Skip to main content

I used to fly kites. Now I grow vegetables, teach chemistry and try to convince people (myself included) that spending time online is productive.

The most memorable teaching session I have participated in.

2 min read

With thanks for Katherine for the open invite to participate.

An undergraduate student was refluxing a solution a solution of molybdenum hexacarbonyl and cyclohepatriene, taking the occassional sample and running the IR spectrum. A faculty demonstrator wandered up to them and asked them what they were doing? "Experiment Y", the student responded. "So why are you running the IR spectrum" the demonstrator asked. "To monitor the reaction" the student replied."How will you know if the reaction has proceeded?", the lecturer enquired. "New peaks?", the student offered hopefully. "How many and how will they differ your starting material?" the teacher persisted. "What has happened to the symmetry of the molecule?", "How does replacing carbonyl ligands with alkene donor effect the electron density?", "How will that change the bonding of the remaining CO ligands?", they coached, never instructing, always constructing a pathway for the student to come to their own understanding. "Now, what's the thermodynamic driving force for this ligand subsititution reaction?" the teacher continued...

This was 27 years ago now, I was the student and Manfred Bochmann was the faculty demonstrator. I've learnt four times from this experience. 27 years ago it was probably the first time I was guided to address a problem like an expert chemistry. 18 years ago I took it as a template for my own laboratory demonstrating style. At some point in the last decade I would have started classifying it as scaffolded constructivism. A few weeks ago I got to practice something similar on a leadership and management course and we termed it coaching. 

Thank you Manfred!

Emergency Educational Technology Rations

4 min read

With thanks to David Hopkins for the spark to write this! Ed tech rations

I have resisted the temptation to explore what emergency rations means to the

geeky amateur cyclist. Instead, I seem destined to interpret the expression

through the lens of a geeky iOS ‘MAMIL’ (Middle Aged Man In Lycra) with clinically

diagnosed OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

While I am confessing my deficiencies: after decades with 20:20 vision it pains

me to need to use glasses. Fortunately, Apple did see me coming and have

evolved from the 3.5” 3GS to the 5.5” iPhone 6S Plus at about the same rate as

my eyesight has deteriorated. While smartphones may have expanded

dramatically during this time-frame, clothes designers do not appear to have

noticed. I can no longer fit my iPhone into the breast pocket of my shirt. Actually,

on reflection, maybe clothes designers know what they are doing. If I put it in my

trouser pocket it ruins my natural lines and I have to worry that it will bend. The

6S Plus is therefore often relegated to my bag, the most physically remote phone

I’ve had since I succumbed to the siren ringtone of my first (T-Mobile) Nokia.

You will recall that I have OCD. Mine manifests itself as a fear of leaving things

unlocked, switched on or misplaced. You cannot misplace a phone in a pocket but

out of touch is out of (my) mind.

So my emergency ration is the solution to the disadvantages of a phablet. The

Apple Watch. I am sympathetic to those early reviewers of the Apple Watch who

criticised its dependence on the tethered iPhone. They bemoaned the lack of a

killer application. For me, the little red icon at the top of the screen is the killer

application. No longer do I have to scramble through my pockets, my bag or my

desktop clutter for my mobile phone. If the icon is there, then my phone is nearby.

My phone is safe.

It might be tethered through Bluetooth but the Apple Watch has liberated me from

my iPhone. I no longer have to go to the terrible inconvenience of opening the

case and resting my index finger on the home button if I want to check my alerts.

A quick flick of the wrist and the BBC have brought me the latest ghastly tragedy

to befall my football team. Although quite why Twitter think saying “Hi” to a new

follower is a good idea escapes me.

How close am I to my Apple Watch? If it comes off during waking hours, it’s either

to even the tan or avoid flicks of paint. Sensible and reasonable, I am sure you

will agree. So how about the ghostly haptics? Someone else tell me this is a ‘thing’.

If I take my watch off I will still experience the familiar tapping sensation that tells

me something has happened. When I look down, that piece of me is missing like

a first world imitation of a phantom limb.

What do university professors and road cyclists have in common? They are

obsessed with metrics. The Apple Watch feeds our need for numbers: how fast

our hearts are beating; how many calories we’ve burnt and how many miles

traversed. Is it ironic that at exactly this point in the writing the haptics alert me

that it is an hour since I stood up?

Would I starve without my Apple Watch? No. Would my productivity be dramatically

reduced without it? No. Will I buy the next edition? If they add a gesture-activated

wrist camera, definitely.

Reasons Abbreviations Nix Teaching

2 min read

There comes a time in an academic's career when they stop having to apply for talks. Instead they can rely upon invitations derived from a more-or-less deserved reputation. I am lucky, I receive lots of national and international invitations. So the home learning and teaching day is an opportunity to give something back and consider something new. Since one of our themes was Research Led Teaching, I thought I would talk about a pet peeve and RANT (Reasons Abbreviations Nix Teaching). Interestingly enough I sit on the organising committee for the L&T day but at UEA there's no special treatment, I had to submit. As you can see below I had a little fun with the sub-title:

Reasons Abbreviations Nix Teaching

Fwiw tbh I cba. C u in LT!


How long did it take you to process the sentence above? I suspect it was considerably longer than it would have done if I had written it in plain English because most of us are not used to text speak. I will discuss what research into teaching tells us about how we process writing. My thesis is that abbreviations and acronyms are the scourge of research-led teaching. They are a gratuitous and disastrous waste of our precious working memory. What is familiar laboratory slang to you is an obstacle to your student’s understanding. And if I encourage you to translate one abbreviation on a Powerpoint slide before you next teach then I will have succeeded.

Unfortunately this talk will never see the light of day. It was rejected by the selection panel! You cannot become an academic without learning to take rejection on the chin but I am taking this one badly. Too facetious - well then it could have been edited! But am I wrong? Are abbreviations not a handicap to understanding? 


The chemist’s guide to concept inventories

4 min read

Synthetic chemists prepare chemicals. As a synthetic chemist you have a choice: you can follow the literature procedure to the letter every time and expect to obtain the same product in the same yield with the same purity; whereas the innovator is constantly seeking to improve the yield and purity and turns each new synthesis into an experiment. Chemists can use a weighing balance to definitively determine the yield and a myriad of methods assess the purity. The target thresholds they set may be arbitrary but they know definitively when they have met them.

The characterisation techniques routinely applied to the teacher of chemistry are the module evaluation and the summative assessment.  The module evaluation can be frustratingly uninformative when trying to determine whether any real improvement has taken place, barely altering despite radical overhauls of teaching practice.[1] The summative assessment is a very problematic means of determining the impact of teaching innovation. To what extent is the assessment really measuring the learning objectives? If the teacher sets the assessment how can we eliminate conscious or unconscious bias? How do we separate learning from examination technique? Has the student acquired an enduring conceptual understanding or have they merely crammed some content that will be forgotten once the examination is over?

Ideally we would confidently assess a change between the beginning and end of a module, not in what a student knows but in what they understand. Concept inventories are designed for exactly this purpose. Determining conceptual understanding requires a thorough investigation of the challenges students face and the misconceptions they may harbour. This insight can only be obtained through extensive interviews with representative students. The result of these interviews subsequently informs the construction of a multiple choice question instrument. Subject experts are then consulted to ensure validity, meaning that the questions address the intended concepts. The whole instrument is then subjected to rigorous reliability testing on a large and diverse panel of students.

The development of a concept inventory and its initial application is typically the major part of an education-focused doctoral studentship. As a consequence, the number of such inventories is very limited and development can only take place in countries such as the US, where the national funding councils support discipline-based pedagogical research.

In Chemistry at UEA, we were fortunate to be granted permission to employ a bonding representations inventory[2] developed by Luxford and Bretz. Their permission was contingent on the inventory not being openly published or presented electronically. This reflects the value of these instruments and the harm to their reliability that facile access would cause. The instrument was chosen on the basis that it was the most appropriate for our module. It was made very clear in seeking informed consent, that the role of the test was purely formative for our students and sought to improve teaching. At both the beginning and very near the end of the teaching year test was administered. The answer papers for the first sit were kept in a filing cabinet and not marked until after the second sit. No attempt was made to focus the teaching on the questions in the instrument. There was no opportunity for students to explicitly prepare for either test and no notice provided for them to revise.

It was with some trepidation that we compared the results of the pre- and post-teaching inventory marks! Calculating Hake’s normalized gain metric,[3] we found a positive learning gain of 0.19. Regression analysis revealed that students who did worst first time around saw the greatest improvements. These are already fascinating insights but in the next stage of the project we will see whether they correlate with results from other indicators such as self-efficacy and traditional assessments.

Concept inventories will never become routine instruments of assessment. Not only is their coverage very limited but their costs are prohibitive. Instead their value to projects such as ours lies in benchmarking other more practical proxies of learning gain such as self-efficacy. In making these comparisons we are illuminating the relationship between different facets of learning gain and the impact of teaching strategy.


[1] last accessed 16/12/16

[2] last accessed 16/12/16

[3] last accessed 16/12/16

What does #Brexit and #ElectionDay tell us about education?

2 min read

The evidence-informed answer to my title questions is nothing. However, what it has told me is that opinion now Trumps evidence. This is beautifully epitomised by this interview

I no longer believe I can beat them so I will vent with a apocalyptic vision of my own.

I have spent the last decade slowly edging away from traditional lecturing towards an evidence-based active learning strategy. And until last year I had managed to do so without compromising on popularity. 

I have always tried to level with my students, to explain why we were working in the lecture theatre. However, mid- and final- evaluations revealed that my practice, indeed the evidence on which it was based was contested. "Lancaster thinks active learning works, he is wrong.", "Lancaster expects understanding he doesn't simply provide solutiions". Can you see the parallels? Now the UK has the TEF, which will measure everything but how much meaningful learning has taken place. 

It is much easier to be popular than effective. And to take issue with Al Gore, we live in an age where the truth is no longer inconvenient. If you don't like it then just invent your own.

And yet in the UK it is the young who protest the loudest about the injustice of Brexit. Will they make better decisions? To be frank, I think our current shallow, simplistic and popularist approach to education is setting us up for misjudgements that will make 2016 look like a good year.

Addendum "post-truth" is Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year 2016

What is success?

3 min read

On Friday I embarked on a new adventure. My Bear Grylls is Mrs Stephanie Allen, proprietor of the Training Spa and guru of leadership AND management.  Stephanie has encouraged us to create a learning journal or blog our journey towards the El Dorado of a Diploma in Leadership in Management (Level 5 no less).

We were invited to bring an object that held special meaning. I choose . A rubber duck that I 'won' at the European Chemistry Societies Congress in Seville in early September. Since then we have been near inseparable and our fun has been documented on Twitter. is a pretext to share the wonder of chemistry, the science of everything we are, we eat and we see.

In the picture is surveying a VARK questionairre. VARK is the seductive idea that different students have different learning styles. The problem is, there is no evidence for this assertion. It would still be fine if was solely used as a vehicle to encourage us to reflect on the learning process. Unfortunately, it is widely taken to its logical conclusion and used to label learners as particular types. If learners then respond by rejecting teaching that isn't in their chosen style the consequences are dire. Read Pashler, 2008 before succumbing to the siren voices and acquiring some thoroughly unhelpful embedded beliefs.

I wouldn't dream of sharing the very personal experiences of my fellow students but it was great to be part of a very diverse group of people sharing the common goal of self improvement.

In her closing remarks Stephanie invited us to reflect on what Success would look like for us. Here I suspect our little class will hold widely differing aspirations. As a Professor of Chemistry and Director of Learning and Teaching I am expected to have certain leadership and management skills. In HE you can gain a lectureship role without ever being taught to teach so why on earth would we require a course in how to lead. At least for teaching new recruits have compulsory courses. I make this point not to slate the system but to explain that for me this is a not a directly career enhancing step. My senior colleagues are more likely to berate me for wasting my time than commend me for self-improvement.

So why am I doing it? A question I will no doubt ask myself many more times, particualrly during late nights finishing assignments. It boils down to: because if I don't put up, I will need to shut up. Poor practice isn't just costing my department money its leaching morale. There has to be a better way. There has to be a better way.

So what will success look like. I'll settle for one person taking me to one side and saying thank you. "Thank you for facilitating my career." or simply "Thank you for chairing a meeting in which I felt we achieved something." I'll settle for never feeling like an imposter again. 


4 min read

The 2015-16 academic teaching year has been a challenging one. The Teaching Excellence Framework is coming and my institution won funding to look at the thorny issue of measuring learning gain. My contribution to the bid was focussed on Concept Inventories. Our goal was to compare their indications with those of classic grades and self-efficacy measures. My arena was our first year inorganic chemistry module. Ethical clearance revolved around this being beneficial to the students and the added focus on confidence in answering conceptual questions was a relatively small modification of my usual teaching practices, which used flipping techniques to faciliate active learning.

Perhaps it was a small increase in the number of questions posed. Quite possibly it was resentment at the less-than-obvious benefits of recording confidence with clickers. Maybe this was the most exam-obsessed cohort I have ever taught. In practice it was inevitably some combination of all of these. Whatever, it was, I lost the confidence of too many of them; as has just been revealed by the module evalutation. Oh, they still thought I was knowledgable, they still thought I was enthusiastic. However, the fact that I provided screencasts in advance of my contact and spent the lecture time trying to help them understand was not catering to their perception of my role and that of the lecture in providing something to cram. Indeed, the more students learn and the less they feel they have to rote memorise for an examination the less valuable they seem to regard the course. What lunatic ideology has created an education system that looks like this? In my case the effort invested in teaching is inversely proportional to the module evaluation scores. Is it any wonder I lack faith in the TEF?

What has this got to to with ? Well, imagine trying to introduce the methodology to this cohort, on this module, between the end of the year long teaching and the examination. I invited all the class of over 100: 12 expressed interest; 6 turned up. We discussed the idea of informed consent and 3 were prepared to sign the forms. I had decided to focus our session on fuzzy problems. The sort real scientists face every day, not the sort you encounter in exam papers. I tried to tie them loosely to the syllabus and the examination but I had already done a dedicated revision session and had no intention to repeat it. 3 fully engaged, 1 played a disproportionately large role. 0 thought it was an appropriate use of their time at this juncture of the course. I cannot help sympathising with them, perhaps this was a touch self-indulgent. In compensation I promised yet another pure examination question walk through and about 25 turned up. On this occasion, I think I gave them just what they expected from me. No doubt those survivors from my 6 cohort wondered why I did not simply do this the first time round.

Whatever the merits of the pedagogy, and I thought was great, this was the wrong module and definitely the wrong time of year. Indeed the repercussions of this yearlong module experience have rendered me averse to any further pedagogical experimentation with similar cohorts. It's tempting to reflect on what these experiences mean for Higher Education where the least common denominator is student satisfaction and the hardest thing to demonstrate is real learning. promises to deliver something I believe our students really need but unless it features in an exam I am not sure I will be able to convince them no matter how passionate and enthusiastic my delivery.

(Just) before connected courses meets bonding, structure and periodicity.

2 min read

My claim to fame is that I sat on the coach next to Jonathan Worth when he travelled to claim his 2013 National Teaching Fellowship award. For me, that has proven to be a  life-shaping serendipitous event. Nobody does OPEN like Jonathan. 

Since then I have bumped into Jonathan a number of times and done my best to feed the legend on Twitter and through nominations for keynotes addresses. He tells me he doesn't really do many of those, so it must be merely a coincidence that I constantly find myself in his audience and under his spell.

When Jonathan suggests you might want to be involved in one of his projects you're well advised to agree. Even if the notice is somewhat short and the project is rather far from your comfort zone.

Which brings us to the connected courses pedagogical model. How can I possibly make this work for my students? Because much as I admire Jonathan I can't ask my students to engage if there is nothing in it for them. And in May, after the syllabus proper has finished! It cannot be summative and I cannot compel students to attend and it needs to compete with traditional exam preparation.

My answer has been to formulate something related to revision. But what? I spent the first 20 weeks encouraging the whole cohort to look at the big conceptual picture. I then relent and have spent the last week explicitly walking through examination questions. The Ccourses model lends itself to problems not content. 

In chemistry, real problems require imagination and creativity. So I sought out long-term mentor Tina Overton. As always Tina has come-up-trumps with some fuzzy problems. They are fuzzy, there is no definitive absolutely correct answer but they certainly present an excellent vehicle for some chemistry that both revises but also expands upon bonding, structure and periodicity and connects to other parts of our chemistry degree.

Now to see if anyone turns up... I've had 3 apologies this afternoon already!

Information sheet for Connected Courses Project

4 min read

Authored and provided by Jonathan Worth and Anne Preston

Information Sheet for Phonar Accelerator Open and Connected Class


We would like to invite you to take part in a project that uses some of the digital environments and their networks less often associated with traditional teaching and learning.  Before you decide to provide your consent for this, it is important for you to understand what it will involve. Please take time to read the following information carefully.


What is this project about?

The project studies the teacher’s teaching and the learner’s learning, both within the classroom and online in associated social spaces like Twitter, Instagram etc and via blogs.


What is the purpose of this research?

The project sets out to identify where the best learning happens within the traditional classroom with access to the internet and online in social environments. It does this from both the learners perspective , so how might we understand how and where our learning happens and also from the teachers perspective, so how might we be better teachers, who can teach both with the internet and of the internet.


Who is conducting this research?

This research is being conducted by me, Jonathan Worth in collaboration with your instructor. I have over twenty years experience working as a photo journalist and am aware of the associated difficulties that some communities have in participating in their own representation. I am very experienced in discussing difficult topics in both closed and public environments and managing those trust relationships. I am also a UK National Teaching Fellow and so speak on education matters and act as mentor to other teachers.


Who are we looking for?

Learners and teachers of any age willing to try both the technologies and techniques detailed and then share their experiences of doing so.


How would the participant take part and what would happen in the class?

The session’s are framed by big questions but then move the learner quickly to action. Each session aims to provide the learner with a practical tool (new skill) and a thinking tool (new perspective). Emphasis is placed on peer support and sharing thoughts, both reactive (via Twitter) and reflective (by blogging), both with the class room, and with the international class network.


What information (data) will you be collecting?

We would like to:


o   collect teacher and learner information through an online questionnaire prior to the course start

o   collect teacher and learner information through an online questionnaire at the course end

o   document the participant’s activities in the different channels by collecting their class contributions onsite (in the class) and online (via social media environments like Twitter and blogs).






Are there any risks?

This study is of minimal risk to participants. Should you feel distressed or uncomfortable as a result of participating in the class, you can bring it to our attention and we will ensure that every effort is made to address your concern in order to ensure the process is an enjoyable and positive experience for all involved.


How will the information I give be kept and used?

The information listed above will form part of academic and non-academic conference presentations and publications about the project. The consent form attached to this information sheet details the different levels of agreement which you can select as regards the extent to which you consent for this information to be shared via these different channels. The information will be stored securely at Open Lab, Newcastle University.


What if I change my mind or have questions?

Its important that you know that at any time, even during or after the class that you can ask questions, stop taking part, or withdraw from the class completely.


If you have any questions please contact either myself   Jonathan Worth or Anne Preston


School of Computing Science | Open Lab | Floor 3 | Newcastle

University | 89 Sandyford Road | Newcastle upon Tyne | NE1 8HW


or by email:






After reading this information, if you would like to take part in the project, please complete the informed consent form. You will be provided with a copy of the form for your own records and the one copy will be kept by  me. 

#blimage challenge

1 min read



I was sent  this delightful image by social media guru Sue Beckingham @suebecks regarding something called . Now, call me clueless, but I think I am supposed to find some deep meaning in the image.

Sue's image is the intersection of two lines. In itself a poweful symbolism for someone like myself working at the intersection between teaching chemistry and the scholarship of learning and teaching. However, this image shows us that even lines apparently perpendicular to one another do not have to intersect predictably. I am that person-hole cover. I have the potential to rotate my persepective to diverge from the predictability of confluence and strike off in a new direction.