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

Consigned to the dictionary of room 101

Every year we get plenty news articles about new words in various dictionaries. Here are some I’d like to banish to the dictionary of room 101:

influencers – I prefer manipulators myself

strategic targeting – because targeting can be something other than specific

transparency – just because I see how decisions are made, doesn’t mean I will agree with them or abide by them

reflux, vb – heat to reflux please people, not ‘solution was refluxed’

enable – because those who use it have generally few ideas about what it actually takes to sustain something rather than just initiate it

coalition – just because

bottom out – while I applaud the sentiment of making sure we understand just how low things can go, it doesn’t scream aspirational now, does it?

So, how about you? Anything you would add?

End of week 9 update

No matter how determined I am to ‘write more’ of any sort (and there is a direct correlation between the quantity of writing here and the quantity of work done on drafts of papers – more blogging = more writing), semester has ways of ending the best will.

I have been travelling a little for work to attend a committee meeting at the RSC and to do a programme validation. I’m amazed that (a) I can find days with nothing scheduled to travel, and (b) just how tiring a simple train or plane trip can be for a day.

I have been writing new lectures at a ridiculous rate (at least 1 new prep per week this semester, some weeks up to 3).  It is hard going developing new-to-me content, worse still when some is new-to-my-uni content meaning there are no previous lecture notes to use as a road map.

I have been working on the paperwork for a new degree programme here and find that writing programme specifications kills any other writing ability temporarily.  Reading may module proposals, trying to figure out what regulations are needed and giving the programme handbook a wide berth until the other components of the course are finalised.

I was happy to see  one of my posts featured in this month’s Nature Chemistry Blogroll column (http://blogs.nature.com/thescepticalchymist/2014/11/blogroll-moving-on-up.html). It was my begin again post of a few weeks ago, http://www.possibilitiesendless.com/2014/10/begin-again/. (Was that just a few weeks ago? Seems much longer).

And I’m counting down to my own version of ‘black Friday’ – the day when all my coursework is due! Somehow I managed to schedule work from three different courses to come in 4pm, Friday week 11. This gives me time to mark things over the holidays but fingers crossed that no disaster befalls the submission software! I always forget that proximity to deadlines increases the number of student questions that require prompt responses…


If I had a million dollars…what I’d do!

£50,000 is an interesting sum for UK academics – it’s just about enough for a PhD studentship funded at RCUK rates and some consumables (potential issue with fees but not a major one). It’s probably about enough for a 1-year postdoctoral researcher or 18 months of a graduate research assistant. It might well be sufficient for teaching buy-out for a year’s sabbatical and expenses. It could also be a large number of summer studentships, all or part of a shiny bit of kit, or a means of accessing facilities at another institution.

So what would I do? A postdoc or research assistant would be more use to me really than a PhD studentship. A 12-18 month position to get some initial data on a couple of projects that would allow for initial publications and future funding applications. I’d shy away from a PhD studentship because despite the longer term benefits of training someone, I’d rather  focus on the research. I have a few project ideas brewing and it would be really nice to get a dedicated person to tackle them rather than the piecemeal effort I make, balancing everything else.



If I had a Million dollars….

Thought experiment for academics:

If someone handed you £50,000 (approx 65,000 euros and $80,000 US), what would you do with it?

Would you use it for work related purposes? Perhaps a sabbatical, pump priming a pet project or funding a research worker. Assume no constraints and no ‘overheads’ can be taken from the money.

Chemical Shortcuts

I was writing some lecture notes this morning when it occurred to me that I’d probably never told my students of some shortcuts that are really useful. I was trying to draw structures for a synthetic route towards paclitaxel…trying is the operative word unless you are aware of what a SMILES string is and the fact that you can copy-paste that through paste-special in ChemDraw and other programmes and the structure will be drawn for you. In the case of paclitaxel derivatives, that’s hours of pain reduced to seconds of smugness.

The best source of SMILES or InChI strings is ChemSpider (www.chemspider.com) that has all kinds of useful information as well as that bit. What I didn’t know before writing this post was that SMILES (apart from creating a great many smiles at the sheer simplicity of complex structures) stands for Simplified molecular-input line-entry system, and InChI, International Chemical Identifier.

Another simple trick when looking for scientific journals (or making quick references in work ahead of proper referencing) is to copy-paste the DOI of the article rather than the reference. Digital Object Identifiers (http://www.doi.org/) are found on most reputable articles (and probably most disreputable ones as well, but hey) and can be a very quick and easy way to keep tabs on references electronically. They are found on most journal articles, their websites on the publishers site, and are readily googled to find the full text.  Of course, they do not replace the proper reference in the desired format but they do make wrangling a reference collection in early drafts much easier.

I can’t think of any more at the moment – any suggestions?