I wouldn’t change a thing (a defence of personal empiricism)

It’s August and the season of walking a fine line between annual leave, finishing/starting research projects, and sorting out teaching prep for the forthcoming academic year has gripped UK academia. Time then to reflect on an August 10 years ago as I prepared my first lectures.

Tip 1: Don’t read chemical education literature.

For me the biggest challenge was grappling with the content I was teaching and the structures within which I was expected to deliver. I was setting exam questions for the first time, trying to revise content I had not seen since I was an undergraduate (and for one topic, content I had not seen at all for it was not taught), and trying to work out where I fitted within the course structures and dealing with all the unwritten rules, guidelines, policies, and ‘things we do’. And it sucked time and energy. I promise you that within that, going off and doing a search for education literature and ‘good ways to approach’ teaching any of those topics was furthest from my mind. There were modules, I was expected to deliver and assess some ILOs and there was content that had to be covered.  Just learn the damn content well enough to not feel stupid in front of the class. 

Tip 2: There’s nothing wrong with adapting the previous person’s slides

Yeah, I know, but it’s a new job, new academic year, new notebook, shiny new blank page and all that. Just change the bloody powerpoint template and be done with it. Unless you’re cursed with a brand-new-to-the-institution course prep, reuse the slides because it probably worked well enough last year. And what’s more, if you’re new to teaching, I promise you the barre is pretty damn low in terms of what success looks like. No big student complaints outside of module evaluations and you’re doing fine. Seriously though, initially content is king because you’re trying to learn material as a teacher not as a student and it’s very different.

Tip 3: when the learning and teaching course you do tells you to keep a teaching diary, keep a teaching diary

Think of it as a laboratory notebook where the lab sessions are your teaching. If you’ve been an experimental scientist, you have an inherent understanding of troubleshooting and determining the accuracy of your results. The teaching people, they call this reflective practice, which is a fancy term for what you’re more than capable of doing anyway. For each session ask yourself:

– did I achieve what I needed to achieve?

– did the students indicate that they understood or that they were confused or bored witless (probably all three, likely from the same student at once)

 – what do I need to address next session?

 – what would I change for next year?

In those first sessions, you’ll probably over or underestimate how much you’ll get through. Perhaps you’ll fall into the ‘trying to be cool with lots of funny anecdotes’ model of a lecturer – well everyone likes to be liked. Perhaps you’ll be panicking that you wont cover everything and will blast through 50 minutes of stuff in the first 20 and and bewilder everyone in a 5 mile radius. It happens. Reading chemistry education literature is not going to help with this at all and if you’re really new to teaching, you’re not going to have that many strategies to deal with this without a bit of a think over a cup of tea afterwards. That’s fine, and that’s where your teaching diary helps – write/draw/graph it out, process it, troubleshoot and problem solve. You don’t need to write down your feelings (incidentally feelings don’t need to be included in reflections, you can be perfectly reflective about something whilst maintaining an air of scientific mystique). 

Tip 4: Your teaching style will evolve over time, don’t panic!

It takes me 5 run throughs of a course before I feel I’ve ‘got it down well enough’ to start playing with the content in what could be termed ‘a deliberate pedagogically valid way. That’s probably 5 years of teaching it. If you can get to that point sooner, good for you, but I find I go through an iterative process of incremental change based on my trouble shooting and reflections, identifying recurring issues and problems, addressing those issues, adding or subtracting in-class problems, testing MCQs and response devices, having more or less text on the teaching aids…it’s incremental and based on what I think works for me, in my context and in my style.  And in those first 5 years, good enough is good enough.Anecdotally I’ve heard of new staff who read the literature and see a report of some or other approach and adopt it wholesale. They then bumble around trying to workout why it hasn’t worked for them in the way the paper promises. Perhaps it’s another case for meta-reviews of educational literature to derive the most effective principles of practice from all of the personal empiricism out there, or perhaps it just makes the case for learning to walk before you can run. You need to learn what your teaching style is first – who are you in the classroom? And do I contradict myself here? Didn’t I say above that you should adapt last year’s teaching resources? Isn’t that imposing a style?  Well you have to start somewhere, and why not start with the last known point of good enough for that particular course?

Tip 5: At some point you’ll make a decision between good enough and excellence in teaching

The biggest change we could make in UK Chemistry Education is to increase the basic standard of teaching.  But we forget that those who aim for good enough are doing other things as part of their role and we need them in the academic ecosystem just as much as we need teaching superstars. It would be nice for everyone to be excellent teachers but it isn’t going to happen, and at some point you’ll have to decide how much of your 35 hours a week is going to be spent on developing your teaching. In an ideal world, this would be flexible, allowing you to ebb and flow between teaching and other roles as your career develops, but I’m not sure it works like that and those decisions are probably going to be made for you to a point. If you’re lucky enough to get to pick, know that there is nothing wrong with simply being good enough. I think this is why there is so much literature and research on first year university stuff: those courses are more likely to be taught by more teaching focussed staff with extensive teaching portfolios whereas third and fourth year stuff are more likely to be taught by staff who do limited teaching because of extensive research portfolios. 

Tip 6: When/If you do dip a toe into the pedagogical literature, don’t expect a miracle cure

They don’t exist. There are ‘off the shelf’ teaching methods that you can apply and if you’re looking for quick fixes, I’d head for those methodologies and I’d follow them to the letter, and if you’re particularly luck, you’ll be the first in your department/faculty/uni to do them and you can be seen as a trail-blazer. You may well stumble then into an institutional definition of excellence without having to try too hard. Otherwise, wading through the contradictory mass of literature that’s full of unfamiliar theoretical underpinnings and social science stuff is seriously hard going.  Pick a good entry point and I’d recommend a discipline focussed teaching and learning conference as a good starting place. You’ll pick up the names of the people with sensible ideas about learning and teaching and can go find their papers and see what they’re up to. If you’re brave, you can talk to them.

I find seeking out literature for my deliberate pedagogically valid meddling in a course to be an intensely painful process. I dislike it. I have a particular loathing for papers that report something then don’t give some simple suggestions as to how the information might be applied in the classroom. I also dislike how the higher education chemical education literature seems to be obsessed with laboratories, and in particular, laboratories in early years of university. It’s hard to find relevant stuff for upper years, and it gets more complex if you move into international literature with very different course designs. 

The process I’ve described here is largely what personal empiricism means to me. It’s also known as reflective practice. We just run into issues when personal empiricism is all there is in chemistry education and also issues when people don’t realise that their personal triumphs may be something that has been established for years as best practice. That always makes for an awkward conference presentation.

So, to summarise, if I were starting teaching again this summer, I would stick to a basic goal of getting the content sorted first, then rooting out the concepts that students struggle with the most and devising ways to support that, and only then would I worry about developing pedagogically correct practice. And the latter, only if I felt that teaching excellence was something of personal importance to me and relevant to my career expectations. I did, by the way, decide that teaching was of personal importance to me and a key focus for my career. But sometimes I question whether that was the right decision, and in the current system I suspect it’s too late to go back the other way.

Meeting Matters

Meetings are an unfortunate fact of working life and unfortunately most people view them as a necessary evil, something to be endured. It’s a shame because they can be productive. At first the structure of a meeting seems obvious – people meet to discuss stuff, there might be an agenda, papers to consider, apologies to sent and lots more. But the typical structure of a meeting needs more careful consideration to ensure it is inclusive.

Let’s start before the meeting. The people in charge need to come up with an agenda, make sure any relevant information is available, and tend to catering needs. To allow people to fully consider papers and an agenda, they should be available as long in advance as possible, certainly no later than 3 – 5 working days before the meeting. This allows people who have different working patterns sufficient time to consider the papers. The notion that ‘no one reads the papers’, or ‘everyone reads them an hour before’ is anecdotal at best, and actively harmful to people who, for one reason or another, need longer to access things.  Put as much as you can in the papers in a concise and precise manner – let people process complex information and form a balanced opinion with time for reflection. This lets them attend the meeting and make a response rather than an off the cuff reaction, which may reflect a more emotional and stressed response.

Catering for diversity in a meeting means more than ensuring there is tea and coffee. Do people work remotely and need the opportunity to attend via video conferencing? Make the option available as default rather than something ‘special’ that is a ‘hassle’ to set up. Do people need to come and go during the meeting to tend other equally important matters? Put estimated timings on the agenda so people can plan to be there at the right points, then try to stick fairly closely to them. Minute by minute isn’t necessary but try to hit them within 5- 10 minutes. Arrange the agenda to cater to people’s attendance needs. If it’s a long meeting, factor in breaks, and if it’s all day, factor in a proper lunch break that allows people to regroup or spend some time doing their normal lunch stuff. Just because you’re holding a meeting, doesn’t allow you to deny people appropriate breaks throughout the day – some attendees will be relying on them.

Come up with a better way for recording absences than ‘apologies’. Yeah, what could possibly be the problem there? Simply, people who cannot attend due to different working patterns should not have to apologise for having a working pattern that suits their needs. It should be sufficient for people to notify you that they will be absent and have that recorded. If you use a doodle poll or similar method for agreeing a meeting date, automatically record the absence of those who indicated they could not attend. Similarly if you send invites via calendars, automatically record the absence of those who decline the meeting.  I utterly despise being marked as AWOL for a meeting where I clearly indicated I could not attend when the date was set. Another decent thing to do would be to automatically record the absence of those who’s duties prevent them attending – do you really expect someone who has teaching contact time during your meeting to send you apologies? You should not expect people to send emails expressing apologies when they never indicated they were available, or could not be available in the first place.  To me, an apology should be retained as an expression of regret for being unable to attend for unforeseen circumstances. A part-time contract, working from home day, or scheduled teaching is not unforeseen.

At the meetings. Make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard, and consider leaving contentious topics open for further feedback outside the meeting to allow those who take longer to process information time to come to an opinion. Big debates in meeting only favour those who think fast on their feet. Let the quiet people have a chance. Similarly, leaving a contentious topic open for a few days allows those who could not attend to consider things and offer an opinion. If your goal is to foster a collegiate environment, sending messages after meetings with limited attendance stating, in essence, that those who showed up to the meeting have decided X so that’s what we all must do, does not achieve this and indeed makes those who could not attend feel redundant. There are times when decisions are urgent and must be made by those in the room, but the majority of decisions in meetings just need to be made, they aren’t urgent matters of national security requiring rapid action.

Make sure people listen around the room. There is nothing more distracting in a meeting than one corner of the table talking amongst themselves. And this includes the person chairing it. If you need to talk privately to someone, pause the meeting, don’t talk over your attendees. If people are talking amongst themselves, ask them to share or be quiet. And make sure the conference call people have an easy way to indicate they want to speak.

Make sure you are catering to the diversity that you know about – presentations should be done using best practice for inclusivity, and adaptations for any specific needs of attendees should be catered for.

After the meeting. A summary of the key points, an actions list and minutes are essential to helping people follow the discussions. If you’ve left a topic open for a few days to allow more contributions, summarise the debate so far and send it around people with a clear deadline and format for responses. Don’t rely on gossip to relate the conversation. Make sure there are minutes for all meetings – for the people who could not attend, nothing happened that wasn’t minuted, so if you’re taking decisions that impact people’s working style, have the common decency to produce a summary and circulate it within a few working days of the meeting.

Ask for feedback on how the meeting ran, the room, the length, the agenda structure. It’s easy when chairing to lose sight of how the meeting felt for the participants.  If anyone has behaved in a difficult manner, talk to them informally before the next meeting. Consider asking for reports in written format when they convey standard information each time, reserving valuable meeting time for matters than need discussing rather than conveying information. Get those reports in good time, but make sure people are aware they will be required.

I don’t think any of this is difficult, there’s a lot of it, but it’s not hard. It just takes effort to consider many of these things. Feel free to add to this list in the comments.


Adventures in Google Classroom

Our institutional email is Gmail which gives us access to all sorts of Google goodies for teaching including Google Classroom. I dabbled with it a little last year, contemplating using it but I couldn’t quite get it straight in my head. This coming academic year I am planning to use it for my Industrial Chemistry module, largely because the majority of assignments for that module are submitted through GoogleForms.

About the module:

Students attend sessions on a range of industrially relevant topics in chemistry, take part in several workshops on skills, complete a reflective diary on the skills development, and work in groups to develop a product idea.  We have:

– a mock application form

– a mock aptitude test

– reflective diary entries

– presentation submissions (group and individual)

These are all submitted through GoogleForms, some used as tests to enable marking and return of feedback by email to the students. Presentations are normally submitted into a shared folder to facilitate upload to the PC in the presentation room.

I write my teaching documents using GoogleDocs and Slides so that I can link directly to them and enable downloading as a PDF when I’m on the VLE. I can roll over content and update it without the hassle of having to upload fresh files. I like being able to share my teaching content easily with other teaching staff and I love having everything in one folder, accessible on any computer I want to work on.

The plan for GoogleClassroom is to take advantage of several features:

Stream will allow objects to be viewed in a chronological order so that students see the most immediately relevant stuff for the week ahead first.

Topics will allow students to view all objects for a specific ‘thing’ (workshops, reflective diary, group project) in one place.

About will allow module reference material to be located in one place – my module guide, assessment guidelines etc.

I will be able to add questions into the stream so that I can collect feedback from students or deal with questions on assignments without email. I think I’ll use this mainly to collect feedback on how the course is going.

I’ve been experimenting with linking to the key documents so far and scheduling the release of things. I would like to get a lot of the course pre-scheduled so I save a little time during semester. Of course, that means I need to get a lot of the course revised and ready!

I’m also planning how I will get feedback from the students on how they found GoogleClassroom. Unless it is specifically requested, I’m not going to provide the course materials through the VLE as well, but I will clearly signpost the course on the VLE. I should also be clear, I’m not trying to replace the VLE, I’m trying to take advantage of the easier integration of Google tools in a module where I deliver 80% of the content and assessment and already use it extensively. I’m sticking with the VLE for everything else. I also think there are some advantages to asking the students to adapt to a different way of ordering content, an additional learning outcome if you like, and one relevant to a module that emphasises skills development.

The next challenge is to work out how best to facilitate group projects through this interface. It will be easy to create Google Team drives  or shared google drives for each group to enable them to share and work collaboratively (another module requirement), I just need to work out the best way do that. I believe it is possible to personalise posts in Classroom so I think I’ll be able to link to the shared folder for each group. I expect around 10 groups so that isn’t too much work. We’ll see…


Summer Book Club: Introduction

Front cover of the book Messy by Tim Harford

The thing that attracted me to this book was that it seemed a good antidote to the cult of super-organisation. I like to-do lists, I like feeling productive at work, I like colouring in. So I tried bullet journaling (spent too much time colouring bits in), I tried making to-do lists and project plans (spent all the time making the plan and no time doing it), and I tried working to a disciplined timetable to ‘get stuff done’ (first knock at the door obliterated that). I need a to-do list so I don’t forget important stuff but when it’s too detailed, I simply do nothing. Ultimately I am motivated by deadlines and a little pressure, and that doesn’t quite work with many organisational methods that do the rounds on social media.

A book about being messy sounded perfect. The introduction to the book celebrates spontaneity, whether it be provoked by adverse circumstances, or deliberately built into a speech (for example, not following the script precisely). That appeals to me – I like the idea of my to-do list forming the skeleton of my summer, the essential components and broad structure and form that guides things, but leaving plenty room to work on the rest as my whims allow. Yes there’s a risk of not doing ‘all the things’, but I am never going to do all the things I want to this summer and I’m better off accepting that now!

Questions if you’re reading along:

– have you ever found an organisation system that works and that you’ve stuck to beyond three weeks?

– do you think embracing a more spontaneous or messy style of working deliberately could work?

– what do you think about the main anecdote in the introduction (the piano one)? A useful reminder of the perils of demanding perfect circumstances for action, or not?

Summer Book Club!

Front cover of the book Messy by Tim Harford

This summer I plan to read the book Messy by Tim Harford (how to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world). I’ve spent quite a few summers thinking that if I could just become more organised, my productivity would shoot up, I’d have a plan, I’d know exactly what to do and when, and I end up ignoring pretty much every to-do list I spend hours making. When I saw the title of this book, it called to me and gave me a hope that there might be another way! It was an impulse buy and I’ve read the first chapter and liked what I read.

I will read a chapter a week (9 chapters, 9 weeks) and post my thoughts on each chapter here. I’ll also post some questions about each chapter if anyone wants to read along and comment. There’s no pressure to read it over the same timescale – whatever works. I know from past summers that a chapter a week is a good rate for me and this kind of book.


Attendance Matters?

Before we start, how many of you have sat in a meeting sorting out your email, doing your marking, reading a book, or playing a game on your portable electronic device? How many of you simply haven’t attended a meeting because you thought you had a better use for your time, or were so ‘meeting-ed out’ that one more was going to break you?

There’s been a few tweets about attendance at lectures over the past few days, sparked in part by a research study from a single institution/cohort/class showing that when lectures were captured (recorded), attendance dropped. There’s also a fondness amongst academics for using attendance as an indicator of success. It probably is, but it’s a proxy for other things and we should at least be aware of what we probably mean when we demand attendance.

Students who attend classes are more likely to hear important information, have the key points signposted, be prompted about deadlines or assessment formats and other stuff. We often reward students for their attendance by how we place emphasis on things, or additional information that we provide. So attendance heavily benefits cue conscious behaviour where students are focussed on assessment and seeking to gain insight into what tutors want to see in assessment and provide it. It’s very strategic, but it is often in response to our hidden curricula – the things we expect/want from students but don’t clearly articulate. And cue conscious students can be sub-divided into actively seeking cues (you know the ones, they email quite a bit), and to those that are more passive (they don’t ask) but do pick up on most things. It’s probable that cue agnostic students are present in sessions but simply don’t notice the hints being dropped.

We also liken attending classes to attending the live concert and getting the experience of attending – it is purportedly an enriching experience versus some kind of solo study. Perhaps it is but before we use this argument we have to seriously consider the ‘value-added’ in our face-to-face teaching. If we are easily replaced by a recorded ‘sage-on-a-stage’ lecture, then we’re not really adding value to those who attend. And in case you’re contemplating the concert analogy, consider that the recorded live album is edited and there are bits missing. But if you go to the whole thing you get the whole thing, warts, rainfall, wardrobe malfunctions and all. We’ve all stood at the front of class to a room full of bewildered, bored and at times hostile students. It isn’t great, but that should be a prompt for reflection, not just on our own teaching but on the context within which the students arrive in the session. I can’t function particularly highly in the third 2-hour meeting of the day, on a different topic to the other two, with half a ream of paper in pre-reading papers, minutes and agenda. So why should I expect my students to show up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the 5th and 6th contact hours of the day on the third topic?

Ultimately though, attendance is being used in many contexts as a proxy for engagement. Students who attend are likely to do better in assessment – that’s probably the cue seeking behaviour coming out but also they are simply more engaged with their studies. Students who attend are likely to have better relationships with staff, have greater interactions with staff, simply be better known in the department for positive reasons. I suspect unconscious bias comes heavily into play when dealing with these students and we view familiar faces more favourably. Yes, I know, we also know a lot of students for less positive reasons but we’re possibly better at checking our bias there. When was the last time you raised an eyebrow at a student’s mark profile because you were surprised a student with those positive characteristics hadn’t done as well as those positive characteristics made you think they should?

We know that students who don’t engage with courses do poorly – coursework that doesn’t fully address the assessment criteria, sitting in the lecture theatre surfing the internet or watching YouTube. And we struggle to differentiate the quietly contemplative solitary learners from the gregarious verbose learners when we invoke the allegedly awesome power of social learning (I’m sceptical, can you tell?). Perhaps it’s time to recognise that as lectures and teaching fellows, professors, readers and demonstrators, that we’re pretty far removed from understanding what it’s like to be a student. After all, we’ve only got our personal context and experience as a frame of reference and we probably weren’t typical.

Attendance as a proxy for engagement sucks. I think we need to carefully consider our role in creating engaging sessions (not talking about edutainment, just adding value to showing up), but also the factors beyond our control that influence attendance: they are not all related to the stereotypical student lifestyle with it’s mores and excesses, if that even existed. Let’s stop berating students for making what may well be valid and internally consistent decisions about attendance and start asking them to reflect on their engagement, and our role in supporting that.

That was the academic year that was…

…mostly characterised by marking over 1800 discrete items of assessment (I’d forgotten about a few when I tweeted this earlier). That came from around 90 hours of lecture/teaching/workshops, and about 20 hours of lab supervision.

The marking felt never ending and I can see why. I’m not offering a great deal of insight into the breakdown of tasks there but suffice to say, the following assessment types are well represented:

  • reflective diary (no not a lab diary which is rarely reflective in the reflective sense)
  • academic essay
  • magazine style article
  • magazines (group)
  • business report (group)
  • business pitch presentation (group)
  • business presentation (group)
  • individual presentation
  • dissertation
  • screencast presentations
  • project report
  • exams
  • class tests
  • infographics
  • application form
  • posters
  • poster interviews
  • project interviews
  • presentation slides
  • watching presentations
  • short written pieces with a specific remit
  • annotated bibliographies
  • dissertation plans

For the forthcoming academic year, there will be a decrease in exams, the academic essay is gone (thank goodness), and some of the short pieces/infographics will be gone. It should be closer to 900 in the next academic year.

As I imply above, I dislike the academic essay so I’m glad to see it gone. I enjoy watching in-person presentations but can only do so many at a time. I’m not hugely fond of oral assessment such as interviews or oral exams, again can only do so many at a time. For the majority of these assessments, every submission was different, or there were several variations. I know that I can’t sit and mark 100 lab reports on the same experiment very easily, but 100 magazine style articles on a wide range of student selected topics is fine. I particularly enjoy marking infographics because part of the whole idea is that they should convey their meaning directly and graphically. I also find annotated bibliographies far superior to ‘just’ reference lists because it is far harder to pad it out when you have to state what information comes from each source.

Many of these assessments are small, intended to allow for feedback that can improve later and larger submissions. I find it very frustrating to mark work where previous feedback has not been acted on (or even viewed in many cases). If feedback on a small piece of work is to include figures/images/tables to convey additional content, I do expect to see figures/images/tables in the longer piece of work. If feedback is to review the reference style guidelines, I expect to see greater adherence to them the next time around. It does not motivate me to write feedback when I see the degree to which it is acted on in some cases. I do have, however, a project in progress at the moment looking at more efficient ways to give feedback. Part of this is allowing students to request what feedback they want and I’ve got to analyse the results of that from this year to plan phase 2 of the project.

Well, bar August reassessment, the marking for this academic year is over. I’m going to devote some time this summer to streamlining assessments further, working out how to provide feedback in a more accessible format (the tools we’re using don’t feel like they are working but that’s nothing new), and also to improving assessment guidelines. I want to make it more clear why we are doing these assessment tasks, and also why they do or why they do not ‘help’ with exams in modules where exams exist. I want to highlight the additional skills embedded in many of these tasks, somewhere I got it into my head that this would be useful.

#ChemEdCarnival 2 What education research has most influenced your practice?

As a postdoc I had relatively little exposure to teaching (probably a standard quantity for a postdoc). Sure, there were a couple of project students to supervise, the odd grad student floating around, a couple of lectures and some pizza fueled marking but there wasn’t much teaching (or outreach which is another post entirely). I did, however, attend a seminar by Carl Weimann on teaching physics (related to the establishment of the CWSEI http://www.cwsei.ubc.ca/). By the end of that postdoc, I’d had the good fortune to hear Prof Weimann’s seminar twice – things take a while to sink into my head, and I’d landed an academic job back in the UK. I hadn’t realised just how influential those seminars were going to be but looking back on ten years of being a lecturer/senior lecturer, it’s clear now they were.

So what was the seminar on?

Cut content. Teach concepts and ‘think like a physicist’.

It seems silly to write a long content dense blogpost to elaborate on this but I’ll have a go.

How we convey information (=content) is generally a limiting step in learning. Too little information and learning is curtailed, and historically this is the origin of the lecture: one copy of  a text book and a sage on a stage to read it out. And as technology advanced from printing presses to powerpoint, conveying information became easier and easier and our expectations became greater. Powerpoint is singled out as an evil of lecturing but that’s principally because it facilitates information delivery, far more information delivery than chalk and talk permits. Chalk and talk is a self-limiting means of conveying information in a teaching scenario. Too much information curtails learning, it makes learning overwhelming and leads to strategic practices as a means of survival. Prof. Weimann’s basic idea was that to build up conceptual understanding of physics, that is to really be able to understand and apply the essential physics behind things, you had to cut out a lot of content. Spend more time on the key concepts and practicing them through application, then tackling the more advanced stuff becomes easier. It can push learners through the transition between novice and expert without memorising a billion examples and exceptions.

An example: Cake 101

Learning Outcome: students who complete this course successfully will be able to bake a cake.

Content dense model of course:

  1. Victoria sponges
  2. Chocolate sponges
  3. drizzle cakes
  4. buns
  5. muffins
  6. fruit cakes
  7. fruit cakes with alcohol
  8. fruit cakes with alcohol and nuts
  9. royal icing
  10. water icing
  11. butter cream frosting
  12. decorations

Now image in each topic there is a 2 hour lecture. In the lecture, lots of variations on the theme are discussed.

Lecture 7: fruit cake with alcohol  – recipes will be considered involving fruitcakes made with sherry, whisky, and rum. Soaking fruit for minutes, hours, days and weeks will be considered. ‘Feeding the cake’ with alcohol after baking will be discussed along with appropriate timescales.

The learners in lecture 7 end up with 3 different recipes to learn, along with 5 protocols for soaking fruit and 3 methods for feeding the cake as well as the theoretical stuff about what happens to alcohol in the oven. If all of the classes are roughly like this, there will be 36 recipes, 50 protocols and 30 methods for various things to learn alongside the theoretical stuff.

Content lite model of course:

  1. sponges
  2. muffins
  3. fruitcakes
  4. icing
  5. decoration
  6. – 12. practical sessions

Still with a 2 hour lecture, but this time we recognise that sessions 1 – 4 in the content dense model can be reduced to one concept – they are all essentially victoria sponges in with different additives or cooked in a different tin. You cream the fat and sugar, add eggs, add flour and flavour and bake. Muffins require a theoretically different approach, adding wet and dry ingredients and typically use a liquid fat. Fruit cakes are in between, and involve a greater number of variables. Icing is essentially the same – some kind of sugary stuff with some kind of fat or fluid and you splodge it on top. Decoration stays largely as is – lots of pretty pictures giving ideas on how to decorate cake.

The learners end up with 4 recipes to learn, a couple of protocols and a couple of methods.  They also spend 14 hours practicing their craft.

The content lite model curates the information for better presentation to the student and explains why each cake is as it should be. It’s possible to extrapolate from these basic ideas into more advanced cake making methods as learners should better grasp the concepts of the cake rather than feeling pressured to memorise 36 recipes etc.

Feeling hungry yet?

So the most influential bit of literature for me was digesting the idea that concepts should be key in courses not content. And that’s even more important in the ‘current age’ when anyone can google a cake recipe. The trick is understanding why you can’t tweak some bits of the recipe but you can others. Cake is a flippant example for what is an incredibly challenging thing to do, particularly as it involves shaking off the ‘must cover content’ mindset. But done right…it’s really good.





Reminder: #ChemEdCarnival #2

Chem Ed Blog Carniva Number 2, 12th April 2018, CERG blog

The next Chem Ed Carnival is being hosted over on the CERG blog (Chemistry Education Research Group). The theme is: What education research has most influenced your practice?

You can find the details: https://rsccerg.wordpress.com/2018/03/12/invitation-to-contribute-to-chemedcarnival-2/

1st Chemistry Education Blog Carnival #chemedcarnival

Hello and welcome to the 1st Chemistry Education Blog Carnival. We’ve had a range of submissions including blogs, webpages and some very creative ways to share content! I’ve expanded the definition of ‘blog’ to include anything I can link to.

The theme was ‘most memorable teaching session’ and that’s about as wide as it comes. It’s also typically the first activity in many teaching courses.

One of the early submissions comes from Dr S who’s in the middle of teacher training. Last year he had the interesting task of lecturing and reflects on that experience: https://scottsned.com/2018/02/23/chemedcarnival/ It’s a heartfelt post with some very valuable advice for anyone stepping into the lecture theatre for the first time.

Dr Patrick Thomson, a teaching fellow,  discusses his first Tea-ching session and the advantages of extending a warm welcome to students.  https://handwavingchemistry.wordpress.com/2018/02/23/blog-carnival-memorable-teaching/

Dr Kristy Turner shares a recent experience using Knowledge Organisers with year 8, an interesting means of helping students learn in a way that could be widely applicable in high schools and beyond. https://dockristy.wordpress.com/2018/02/23/memorable-teaching-chemedcarnival/

I couldn’t make up my mind about my single most memorable teaching session – so many sprung to mind. Some for teaching related reasons, some because of the characters of the students involved! http://chemedblog.kjhaxton.co.uk/blog/?p=5741

The team at Education in Chemistry have solicited contributions from many colleagues. There’s lots of heart warming tales of making a connection with students or students making connections with difficult concepts, in one case through the power of song! https://eic.rsc.org/opinion/memorable-teaching/3008699.article

Dr Michael Seery takes a different approach, thinking back to an experience as a learner not a teacher. Inspiration for good teaching sessions comes from all sources, chemistry related or not.  http://michaelseery.com/home/index.php/2018/02/a-memorable-teaching-scenario-for-chemedcarnival/

Prof Simon Lancaster continues the theme of lessons learned when recalling a particularly memorable chemistry laboratory experiment. It’s lovely to read how Simon’s returned to this particular incident on several occasions across a few years with different perspectives. https://lancaster.withknown.com/2018/the-most-memorable-teaching-session-i-have-participated-in

Dr Michael O’Neill joins us from twitter, also reflecting on an experience as a learner. I’m a big fan of props in teaching so balloon VSPER is really appealing! https://twitter.com/MichaelONeill89/status/967105068448219136

Dr Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh considers a particularly memorable conference presentation where she identified a way she’d love her students to feel in one of her teaching sessions. It’s obvious from the post that she remembers the enthusiasm very clearly! https://clarissasorensenunruh.com/2018/02/21/chemedcarnival-blog-post-1/

I think I found all the submissions but please drop a comment if I’ve missed anyone. I’ve really enjoyed reading the submissions and would like to do this again in the future. If anyone would like to host and come up with a topic, jump in!

And finally: homework! The RSC Twitter Poster competition is back on Tuesday March 6th with a ChemEd thread. If you’ve got some research worth sharing, I highly recommend it. If you just want to lurk, details are available: http://blogs.rsc.org/rscpublishing/2017/12/14/rsc-twitter-poster-conference-2018/