extreme of what cheating is to me, I’ll consider the middle ground. One of the most frustrating aspects is dealing with students writing where copy pasting from various sources has been liberally used. Sometimes a token attempt to reword the source has been made and perhaps the source is properly referenced, but I always want to yell at my screen and demand to know what they were thinking. Well they probably weren’t thinking much beyond the panic to turn out a passable piece of work, or struggling to grapple with an unfamiliar topic and lacking the confidence to rephrase or synthesise the ideas into their own words.  In the majority of cases, the students are not ‘bad people’, they would be deeply upset to be branded cheats and they generally learn their lesson very quickly. There is seldom a genuine intention to cheat and deceive. And yes, they do face a penalty for their actions, often a loss of marks or having to redo the work properly. And yes, when done properly, an academic conduct case is an opportunity for learning and improvement.

Then there is the extreme. The case where a student for some reason decides to take an action to obtain marks by a means other than simply doing a half decent job of the work. This might be purchasing an essay from a company claiming to provide ‘sample’ coursework, or it might be theft of an idea or physically of someone’s work. Or it might be a group of students deciding to split the work between them and share the answers. It may also include attempts to cheat in examinations which generally requires sufficient pre-planning to leave little doubt that there was an intention to cheat.  Some mistakes are more costly than others and a high ranking sin is fabricating results or buying an essay.

Instead of noting that cheating is rife in the academic system (and the comments in the article about schools gaming the system to meet targets are deeply troubling), how about celebrating the fact that we actually have a system that works. Universities have policies and procedures in place to deal with academic conduct issues and ‘cheating’ in a context that is appropriate to the assignment, the students and the issue at hand.  Of course our systems have to be pretty dynamic to keep up with ‘state of the art’. Smart watches are the latest thing, previously it was calculators with substantial data storage capacity. We have penalties that escalate if people don’t learn from their mistakes. We have severe penalties for the extreme cases. And clearly, we catch people out and deal with them.

* Full Link: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/15/cheating-rife-in-uk-education-system-dispatches-investigation-shows