ViCE/PHEC18 Reflections

Last week marked my fourth visit to ViCE/PHEC, and as usual I’ve ended up writing multiple essays to try and capture my thoughts and some of the ideas I want to try over the next year. Then binning 90% of it.

Our first plenary was from Professor Murdoch-Eaton, Dean of Medical Education at Sheffield. In the first talk was mention of an “Educational Alliance”, a paradigm that’s grown out of the idea of the Theraputic Alliance: In a therapeutic alliance, patient and doctor work together to establish limits, milestones, and progression to a healing process – with the patient on-side, the biggest battle is won. Translating this to education is a standout example of a signature pedagogy being influenced by features of the profession doing the signature-ing. It also reminded me of the trajectory of ASIST training, where it’s not sufficient to lead a person to safety, but to find and feed within them a desire to become safe themselves. Chemistry as a whole doesn’t tend to focus on affective characteristics of learning, but get the student on-side and everything else will follow.

I picked up a dangerous idea for the back-burner: using peer and self-assessment more widely. To incentivise student engagement with self-assessment: If the self-assessment and a tutor assessment are within 5%, award the higher of the two marks. Even harder to sell on a quality assurance standpoint but deliciously-elegant, a final element of trust used in medical teaching: have longer assignments double-peer-assessed and self-assessed. If all marks are close enough, an academic never even sees the work.

Woven through the conference from the aforementioned plenary, and in one of the talks from Chris Armstrong, was the idea of feedback literacy in students. Armstrong asks students in a pre-lab to identify areas of improvement, based on previous feedback – and Murdoch-Eaton asks students “what do you want feedback on” when submitting assignments. In both cases, the responses may initially be somewhat shallow due to low assessment literacy, but it really helps set and establish a culture of engagement.

Chris also presented some really nice work on reducing cognitive load in the laboratory with shorter, visually-enhanced lab manuals, putting a lot of the supportive information into pre-labs – an idea I’ve been tinkering with since the Seery review last year. The lab manual is left as a short procedural checklist, flowchart, and hazard info – developed by former students, who are well experienced in interpreting our manuals. My first instinct, to worry about reducing the lab to a cookery class, betrays the reason why labs often have an unmanageably high cognitive load: people like me refusing to simplify the instruction. Johnstone was advocating for the removal of superfluous details decades ago – students don’t need to know the name or structure of a pH indicator at the exact moment they use it, only its function and purpose.

Sticking with the theme of student empowerment and laboratory support, I also got some assurances from Sweta Ladwa, who’s been giving students space in the lab to produce technique videos. She made the case that the correct technical terminology is less important than accessibility – using the language of the students themselves. This, I realise, was my major internal stumbling block to student video production.

Mossy Kelly talked about the ways students handle and use various visualisations and representations from electrodynamics. The physics was busy sailing over my head, but then an astute question pointed out that the multiple visualisations of electrodynamics are analogous to Johnstone’s Triangle, and a common theme sprung to life: the definition of an expert is someone who can interconvert between different representations unconsciously. This is the most beautiful conceptual link between chemistry teaching and physics teaching I’ve ever seen, and the perfect reason for why the alliance of conferences is greater than the sum of its parts.

There was a good report from Annabell Cartwright about lecture capture, confirming what some of us know already: attendance at recorded lectures only goes down when the lecturer’s style  incorporates no elements of active learning. Chalk-n-talk or read-from-the-textbook tend to co-express with academic administrative clout – so the debate over lecture capture will doubtless rage on, well above the pay grade of those of us who already get great benefit from it. I’ve never given an uncaptured lecture, and while I currently have no access to things like heatmaps and viewing statistics, this sort of feedback is vital for iterative teaching improvement and I look forward to my own institution’s evolution on this front.

Andrea Sella finished us off with an exhortation to be better with our outreach. To reduce science into a series of bangs and flashes, with no interwoven narrative, is to sell ourselves short. Knitted through this was a narrative on air pollution, personal reflections on a broadcasting career, and a few choice exocharmic demonstrations – that is, a demonstration that increases the net joy in the room. This is what makes Andrea one of the ambassadors of chemistry, and I am convinced there must be some mistake it seems he has never given the RI Christmas lecture.

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