Chemical Education Roundup, 4-23-13

“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).

cartoon-sledge-hammer-guyOne 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!


Chemical Education Roundup, 2-9-13

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.

Other news: a really nice piece on learning progressions in Science; a perspective on the scale of acidity; development and evaluation of a chemoinformatics curriculum.

Chemical Education Roundup, 12-11-12

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.

Chemical Education Roundup, 10-14-12

What’s new in the world of chemical education this fall? Evidence is mounting that the community is taking something of a breather and re-examining basic assumptions, which is always a good thing. @RethinkChemEd is a new account on Twitter that I would encourage readers to check out. Ten Dichotomies We Live By is a must-read, which examines the dichotomies at the root of most chemical educators’ thinking and how they influence research and teaching. Somewhat off the beaten path, but still fundamental, a recent J. Res. Sci. Teach. article examines the nature of scientific argumentation in the classroom. The authors here recognized the great importance of scientific argumentation in the classroom, but identified several barriers to the application of scientific argumentation by students. Inquiry approaches to the teaching laboratory come to mind, but even these face challenges, as a recent Int. J. Sci. Teach. article suggests.

In recent years, a number of groups have taken up very long-term, mixed-methods studies that use qualitative research approaches to establish a foundation for subsequent quantitative work. The absolute master of this approach is, in my opinion, Bretz, who has notably addressed acid-base reactions and enzyme-substrate interactions using qualitative-then-quantitative work. The primary goal here is to identify alternative conceptions via interviews with students, then to rapidly nip them in the bud in subsequent semesters using survey instruments validated by the initial qualitative work. Bretz and McClary’s recent work on acid-base chemistry is a masterpiece in this field—definitely worth a look!

Educational technology research marches on. I had originally planned on an entire post on social media in education, but instead, I’ll just point you to a nice review of research on microblogging in education published earlier this year in Brit. J. Educ. Technol.—heck, the entire issue is an awesome look at social media in the classroom. Exciting news this month for chemists interested in ed tech: Jmol has been ported to Javascript! Check out the demo of “JSmol” here. Without too much comment I have to say that JSmol is a technological dream for chemical educators, since it opens the door to interactive models on all manner of portable devices.

Other random highlights: oral examinations in the undergraduate organic chemistry curriculum (!?) piloted by Mark Lautens (!?) at the University of Toronto; William Wulf’s Responsible Citizenship in a Technological Democracy course (mentioned in a letter to Science); a closer look at virtual chemistry laboratories in Res. Sci. Educ.; and an article on FoldIt, one of my favorite educational time-wasters.

Chemical Education Roundup, 7-22-12

Has it really been almost a year since I last published a roundup? Wow. I confess that I’ve been putting much more effort recently into another project, The Organometallic Reader. With BCCE 2012 coming on soon, it seems an appropriate time to start the roundup train going again. I can’t make it to BCCE this year, unfortunately, but the e-program looks fascinating. Follow my man Jeff Raker on Twitter for nods to talks he finds interesting.

So what’s new in the world of chemical education research? What are the cool jams? What is everybody up to? Here are some of my favorite papers over the past year, in no particular order.

On the theoretical side, all organic chemists should check out the hybrid orbital controversy that erupted in the pages of J. Chem. Educ. earlier this year. At issue is whether hybrid orbitals are “real” and whether they should be taught to general and organic chemistry undergraduates. Rebuttals to the original paper brilliantly come to the defense of hybrid orbitals. As an educator, I feel more confident teaching and discussing hybrid orbitals with students after reading this series.

I’ve been waiting on this one for a while: in April, Grove & Cooper’s article on representational competence while drawing organic reaction mechanisms was finally published. Although the papers’ results left me wanting more, the authors’ conclusions will resonate with any organic chemistry teacher. They found that many students avoid using mechanistic approaches to solving organic chemistry problems when mechanisms are not the direct goal, as in “predict-the-product” questions. However, among students who did draw mechanisms, a disturbing trend emerged: the proportion of students who drew nonsensical mechanisms containing cyclic electron flow actually increased with time! On the positive side, the most notable trend over time is a decrease in “nucleophile-attacks-nucleophile” and “electrophile-attacks-electrophile” mechanisms. Still, the (understandable) disrespect that students develop for physically correct mechanisms over time is staggering. Organic chemical educators must be relentless! Continue reading →

Chemical Education Roundup, 8-16-11

It’s been a while since I’ve done a roundup! The world of chemical education has been relatively quiet over the last month, although a few interesting things have happened (mostly in education-at-large). A while back, I blogged about Moskovitz and Kellogg’s intriguing idea of “double-blind science writing“—setting up laboratory experiments and reports so that neither students nor graders had an expectation of what their results should be. The aim of the exercise is to rip the bed of procedural and predictive comfort out from under students’ (and graders’) feet. Such a setup, argue the authors, forces students to use well-supported, rational arguments in lieu of the regurgitative, droning garbage that one usually sees in lab reports, and forces graders to evaluate students’ arguments as arguments—just as they would evaluate an academic paper.

On July 29, Science published a brief retort to the Moskovitz paper by Michael Goggin, a physics instructor who argues…

The first priority should be ensuring that the students get the correct result; their ability to articulate that result is secondary. (emphasis mine)

Goggin’s stated objection is that Moskovitz’s approach aims to teach writing more than science. However, in my opinion, a sufficiently open-minded scientist should take issue with Goggin’s assumption that the ideal lab experiment has “the correct result.” On the contrary, conservative experiments with spelled-out “correct results” lead students to believe that a career in science consists of proving what is already known. As any blue-blooded scientist knows, the opposite is true—most scientists spend their careers convincing others that their work is new! The work of undergraduates does not have to be new per se, but it should be new enough to them that constructing a convincing argument requires learning, not just regurgitation. Moskovitz’s approach to scientific writing is thus a step in the right direction. In a response to Goggin, Moskovitz and Kellogg offer this argument and others (among them: lectures give ample opportunity for students to find “correct answers”) in support of their ideas.

A little closer to home for me personally, Neil Selwyn has written an intriguing editorial in the British Journal of Educational Technology about the need for “pessimism” in the field. I put “pessimism” in quotes because what Selwyn argues for is less pessimism and more “healthy skepticism.” Selwyn states (truly) that there is an obsession among educational technologists with the use of technology as representing “progress” in education. Technology use seems to be associated with progress everywhere else in our lives—why should education be any different? Of course, in all aspects of human life, technology has its downsides. Selwyn argues (again, truthfully) that educators that use technology are often blind to the limitations, pitfalls, and “everything old is new again”-ness of what they do. How much in educational technology is actually new, he asks? Less than we think. ETs need a fresh challenge, a kick in the pants, a wake-up call that alerts us to the fact that what we’re doing may not be all it’s cracked up to be—which could be a good thing! Connections to past scholarship (and challenges to move beyond it) will only do good for the field of educational technology in the long run.

Other news and editorials: an interesting study of central nervous system drugs using calculated electrostatic potential energy surfaces, the harsh realities of narcissism and grade inflation, and a piece from the EIC of the Journal of Chemical Education on striking a balance with assessment. If you haven’t already, read about the epic standardized-test cheating scandal in Atlanta referenced in the last article.

Chemical Education Roundup, 7-4-11

Happy independence day! A brand-spanking-new issue of Chemical Education Research & Practice found its way into my RSS reader list this week, so there’s plenty to talk about for this week’s roundup.

Let’s begin with a paper that gives multiple-choice tests in chemistry a second look. A lot of educators are nagged by the feeling that multiple-choice tests focus on factual understanding and memorization rather than conceptual understanding. One reason for this, argues George DeBoer in a recent CERP paper, is that typical analyses of multiple-choice tests treat them as dichotomous—every answer is either right or wrong, and the incorrect choices are lumped together and thrown out. In most cases, however, instructors deliberately design incorrect items (also known as “distractors”) to highlight incorrect lines of reasoning. If this is the case, we have a lot to learn from incorrect answers!

DeBoer applied Rasch modeling to a series of multiple-choice tests whose distractors were designed to pinpoint common chemistry misconceptions. Like item response theoretical models, Rasch models assign ability levels to students and difficulty levels to problems. The probability of a correct response on item x by student a is related to the difference between a‘s ability parameter and x‘s difficulty parameter. DeBoer’s model is even more finely grained, as it specifies probabilities for each choice on each item. Because each choice highlights a different misconception, one can plot the relationship between overall ability level and the probability of exhibiting some misconception (e.g., see the graph below). Cool stuff!

Misconceptions as a function of ability level

In other news, Penn et al. have validated the usefulness of concept maps as a measure of understanding in organic chemistry, using correlations to problem-set scores and final course grade. To generate the maps, they used a freely available concept-mapping tool called Cmaps.

The Journal of Computing in Higher Education has begun a special issue on interactions in distance education, and the first paper from that issue folds together two studies that address how different instructional strategies facilitate group interaction in online classrooms. The studies used the SOLO taxonomy and Community of Inquiry framework to evaluate instructional strategies; the results were largely complementary and fit together nicely in Kanuka’s article.

Finally, check out my friends’ blog on surviving in the wonderful, wild midwest at Adventures in the Midwest!