I’ve been reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and lately it’s gotten me thinking about the role of morality in education. If education is a garden, morality is the soil. What implicit moralities best cultivate learning? What keeps thirty students itching for A’s from cornering the teacher in his/her office and demanding that grade?
That’s a little far-fetched, but you see where I’m going. The classroom is bound by certain ethical principles, but what keeps students (or instructors) from violating them? Part of that can be explained by student self-interest: “this content will improve me, so I have incentive to follow the rules,” or “I want the grade, so I’ll go along with what the instructor says.” But there’s good reason to believe that’s not the whole story. For example, many instructors take an arbitrary approach to assigning grades, and for these teachers doing that is in their self-interest: it keeps students off their backs and frees up more time for [writing grants|lab work|time with family|anything else]. Of course, the best instructors know better. They understand that arbitrary grades (e.g. curves) are demotivating and encourage cutthroat behavior in students. They know that students must have a reason to buy into the morality of education, and that many practices in the classroom undercut education’s lofty foundations. What’s the core reason to buy into education, and what practices have evolved to promote that buying in? Consider an evolutionary perspective. Read the rest of this entry »
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” This sentiment nicely sums up the state of chemical education right now. While sequestration threatens the largest sources of funding for chemical education researchers in the US, the literature has been on fire in the past few weeks with some intriguing studies. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get right into it!
First, the bad news. STEM education takes a painful hit in the President’s budget for FY 2014.
The single biggest consolidation proposed this year is in the area of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, where the Administration is proposing a bold restructuring of STEM education programs—consolidating 90 programs and realigning ongoing STEM education activities to improve the delivery, impact, and visibility of these efforts.
Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric–this is almost certainly bad news for American chem ed researchers. It will be interesting to see how existing NSF-funded programs respond to these changes, but it’s almost certain to hurt the proliferation of new programs. It’s worth noting also that this is only a proposed budget, but if President Obama is throwing STEM education under the bus, I don’t see Congress fighting back.
Enough with the bad news! The bright side is that a lot of interesting research is happening these days. I’ve been digging into the general chemistry literature lately for professional reasons, and a very recent study out of Middle Tennessee State University caught my eye. The research addressed student conceptions of gases, focusing on a question that asks about the effects of a temperature change on the particulate nature of helium gas (originally studied by Nurrenben and Pickering). The conclusion of the research is typical: scaffolding and schema-activating designs for assessments improve performance on conceptual problems relative to more vague designs, but the authors were unable to track down the exact source of the performance boost (despite a few controls).
One clue is provided by another recent study: that of Behmke and Atwood on the implementation of problems sensitive to cognitive load theory in an electronic homework system. The authors converted single, multi-step problems into sequences of related problems that “fade” from nearly complete when given to fully incomplete. Using an analytical approach based on item response theory, the authors observed that students exposed to the “statically fading” questions were very likely to perform better on subsequent related problems. The act of breaking a multi-step problem down and exposing its process over multiple problems can improve performance.
Jennifer Lewis and colleagues at USF have written a very important summary of the state of the art in psychometric measurement for chemistry education research. In addition to pointing out the typical methods researchers use to argue for the validity and reliability of survey results, Lewis et al. note that chemistry education research is becoming more interdisciplinary as evidence mounts for theoretical overlap between sub-fields of science education. They also draw attention to the need for qualitative research to complement quantitative efforts (see the MTSU study for a nice recent example of this idea). A nice read right after Lewis’s review is Barbera’s recent psychometric analysis of the Chemical Concepts Inventory.
In other news: a simple approach to assessing general chemistry laboratories; an investigation of apprenticeship in research groups; differential item functioning in science assessments; the evolution of online video in an organic chemistry course; teaching gas laws to blind students. Mouse over the links for full article titles!
Edit: Props to Pat Knerr for forwarding along the SI article.
Every chemistry teacher has moments when students ask…odd questions. I had one such moment last week, when a student hung around after class to ask me what I knew about DMSO (yes organickers, that DMSO). A friend had advised the student to use DMSO on a running-related injury. Organic chemists know DMSO as the world’s most annoying NMR solvent and an oxidant…was there any truth to these claims of pain relief? After lowering the figurative raised eyebrow, I decided to investigate.
DMSO is perhaps the world’s most famous sulfoxide, and it sits on the oxidation ladder between the abhorrent dimethyl sulfide (Me2S) and dimethyl sulfone (Me2SO2). The latter has an interesting medical history of its own, as we’ll see shortly. DMSO may be used as a polar solvent in organic reactions, but it also finds application in the Swern oxidation and other alkoxysulfonium-based oxidations—organickers, check out the Pfitzner-Moffatt oxidation too. All those applications, of course, have nothing to do with the medicinal effects of DMSO. Could a choice reagent for oxidations also have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects? Read the rest of this entry »
What’s new in the world of chemical education in 2013? In this edition of the CE Roundup, I’ll engage in a bit of shameless self-promotion, and we’ll look at articles that shed new light on the costs of publishing, innovations in laboratory instruction, student evaluations, and more.
Let’s get the shameless self-promotion out of the way first. Two weeks ago, the Introductory Organic Chemistry MOOC (massive open online course) kicked off on Coursera. The materials for this course were prepared by myself and my colleagues at UIUC for use with our organic chemistry 1 course for non-majors. I’m leading the Intermediate Organic Chemistry (organic chemistry 2) effort, and although that class hasn’t started yet, I’ve been knee deep in the MOOC world for a while now. I’ve got a whole series of blog posts planned on the MOOC experience, so stay tuned!
What is it about the winter months and great literature articles? Perhaps the cold bores people into writing. Who knows? Either way, the literature’s been very interesting in early 2013.
First, teacher reflection and cognition in the classroom. Reflective teachers generally see better student evaluations than unreflective ones. No surprise there: drivers who actually watch the road are better than those who don’t! But how much reflection is enough? A recent study in Brit. J. Educ. Technol. sheds some light on the question. The authors found that formative (weekly) student evaluations increased teachers’ reflective practice, and that increased levels of the latter lead to higher student evaluations over a multi-year period. Some would say that formative student evaluations could promote a “consumer culture” in education, however. There’s an interesting debate brewing there. In a study focused on science teachers, a team of researchers writing in to J. Res. Sci. Teach. found that teachers’ “noticing patterns”—patterns in their attention during class—indicate the ways in which they frame the classroom. Particular noticing patterns point to particular frames. Furthermore, the authors add, a given teacher is capable of multiple frames, depending on the classroom’s context. Their theoretical ideas are elegantly demonstrated in a video-based study of a high school biology teacher in action.
Laboratory instruction came under the qualitative microscope this month in a report by Bretz, Towns, and co-workers. They studied how instructors of different laboratories prioritize cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling), and psychomotor (doing) learning goals. This work draws attention to a potentially concerning decline in affective learning goals as students move from general chemistry to organic chemistry. In other laboratory news, a simple apparatus for flash chromatography gives results comparable to traditional columns and “obviates the need for students to handle silica gel”, and instructors at South Dakota State University have reported on instructional design for a laboratory sequence aimed at producing student researchers.
The editor-in-chief of J. Chem. Educ. has written an editorial describing the costs of publishing, and rationalizing some recent price increases. It’s worth a look, particularly if you’re interested in the broader forces acting on academic journals these days. Also interesting are the editorials citations, which include familiar language from the journal’s past editors.
As the weather has turned cold (or not), what’s new in the chemical education world? A number of interesting articles have been published this fall. Bruce Albert’s editorial in Science about the damaging effects of shallow learning in science education is a good place to start—using a personal anecdote about his grandson’s biology textbook, Alberts laments the “breadth not depth” approach to content you see across all levels of science education.
Close to my own heart, Marc Loudon and Laurie Parker have published an interesting study of online homework in an organic chemistry course, concluding that studying textbook problems in addition to solving online homework problems provided no benefits to learning versus solving online homework problems alone. From their abstract: “We speculate that this is because the immediate feedback given by the online system more effectively reinforces the topics.” In other educational technology news, Churchill has written recently about design considerations for learning objects that promote exploration and learning of concepts, conceptual model learning objects. Using data from several different studies, he recommends a minimalist design paradigm: design for a small screen, use a single font, avoid audio/video unless they’re the only option, don’t use too many different colors, etc. Structurally, he advocates the logical use of frames to divide up screen space. Another theoretical study using a “Nature of Technology” approach provides design pointers based on philosophical and cultural ideas.
MOOCs continue to dominate the “popular education” scene, although formal studies on MOOCs haven’t yet emerged—look for that to change in the next six months.
In science writing and inquiry news, a study of argumentation in general chemistry laboratory reports has recently been published. Students used the Science Writing Heuristic approach, and the researchers deconstructed students’ arguments to identify their most important elements for performance. Scientific inquiry itself came under the data-mining microscope in a recent Int. J. Sci. Educ. article, which used cluster analysis to examine types of scientific inquiry in a collection of scientific studies.
Other highlights: a fascinating look at physics teachers’ emotions while implementing inquiry-based activities, a learning progression for energy, the importance of speaking up for learning in an active learning classroom, and an item-reponse-theoretical treatment of an international science/math skills assessment.
Your back’s against the wall. Your time is limited, but you’ve got to make a move. You’ve got to do something…but what? This move could make or break you…bring home the win, or send you back to square one. How do you respond?!
To some, the previous paragraph may sound like a scene from an action movie or the climax of a classic sporting event. Students of organic chemistry may find it eerily similar to the feelings they experience during examinations…and chess fanatics out there might hear echoes of their emotions at a critical moment during a chess game. The core idea that unites all of these scenarios is the pressure of prediction—the emotional roller coaster associated with predicting the future. Using our observations of the past to predict the future and choose a “move” is a key skill involved in science, sport, chess and staying alive in an action movie.
Prediction cannot happen without rhyme or reason! Unlike the base instinct for self-preservation modeled by most action heroes, chess and organic chemistry have rules. The rules delineate what we can and cannot do, and thus help limit and direct the thought process. In chess, the rules are very clear: no two opposing pieces can occupy the same square, the game is over when one side’s king is captured, etc. To a master of organic chemistry, the rules of organic chemistry are just as clear: orbitals must overlap for reactions to occur, carbocations cannot serve as electron sources, etc. To a novice of organic chemistry, these rules are understandably much less apparent…worst of all, most instructors of organic chemistry make little to no effort to remedy this problem in the classroom.
Organic chemistry is rarely taught in a way that promotes understanding and creative application of the rules of organic chemical structure and reactivity.
AMC’s The Walking Dead is one of my favorite shows on television these days. On top of excellent acting and a compelling storyline, the show is legendary for its special effects, which hold nothing back in terms of violence and gore. Zombies have taken over the world, and the show follows a small group of human survivors as they cling to life in and around Atlanta. How exactly did a bunch of mindless, flesh-eating, slow-walking undead best the United States military, Interpol, nuclear bombs, etc.? Good question…
Here’s a (somewhat) related question, about a situation just as ugly: how could a subject as compelling as organic chemistry be given as dull a treatment as those currently available on iTunes U? The linked lectures are by J. Michael McBride at Yale, and are (long story short) the “best” organic chemistry lectures available on that platform. The problem? They’re a poster child of God-awful teaching. Where do I even begin…?
Let me start by calmly stating that I have no problem with the content that McBride covers, per se. His content is fine, and cuts a nice swath across a variety of topics. If the student buys in, she’ll leave McBride’s course with a solid awareness of important results and thought processes in many areas of organic chemistry. What he teaches is largely irrelevant, but I take enormous issue with how he teaches.
I probably don’t have to tell this audience that good teaching should reflect how people learn, not how a discipline is structured—or even how knowledge is structured in a professor’s mind. Good teaching must include live practice and feedback, right at the moment of learning, in the classroom. Good teaching must feature concrete, attainable learning goals. Good teaching should be a conversation, not an oration. If it must be an oration, the structure of good teaching should invite the student to consider a problem or challenge her current worldview. McBride’s lectures—and most other organic chemistry lectures I’ve seen online—do none of this. He assumes, erroneously, that his responsibility is simply to say words in class. Even so, his words don’t challenge, confront, or question…his videos are as good as Reusch’s Virtual Textbook of Organic Chemistry (which, by the way, is a phenomenal resource). One might argue that the videos are even worse than text, insofar as they aren’t searchable and may be a waste of the student’s time. In spite of its flaws, Khan’s organic chemistry series does a better job of presenting compelling problems and asking the student to consider them than McBride’s series. That the community of organic chemical educators would relegate good teaching to the likes of Salman Khan is downright embarrassing. That McBride actually taught in a live classroom at Yale is also disheartening!
MOOCs have captured the world’s attention in recent months, which means that online educational content is seeing more scrutiny lately than it usually gets. Some educators have been optimistic about the situation, others cynical. Me? I’m still on the fence, but I welcome the opportunity to have my teaching put under the microscope. In spite of what Bill Gates says, chemistry content online is not what it should be, and pales in comparison to comparable content in…political philosophy, let’s say. Reusch’s VTOC has entered its teen years with no comparable interactive replacement. Opportunities to practice organic chemistry and learn interactively are very few and far between right now. Our situation is frustrating, but inspiring to the extent that we have a lot of room to grow.
Perhaps I’m over-reacting…I have a tendency to do that. Still, I would rather be chemical education’s harshest critic than hear the same legitimate criticisms from outside the field. Would love to hear your thoughts about chemical education’s relation to the MOOC craze, and how you think we’re doing. Thanks for reading!