Information literacy – phrase it as you will: digital literacy, information retrieval, not taking the daily mail at face value, picking better references than wikipedia… Students should become gourmets of information, unwilling to accept the fast food joints and only interested in the finest produce.
Question: how many of us run courses where coverage of the content seems like the most important thing? How many of us are thinking ‘I must get all of this covered because I must assess it’? At Keele I’d estimate that 80 % of the modules are coverage of content driven. I hear a lot like ‘undergraduates must cover this’, ‘we must include this’. And often, I’d like to respond with: says who? When did covering a fixed chunk of content be the only prerequisite for getting a degree?
And how many assessments have narrowly defined criteria to deal with that content coverage? Lab reports, tests, exams – the formats are restrictive and old fashioned. We dictate a lot to our students in order to meet the alleged rigours of our discipline. That seems a little restrictive and not particularly useful given the majority of students don’t proceed with careers using the discipline specific trivia we expect them to regurgitate in examinations.
Obviously there are issues surrounding accreditation of degree programmes with a nod to the RSC and I’m not, for one moment, saying that we shouldn’t cover chemistry but I think there are some very serious questions to be asked about the volume of content versus actual learning going on.
Keele’s curriculum review focused heavily on getting content into the right places, the modules. It was all about swapping and shifting and trading. And there was a bit about assessment where exams decreased in popularity and course work sprung up. But if I were to go back and do it again (I’m not rushing though), I’d build things differently. I’d focus on ‘thinking like a chemist’ and consider far more seriously the skill sets of our graduates rather than the bare content. That brings me to VicePhec14
Digital and information literacy start to light a path to doing things differently. I’ve seen/heard/read the ‘students as’ a couple of times but it really has only started sinking in by virtue of Barry Ryan, where I’d like to be going with that.
Johnstone breaks chemistry down in to three domains, the macroscopic – a qualitative description of a chemical process such as copper sulfate in water forms a pale blue solution. The microscopic where unseen concepts such as dissolution, lattice breaking, hydration, origin of colour can be brought in to describe why the solution is blue, then we can get to the symbolic level and write equations to represent all the processes, perhaps even maths to investigate the colour. Chemists need to become expert at shifting between these three domains and accessing their chemical knowledge in a way that allows them to answer questions in any form. Describe in words, write equations…
This model does lack context however, it lends itself to the elegant and more abstract notions of chemistry that are sometimes less tangible and relevant to undergrad students.
Mahaffy introduced a tetrahedral model, bringing in a fourth level – the human or contextual level where macroscopic descriptions, microscopic conceptual analysis and symbolic notions are placed firmly in a real-world and relevant to student context.
The gelling of sodium alginate with calcium ions for example produces more solid structures, we can describe crosslinking in terms of bonds forming and calcium being divalent and we can write equations for the replacement of sodium ions with calcium ions and use appropriate stoichiometry. Without context, what use is that information other than scientific curiosity? Well it’s how gaviscon works so there is a real human element to it.
But if we dictate the context of scientific knowledge, is that any better than our ‘must cover’ curriculum? Should we allow students to find their own contexts to help them form good chemical knowledge?
Students finding their own human contexts to help frame their learning.
Infographics have been around for centuries – pictorial representations of quantitative and qualitative data. 1972 pioneer space probe is a classic example, designed to be interpreted by space aliens (or future versions of ourselves).
Some students found websites that created the infographics for them when they input the data - good in that students focused on the information retrieval and assessment rather than graphical presentation (for those who don’t like that) - others fell into posters rather than infographics but as a first attempt, they were good.
Martin Pitt at the last teaching fellows meeting – presentation on the cycle of technology use ( a couple of years to get it working, typical software lifespan, need to constantly reinvent to keep pace with technology).
We need to keep our assignments ‘technology brand free’ to allow students to use technology they are comfortable with or can assimilate swiftly. We don’t need to be afraid of doing this – our students will naturally find a way to use something they can use and wont rely on us for support and expertise for that bit if we explain this to them.
Calamity & Creativity in Chemistry
Calamity & Creativity in
Alternative Assessment to Promote
Dr Katherine J. Haxton
Creators (of content)
[First sunk in at #VicePhec14, August 2014, Dr Barry Ryan
Levels of Thinking
Johnstone, A.H. , various publications, as summarised at:
Levels of Thinking
“Moving Chemistry Education into 3D: A Tetrahedral Metaphor for
Understanding Chemistry”, Mahaffy, J. Chem. Ed. 83, 2006, 49
Students identifying an area of a
(broad) topic that they are interested
in, carrying out research then
producing an assessable output with a
degree of flexibility…
…this could end badly!
Act 1: Information Retrieval
Specific to this assignment, the outcomes are:
1. Evaluate chemical information on the internet and identify
potentially inaccurate information.
2. Use recommended textbooks to verify the accuracy of
information obtained on the internet.
3. Create screenshots and paste them into a Word document.
4. Reference webpages and textbooks using the Vancouver reference
style, noting the importance of ‘date accessed’ when referencing
5. Clearly identify and reference one instance of inaccurate
chemical information and propose corrections to the
information, or validate corrections already made.
Someone was wrong on the internet
“It is a strong acid but it’s the chemistry
of HF that makes it dissolve glass (and
body parts) and not its super
Act 2: Screencast Presentation
Produce a 5 minute presentation suitable for
upload to a blog.
- screencast or video or powerpoint w/audio
Topics include: inorganic chemistry, sustainability
and environmental chemistry, space chemistry
Use self- and peer- assessment to evaluate the
Require reflection by the students on their
Demand more than ‘submit and forget’.
Act 3: Infographic
Produce an infographic on a topic related to
sustainable chemistry [1st/2nd year module].
Produce an infographic to revise a concept in
3rd year inorganic reaction mechanisms.
1 side of A4 for the infographic.
Submit a reference list (recommend asking for
an annotated bibliography).
Give examples of infographics, emphasise
difference to poster.
Offering final year projects for 3rd year students
to improve 1st year experiments.
Students researching and creating content
Enormous opportunities afforded by technology
- screencasts, podcasts, presentations
- posters, infographics
- blogs, wikis, websites
Opportunities for Peer Learning through Peer
Rule of thumb
• It will take a lot of hours to get it working.
• With luck it will work for two years
• Then the rug will be pulled away.
• And you will have to do something else.
[Martin Pitt, RSC Teaching Fellows Meeting]
Sources of Inspiration &
Prof. Simon Lancaster (UEA)
Dr Stephen Ashworth (UEA)
Dr Michael Seery (DIT)
Prof. Tina Overton (Hull)
Dr Peter Knight (Keele)
Dr Jane Essex (Brunel)
Dr Barry Ryan (DIT)
Dr Suzanne Fergus (Hertfordshire)
Felix Janeway (Leeds)