Discussions from the magazine, blog, website and social media


Helping with revision

On the Education in Chemistry blog, Kristy Turner asked teachers how they help students with revision:

I excitedly anticipate this time each year, in my head it is a magical period where the whole specification has been taught and I can re-cover areas the students are less secure in. I imagine lessons packed with eager faces full of questions arising from their well planned revision at home. Then the reality kicks in, a mixed bag of students in front of me, with varying levels of understanding and a barrel load of misconceptions.

Vicky Eddy-Helenek from Albany, US, described a strategy she uses to discover gaps in student knowledge and understanding:

Throughout each unit of chemistry study, I have students build a word wall of important terms, references and formulas. At the end of the year, I can pull out the preserved terms (each is on a strip of paper) and ask them to either build a concept web showing relationships and connections; write a summary of their understanding of the unit; ask which parts they need a refresher in; ask them to do small group work or discuss the terms to clarify every participants’ understanding; or find and discuss relationships between units they might not have appreciated when they were learning.

Having students write or discuss openly allows me to assess where there are gaps or misconceptions that need further revision.

Joan Hope-Jones from the Johannesburg area, South Africa, has a technique for helping students make connections in organic chemistry:

After completing the organic chemistry section of AS-level chemistry, I hand each student a sheet of A3 paper and together we create a flowchart relating all the reactions they have studied. We usually start with an alkene at the centre. I devote a board to this in the classroom that remains for a number of weeks before the exam. Students are each invited to insert a reaction with conditions. They then try to link the various reactions. Each student then goes home and completes their flowchart. We then refer to this while practicing questions from past papers.

Simon Lancaster changed the focus of the discussion and queried how revision is often used:

My preferred revision activity? Ensure the students understand and are not simply exposed to the material in the first instance. If that doesn’t happen then it is not truly revision. It simply becomes an exercise in guessing what answers need memorising to pass the examination.

This theme was also picked up on Talk Chemistry. Julian Dance from Guilford, UK, said:

I too subscribe to the idea that if the understanding and the formulation of new (correct) conceptions was solid then the need for revision would be significantly reduced, if not dispensed with.

As a head of department I am always concerned at the gradual migration towards revision soon into the spring term. I have done some of my own analysis and feel the impact of revision during curriculum time is limited and should be spent on exploring ideas and formulating meaning around the concepts to try and ensure the learning latches.

Teaching unenthusiastic students

Also on the blog, Peter Banks described how he tries to engage unenthused students in chemistry lessons. Here’s how you’ve responded:

Alom Shaha (@alomshaha), from London, UK, kicked off a discussion with this tweet:

Explosive chemistry demonstrations ‘simplistic and short-term solution’ for engaging/enthusing students.

Najaf Ali (@alinajaf), also in London, said:

Just one datapoint but I remember seeing my teacher do these and thinking ‘I have to learn how this magic works!

Over a series of tweets, Alom described why he agreed with Peter:

I loved physics demonstrations and they certainly played a part in my wanting to study the subject further. I think demonstrations are a crucial part of science education, but only one element of a successful teaching approach. I agree with the blog author – you’ve got to offer more than impressive bangs to truly engage/enthuse students.

On Linked In, Adrian Dingle from the greater Atlanta area, US, had a different opinion:

We should never, ever forget that engagement is the primary responsibility of the student, not the teacher! It’s the kid’s job to be involved, and we should be very wary of pandering to ‘unenthusiastic’ kids, when a swift reminder of their responsibilities is all that might be required.

Several agreed. Wade Ellis from Utah, US, did, but questioned where the line should be drawn:

I also agree with Adrian. However, I have wondered if there is a responsibility for a teacher to try and reach unenthusiastic students. If there is a responsibility, how far should the teacher be willing to go before giving up? It seems like there is a balance that should be struck based on the student.

Adrian replied:

It’s not a question of ‘giving up’, it’s a question of demanding a minimum level of engagement. If the kid does not show that, the teacher owes them little or nothing in return.

Inquiry-based learning


In May, Michael Seery took a critical look at inquiry-based learning. He penned a two-part article on our blog.

Writing recently in The Irish Times, William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork, stated that newer teaching methods employed in the UK and Ireland are ‘sharply inferior to the older teaching methods they supplanted’. His article highlighted a 30% difference between educational scores in China, where whole-class teaching is employed, and those locally, where child-centred methods are used.

William Reville referred to an article published in 2006 by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark – Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching.

Some commenters contributed other research results to the debate. Rick Nelson wrote:

Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark updated their 2006 article in 2012 to reflect additional recent research. There they note that once elements of knowledge are moved into student long-term memory and can be recalled, inquiry activities using those elements can help the brain to sort out when information should be recalled intuitively for use in problem solving.

Some teachers, like Susan Hammond on Talk Chemistry, drew their arguments from the work of John Hattie:

As a science department, we have been looking at John Hattie’s Evidence Based Learning. His work is derived from many years’ analysis of tens of thousands of studies, producing one very large metastudy.

He produced a table of intervention types ranked in order of effectiveness, though he does caution not to read anything into small differences. What really stood out for us was that direct teaching, ie teacher led lessons, is effective. Whereas the trendy child-centred learning only fares marginally better than 6 weeks’ summer holiday in raising achievement – in other words it is worse compared to almost anything else.

There were many others who also wrote in support of direct instruction, for example PaulDG on the TES forums:

When I entered teaching I had a strong personal bias in favour [of inquiry-based learning] but I soon realised it just doesn’t work. Direct instruction really is the best way.

However there are many more teachers who see the advantages of inquiry-based learning but prefer to use it as part of a balanced teaching approach. Kuda VJ Murombedzi from Gaborone, Botswana, said:

I am of the opinion that the classification ‘old’ and ‘new’ teaching methods does not snugly fit into the teaching-learning process, especially in these days of abundance in information and accessibility of that information. Both the teacher and the learner should be able to use a hybrid approach to the teaching-learning process; that is to say teacher-centric and learner-centric methods applied, dependent on the subject content and context.

John R Walkup from California, US, put it more succinctly:

It’s not either/or. Select mode based on lesson component at hand.

One theme that came up in the discussions was how much guidance and scaffolding students require to tackle inquiry-based work. Kristy Turner (@doc_kristy) from Bolton, UK, said:

From a schools’ point of view, a certain knowledge foundation is needed before enquiry can [be] truly effective.

However some teachers took an alternative view. Bonnie Yelverton from California, US, said:

In inquiry based learning, the actual inquiry provides prior knowledge. It is the basis for learning. Sometimes ‘prior learning’ gets in the way, in the form of misconceptions. That’s why it’s important for kids to experience something and figure it out on their own.

In considering prior knowledge, Carlie Ransom from the Greater Denver Area in the US, brought up the topic of what makes good inquiry-based teaching:

It is important for students to have background knowledge and have a teacher help them make connections and tie it together, but good inquiry-based teaching methods supply background knowledge (when timely) and must check for understanding multiple times during the inquiry process and help students synthesise their learning.

Dan Thomas from Guelph, Canada, defined the topic further, differentiating between open and guided inquiry.

[In the 2006 paper by Kirschner] they are really attacking an open enquiry approach when compared to direct instruction. I too find a big difference between that and a highly structured approach to enquiry, which is a different pedagogical approach that I do find to be effective.

Anton Tolman from Utah, US, added more on what made inquiry-based teaching effective:

In my humble opinion, one of the reasons that faculty sometimes resist utilising engaged pedagogies is that they are not simplistic tools that one can just hear about and successfully implement. They take a deep understanding of the learning goals and a focus on student learning (rather than the instructor teaching) and then walking backwards to the assignments and activities that will help to achieve that learning. They also need to be scaffolded, building upon prior experiences and knowledge while pushing students to evaluate their own previously held beliefs and ‘knowledge’.

This sounds like a lot of work for educators, however a number of people described how useful inquiry-based learning can be for enriching students’ learning. Neil Goalby from London, UK, wrote:

We also want our pupils to think and talk about science. Open ended activities, enquiries and problem solving enable pupils to think for themselves and explore scientific ideas.

Mike Casey described a higher education perspective:

I think that a case can be made that IBL components should be included as part of degree programmes because they address learning objectives that are hard to achieve in any other way. If you want your students to learn how to apply the scientific method to solve problems, to learn how to locate, assess, and use resources, to learn how to plan projects, to learn how to write, and critique, scientific arguments, etc, an IBL approach would make good sense. Maybe the students won’t acquire as much disciplinary knowledge as they would in a more traditional course design, but they will learn essential generic skills in an engaging and authentic context. I think it would be a great shame if students did not have several IBL experiences, ranging from short IBL activities bolted on to traditional courses, to IBL modules, to genuine research projects, during their programme. However, I am not persuaded that converting a programme entirely to an IBL format would make sense.

Some teachers are clearly convinced of the benefits of inquiry-based learning. Starla Bilyeu from Tulsa, US, said:

Inquiry-based facilitation in learning is effective at all levels of instruction. I use it with college students and elementary students. Utilised appropriately, the learning is internalised and not just regurgitated as is pedagogical instruction.

In his second article, Michael looks more closely at the case for inquiry-based learning. He considers some of the responses to his original post, and concludes:

Inquiry-based learning is a tough task, not least for the teacher. But given the documented benefits in terms of student interest and engagement, as well as the alignment with a learner-centred robust educational theory, it must be one we consider incorporating into our curriculum.

Representing molecular behaviour

In this article in the May issue, we incorrectly attributed figures 2 and 3 to Roy Tasker. The copyright for these images belongs to Spiring Enterprises.