Suzanne Fergus invites us look at our approaches to teaching innovations from four different points of view

'We must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as the world we see, and that the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world.' Stephen Covey

What an immense honour to receive the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Higher Education Teaching Award 2016.


Suzanne Fergus

It is my passion and motivation for teaching that drives me to discover and question how I can create a highly relevant and meaningful learning experience for my students. Technology and other innovative approaches shape my practice. So how can we continue to develop and bring innovation to our professional practice to support our students in their chemistry learning?

Throwing technology into the mix for the sake of something new and trendy is certainly not a strategy to be endorsed. Technology is a powerful asset in education and when the decision to use it is underpinned by relevant pedagogy, the benefits can be impressive. Some of my colleagues might argue ‘why fix what isn’t broken?’ This is an inherent flaw with our interpretive filters whereby we don’t see any incomplete aspects or distortions of our assumptions. We are all subject to this.

To reflect more accurately on our teaching and its impact, viewing through different lenses that would help alert us to alternate perspectives and perhaps challenge some of our own assumptions could be very useful. There are four such lenses through which we can view our professional practice and guide this process of inquiry (adapted from Stephen Brookfield): our own autobiography as a learner, research literature, colleagues’ perceptions and students'.

This has certainly helped me to open my eyes to different viewpoints and provided new and dynamic starting points for teaching innovations that keep my practice varied and fresh.

Own autobiography as learner

This is one of the most important sources of insight available to us, where our personal learning experiences influence our teaching perspective. I am sure that, like me, you can recount positive experiences or chemistry teachers that inspire but equally negative learning experiences to avoid. I vividly remember learning about organic structure determination: at the very beginning of the lecture series we were shown a sample tube containing white powder and asked ‘how can you know what this white powder actually is?’ Truthfully, I was hooked – my curiosity and motivation were given a boost by connecting with why I was learning the topic. This approach of contextualisation, ensuring there is a link to real world scenarios, has been a strong aspect to my teaching developments. Students also appreciate the inclusion of key social issues such as the phenomenon of mephedrone, a psychoactive substance referred to as a ‘legal high’.

Research literature and colleagues’ perceptions

Engaging with the research literature, attending conferences and completing professional development courses are opportunities to deepen our understanding and apply pedagogic theory to practice. My awareness of the high cognitive load associated with chemistry due to the macroscopic and microscopic representations with the use of chemical symbols has had a significant impact on my professional practice. Introducing collaborative online wikis and pre-lab questionnaires helped to support and scaffold the learning experience.

Colleagues can be the best ‘critical friends’ and their shared experiences of the challenges we face can help to extend, reframe and check our own theories of practice.

Students’ lens

Personally this is one of the most important lenses; the student perspective has provided me with the most interesting and sometimes surprising insights. There are the formal student feedback mechanisms within courses that usually occur at the end of teaching activities.

Throwing technology into the mix for the sake of something new and trendy is certainly not a strategy to be endorsed

During a lecture I have asked students to write down their replies and comments to the question ‘what are you finding most challenging with chemistry?’ The replies were anonymous and this helped the students feel safe to answer openly. Some comments were reassuring, the expected challenges appeared, whereas other comments reinforced how the students were thinking and approaching their learning. The feedback strongly highlighted the challenge to create an inclusive environment for this mixed ability cohort, supporting those students who were finding chemistry demanding, while also stimulating and stretching those who risked disengaging and becoming bored.

Identifying the problem is the opportunity to innovate! Successfully introducing an online student collaborative approach using Peerwise allowed students to create and produce their own multiple choice questions. Students had an opportunity to create, analyse and synthesise questions with the additional challenge of coming up with plausible distractors, which was a new approach in their learning.

The lens of our students through student partnership initiatives has been immensely beneficial. I have been fortunate to obtain funding for student summer placements at my university and their engagement in various projects was so valuable. The students researched and critically evaluated online video resources then analysed student feedback comments and produced high quality video resources to support students with their laboratory skills assessments.

Innovation is doing new things and being able to view learning through different lenses can help influence what we choose to do differently. The result may not be what you expect but it will unlock new insights and that is the value.

Suzanne Fergus is principal lecturer in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Hertfordshire, UK