Reflections on 2019 Teaching: Student Nanocrystals Presentations
This post tries to capture my reflections on a piece of new teaching I tried this year: student-led presentations on nanoparticle characterisation techniques.
My (11x1h) lecture course in nanocrystals sits within a FHEQ Level 7 module taken by MChem Chemistry with Nanotechnology students (and only by them – this is a programme-unique module). As this programme is winding down, I had only 6 students this year.
6 students is a really nice number, and it seemed a real shame to teach the course didactically. On the other hand, my workload model allows me 2h to prepare and deliver each session, and I was recovering from some surgery over Christmas. I was looking for ways to support excellent student learning in a way that I could fully commit to. This meant that the focus would have to fall upon student (rather than staff) work, but in a time-pressured semester whose main focus is the MChem project.
I decided to remove my lecture content on characterisation techniques and replace them with student presentations on these techniques. I hoped that this would help them develop their presentation skills (which aligns with not only a valued employer skill but also the MChem project assessment strategy), but also that it would align with their content knowledge. I have never run an SEM experiment, but some of my students have. This seemed like a chance to value their expertise.
The assessment strategy is essentially fixed by the RSC, and I had to use an exam question to assess the students. I decided to make the content ‘skippable’ – a mandatory Part A question addressed core nanocrystal material. Part B involved advanced Problem Solving based on authentic data. Part C presented students with a specific unseen nanoparticle (e.g. a core-shell Pt@Fe sphere), an unseen set of important sample properties (e.g. dispersity, aspect ratio, elemental composition), and a list of characterisation techniques. Students were challenged to select and justify two techniques which could be used to analyse the sample for the specific properties.
In the first lecture I explained the course structure and asked students to volunteer to present on two techniques form a list of 14. One student volunteered for three, and I took the leftover one.
I then delivered six didactic lectures on the core nanocrystal material. The weekly contact with students established rapport, and I took a few minutes to communicate presentation expectations throughout this time. I focused on mechanics (timings, PowerPoint, space for questions) and purpose (“what can this technique tell us about a sample of nanoparticles?”). I emphasised that the content was ‘skippable’, but also that it could be useful practice for their MChem presentations.
After each presentation (plus questions), I invited students to give presentation feedback on their peer. I directed them to be supportive and constructive (e.g. by identifying effective aspects; suggesting specific actions which might improve the presentation). I uploaded student slides to the VLE, but did not record their presentations. To close each session, I gave them a question in the exact format of the exam about an unseen nanoparticle/property, challenging them to link the techniques they had discussed to a practical application.
Most students engaged enthusiastically with the activity. They presented from a position of authority (often teaching me things about techniques they were using routinely), and the quality of post-presentation discussion was very high; I wonder if the inter-student rapport allowed them to ask questions a bit more freely. I ended up closing the feedback by essentially affirming what the other students had said, though sometimes challenged or added critique. The big content message of the discussions was that composition and morphology usually need to be analysed independently.
In terms of skills, I was thrilled to see how students learned from each other. In the first set of presentations, someone found the official University PowerPoint slide templates (which are very swish), and others followed. The crowding of slides became noticeably rarer, and students became confident enough to trust that they could explain a complex diagram in the session without annotating it on the slide. More difficult to articulate was the increase in the overall presentation quality, which was deeply pleasing.
My own presentation was better for having watched my students. I presented size exclusion ICP-MS as a starter-main-dessert menu of column-process-analysis. This simple model was a nice vehicle to discuss an example from the literature on AuIn nanocrystal growth, showing the changing Au:In ratio at different nanoparticle sizes.
Not everyone engaged with the presentations, and occasionally we were expecting to hear from someone who didn’t appear. This wasn’t problematic in terms of content coverage because the exam question allowed students to choose around the specific techniques (or indeed the whole techniques question). Informed by earlier Scholarship on student attendance, I know that the most common reason for absence is illness. I wonder, though, if the competing pressure of project work trumped non-essential contact time, or if students felt anxious about speaking in public (I have only recently read this marvellous article on anxiety in assessment). I tried hard to create a warm, supportive environment, but it is also possible that I alienated students somehow.
I was in the room while my students brought me weekly evidence of their developing skills: it was joyous. Their mastery of the material wildly exceeded my already-high expectations, and their supportive group dynamic was something I had the chance to observe and value through sessions which levelled the power dynamic fairly effectively.
I cannot comment on the exam performance, as the results are still under embargo. Nor can I glean meaningful data from the University’s teaching evaluation processes, which are aimed squarely at numerically evaluating the module’s overall performance rather than my (quarter-module) contribution. But I am proud of my teaching and prouder of my students; I feel that I helped them to develop meaningful skills in a scientifically complex setting.