By Suzanne Fergus
This blog post is from an interview with Professor Tina Overton, Director of LITE (Leeds Institute of Teaching Excellence). Among her achievements, Prof. Overton was a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Education at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and has been the recipient of multiple awards, including the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Higher Education Teaching Award and a National Teaching Fellowship.
Whether a complete beginner to chemistry education research and dipping your toe in the water or someone already doing innovative interventions and ready to take the next step, this blog post will share Tina’s open and frank advice and suggestions on ways to direct your progress. I know there will be at least one golden nugget from Tina that you can apply to develop and shape your reputation and scholarship.
Most newcomers to chemistry education research will be familiar with national conferences such as Variety in Chemistry Education (in the UK) where there are opportunities to present a poster or an oral bite and then perhaps translate that idea or project into a research paper. It’s this final step that can cause a roadblock, “oh I’m not ready for that” or “how do I pull it all together?”. Imposter syndrome raises its head, that sinking doubt and it’s more common than you might imagine. Tina says “we’ve all got it, we have it as academics”. She believes imposter syndrome is worse when moving into pedagogy for two main reasons. Firstly, what we are doing on the whole still tends to be less valued compared to chemistry research, we can be made feel like second class citizens in our Departments. Secondly, we are moving into an area we don’t know much about. Although we have expertise in chemistry, we don’t know about researching the teaching and learning of chemistry. And not to mention getting our heads around the terminology used in educational research (e.g. paradigm, epistemology, ontology etc).
Tina discussed with me the journey we take, starting out with some innovative intervention, an evaluation of that work followed by presenting the findings at a conference. This familiar sequence leads to a national reputation and is a great start. Tina mentioned reputation more than once during our conversation and when speaking internationally it’s important to back up your research with something, such as a peer-reviewed paper like CERP or J Chem Educ. The next step is developing more from the project, a bigger scale so that it can grow into something significant. Collaboration is an important part to growing your research area. So presenting at a conference like Variety in Chemistry Education is not the final dissemination, this is your opportunity to share what you are doing with peers, get feedback, find collaborators perhaps multiple institutions or multiple contexts.
When starting a piece a work, the missing stepping stone for many is not thinking about where the work will be disseminated and Tina emphasised, not just dissemination at a conference but where it could be published. Anyone applying for small grants either locally within their own institution or externally will know that there is a requirement to specify the dissemination outputs and the proposed impact of the work. So to quote Tina “thinking about the dissemination right from the beginning will shape the quality of the work from the outset”. Consider the published output especially on your CV. A conference presentation builds your profile and it’s a nice to have on your CV but peer-reviewed literature is an instant indication of quality. Thinking about promotions down the road, make it easy for the panel to recognise your impact and reputation.
So why is writing a chemistry education research paper considered difficult? Tina explained how people can be frightened with writing academic pedagogic literature simply because it’s different although it’s not that different to chemistry research. When writing a chemistry research paper, there’s an introduction including literature review, methods, results, discussion and conclusion. An education research paper has the same sections, why the research is important, why it’s original, how you did it, what you found and locate what you have done within the literature. Tina emphasised “Treat pedagogic research in the same way that you treat science research, you wouldn’t do chemistry research with no intention of publishing it”. Otherwise it’s a hobby and not professional scholarship.
Remember this point from Tina “nobody goes from nothing to CERP”. It’s important to get writing and it might be an in-house journal, newsletter, bulletin that you can start with to just get writing. Then the more writing you do, the more writing you do, it is a cliché but true. You will find yourself building up to a journal article and each step is another one on the journey.
If you are not starting with a literature review then this is something to change in your approach. The research process itself is not linear in reality although there is a structure that will help ensure that quality is maintained. The literature review is an important step and carrying this out at the start when thinking about where to disseminate your research project will help to avoid common pitfalls. Many things will have been done before but the key point here is to identify how what you are doing build on the current research knowledge base further or shows an original application.
Finding time to write up is a problem everyone relates to. The summer goes and is shrinking from both ends more and more. Tina advocates blocking out time, being strict and sticking to it. To write effectively, you need blocks of time not the odd hour here and there. It takes time to get into the zone. Sometimes getting started can be the block especially when writing a paper. So pencil in some time, even a half-day a week or a day a week if that’s even possible. Lock yourself in the office, do it from home, turn off emails and phone distractions. Yes it’s about being very strict and perhaps a writing retreat is something to consider if you are finding it so difficult to block out writing time?
A writing retreat organised by Tina in Monash University, Australia proved immensely successful. They had a focused 2-day writing retreat with an evening meal and some wine and it kick started a lot of people who had been trying to get started. Another useful approach is to write with collaborators, where they can help in shaping a first draft. There is always time needed to walk away from a piece of writing, “you need to park it and come back to it later”.
Something to note about peer-reviewed journal articles is that there is an underpinning research focus. The key reasons a submission comes back (i.e rejected) is that there isn’t a clearly articulated research question with the discussion section referring back to that research question or the theoretical framework in the paper is not clear. These two aspects are the novel part for scientists and hence why it can seem more difficult to write an education research article. There are some useful links at the bottom of the blog which will signpost to further insights on these areas.
After publishing your work, disseminating at conferences and seeking opportunities to grow your research, it’s then time to develop an area of expertise that’s yours. We can and all do lots of different research projects but that doesn’t lead to reputation. Tina’s advice for anyone starting out is to avoid doing lots of different things but to focus on something that you can make ‘yours’ and develop expertise in, “show and tell at the conference” and then keep building on that. It’s important to develop depth rather than breath in terms of research topics. The focus is to develop a number of successive projects, one project leads to another and so on. This is where the impact is maximised and you avoid being a jack of all trades. If you are thinking, I have an idea, one idea right now to work with but how do I grow another idea from that one idea? This happens easier than you might expect especially when reading literature during the lit search phase, the ideas will flow. Reading around the topic and what’s been done, ideas follow and the more you read, the more ideas and then you have a different problem – too many different ideas and which to focus on first!
So whether you are starting out of further along your journey in chemistry education research keep going. Tina has been a huge influencing figure in our chem ed world, the first Professor of Chemistry Education in the UK and her open discussions shared in this blog means you can take away whatever gem is relevant to you!
Some useful references:
Fergus S., (2017). Writing a Chemistry Education Research Article: Stepping Stone or Stumbling Block? New Directions, 12(1) LINK
Grove, M.J. & Overton, T.L. (eds) (2013). Getting Started in Pedagogic Research within the STEM Disciplines. Birmingham, UK: University of Birmingham and The Higher Education Acadmey. LINK
Reid, N., (2006). Getting Started in Pedagogical Research in the Physical Sciences. Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Subject Centre. LINK