Learning Beyond Borders

November 4, 2020
Ideas That MatterJulia Winter

How can two classrooms in different countries work together to improve teaching chemistry? Listen as Julia discusses collaborative education with chemistry professors, Brett McCollum of Mount Royal University in Calgary Canada, and Layne Morsch of the University of Illinois in Springfield US.

Julia Winter
Special Guest:
Brett McCollum & Layne Morsch
Typhany Jones
Liz Gross
Gianna Manchester


Intro (00:02):
Welcome to Ideas That Matter where we meet with people, making a difference in education. Today, we are crossing borders and countries while discussing a unique collaborative education study that is being conducted by two professors of chemistry, Brett McCollum at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, and Layne Morsch of the University of Illinois Springfield in the U.S

Julia (00:23):
Hi, this is Julia Winter. We're very excited to bring two researchers or practitioners or whatever you want to call them. And they're doing collaborative research between universities and countries. I will let them introduce themselves, take it away, Brett.

Brett (00:38):
Hi, I'm Brett McCollum. I'm a professor of chemistry at Mount Royal University in Calgary, up in Canada.

Julia (00:45):
Okay. And Layne

Layne (00:47):
I'm Layne Morsch professor of chemistry, University of Illinois, Springfield in Illinois United States.

Julia (00:54):
I hear you are bringing in somebody from Ireland eventually into this collaboration.

Brett (00:57):
Yeah. Later, next month, we're working with a Technological University Dublin. So Claire McDonnell and her team there

Julia (01:05):
That is really exciting. So in our team, a discussion of collaborative versus cooperative, and I know there's sometimes you have to get operational definitions. What is a collaborative learning experience?

Brett (01:17):
What's fascinating is when you dig into the literature, you find that in fact, there are camps that have defined the distinction in different ways, but we've decided to go with a definition that really came about 30 years ago from the 1990s. And it distinguishes it in terms of cooperative learning is where you're going through that learning process, creating ideas, developing knowledge together. And that's where the experience is occurring. Whereas collaborative learning is now involving both a asynchronous component where you do some learning on your own, you develop a product or some information as an individual. And then you come together as a team and you weave your components together to create a larger product or deeper understanding of the concept. And so it really comes down to cooperative learning is primarily focused as a team together the whole time collaborative involves both a asynchronous and a synchronous component.

Julia (02:20):
I guess I'm going to say that sounds like real-world problem solving, by the way, not just in-class problem-solving. That's where I think of engineers of product teams. I think of all designers use that process.

Brett (02:32):
Yeah, absolutely. And so helping our students develop familiarity, the idea of they have a responsibility to come prepared to their team meeting that they've already thought about the problem and developed part of a solution becomes really great training in becoming a professional.

Julia (02:49):
I can see you maybe building this within an institution, but then all of a sudden adding this new dimension across borders and across time zones who came up with the idea, was it you, was it Layne? Was it just sitting at BCCE saying, Hey, could we do this together? Just tell me, what do you think?

Layne (03:09):
Well, I would say, you know, that, um, Brett and I started working on a previous project and, you know, found that we had a lot of similarities in how we look at things and, and values that we have for our students and our student learning. And so we started thinking, well, well, what more can we do? And once we had finished that, which was a, Ibook on a NMR spectroscopy for sophomore-level organic. And so, and I think it was really kind of Brett's idea if I want to say, to say, well, I wonder if there's a way that we could get our students to work together. And what it really focused on was the communication. It was really a lot about the fact that we notice us as scientists are often really bad at talking to one another and being able to explain things, using words, you know, we want to draw everything with our nice little stick figures and organic chemistry. And so we thought like, what if we can help our students find a way to communicate with one another using the correct terminology and finding an actual use for that I think was, was a piece of it. Brett, do you want to add something to?

Brett (04:00):
Yeah, I was really glad that I got to meet Layne at the BCCE because I could already tell through our interactions that he was someone willing to take a risk and try something new with me. My, my organic class, we collected a previous study looking at the dynamics of how do I get my students to cooperate in their learning in the classroom. And what I found was they were really uncomfortable sharing their weaknesses with a teammate And so, we added in, academic reading circles as a component right at the start of class. So it only took about five minutes and it gave an opportunity for them to talk about what did they understand in their reading assignment and what did they not understand and what can they resolve as a team? And that team building opportunity is what allowed them to begin to trust one another.

Brett (04:52):
And so we published that work in the Canadian Journal for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Then I went to the Canadian chemistry conference in Ottawa, and this was in 2015 and I saw Gautam Bhattacharyya, his work with students using symbolic or verbal and written ways to communicate ideas. And I thought, Hey, can I do this in my classroom? And what I found was they avoided using proper terminology. They would relate to experiences in the classroom and say, well, Brett, did this, remember when Brett did this? That's what we're trying to draw here. That's what we're trying to do. But they would completely avoid saying things like, you know, the electron pair is going to abstract that proton they have an acid-base reaction, they avoided the right word for our profession. And so that's where I said, Layne, I need some help. Do you want to try something really, really strange with me?

Julia (05:44):
I read a couple of the papers. So you actually had the students try to describe structures without drawing them.

Layne (05:51):
I would say actually, it's, we would have one person would draw it. They would describe it as the other person. And the other person has to try and draw what they're and then show it back to them. And so that's kind of the, how the whole thing works is that one person's explaining one person is trying to draw what they're explaining. And then, so it's kind of this, you know, we have thought about it. I kind of different levels, you know, you're converting from symbolic to text to verbal and that verbal person is taking in verbally or orally and then turning it back to symbolic again.

Julia (06:16):
This is interesting, cause it's overlapping right now with the work we're doing on blind and visually impaired students and understanding Lewis structures to go with it. It's very interesting that it's sort of all circling up with this. When you design the collaborative process, the problems was that hard to do. Give me an example of a problem and give me an idea of timeframe. And then how do you figure out what problems would work? Well,

Layne (06:43):
I think before we can even do the problems where we had to do is we had to look at how our content aligned, because, and not only that, but how our semester is aligned. So my class usually starts a week or two earlier than Brett's does. And so we're at different points. We finish at different times too. That's the first step. If anybody wants to try and do this is if you find some potential collaborators is to start talking about how does your schedule relate to one another? And one example for me is I'm the only one that teaches organic at my university. So it was pretty easy for me to be flexible with my course. And there were two chapters that I ended up flip-flopping like my chapter two and my chapter five. I just, I said, well, it doesn't really matter which order I'd cover these in. This is sort of the background information for organic chemistry. And if I switched those two chapters, then we can be more similar in our timing of content. So I think that's a first thing is being able to do that. And then it's trying to look at learning outcomes. What are similar learning outcomes that we have, unfortunately, again, working with Brett, you know, we're both people that think carefully about that rather than having, you know, two for a whole course. We've got a lot of learning outcomes.

Julia (07:40):
And you have them Defined? You have them written down?

Layne (07:41):
Yeah. I mean, I probably haven't on the order of like eight to 10 per chapter close to a hundred for a course.

Julia (07:47):
Do you tell the students up front, these are the outcomes you want. I've done a podcast on specs grading. I like hearing about all of these threads coming back together, but the students know what you're expecting.

Layne (07:59):
I do. It's right. My schedule, I have it by day and the schedule. So if, if we're going to cover the first half of chapter four today, here's the four learning outcomes of what I expect you to, to know how to do by the end of that.

Brett (08:10):
We provide to our students at the beginning of the term, by section of the textbook, what is the learning objective or the collection of objectives for that particular reading assignment? Well, I actually recommend that before they start reading, read the objective, know what you're trying to attain when you engage with that part of the textbook, then when you're done the reading, go back to the objective and say, do I understand it? If not, you need to go back to the book and two, if you do understand it, are you capable of doing it?

Julia (08:38):
I'm going to flip this a little bit. When you present this collaborative learning activity or opportunity with them, the learning objectives, couldn't be exactly what you just defined, right? The ones that go with the textbook. But we all know that there's much more effective kind of learning objectives in this method. It isn't just another way to learn how to do nucleophilic attacks and define that or acid-based chemistry. Do you tell them upfront that the learning objective is more effective to define better communication skills? I'm not doing very well with defining my objectives, but do you tell them upfront, this is what we're going to try to do? And this is why?

Brett (09:19):
The first couple of times I didn't, it was interesting because I recognize the importance of relationship building, that was that paper that kind of motivated me to try and get students developing these relationships in an active learning classroom. But I didn't know that engaging with a peer in another country in the same course was going to help my students begin to realize that they were emerging professionals within the chemical sciences. It was only because we had students engage in the experience and then engage in research on the experience that we heard through the interviews, what they saw as the benefit, the outcome of the experience. And so after collecting that data for, I think it was about two years that I then began to share with my students. Here is a reflection that one of your peers wrote last semester called a "Letter from a Mentor".

Brett (10:14):
And so later in the collection of assignments, later in the term, they write a letter to a future Ochem (Organic Chemistry) student describing here's my experience and what I saw worked for me and what I would avoid doing next time so that I can have an even better experience. And by sharing those letters with my class, letting them read them and have a conversation about that, they get a better understanding of what am I getting into, why am I doing this? The voice that tells them the value. Isn't just their instructor. It's a, it's a peer or a near-peer. Someone who's gone through the course previous year.

Julia (10:52):
That's really interesting. I read the paper where you analyze the students, writing the reflection and you both were writing and you analyze your own writing, which I thought was just so fascinating. And one of the caveats at the end of the paper was that all of the students that were part of the authoring group, what had high buy-in were very engaged. There are some students that for them, I don't have time for this, or I just don't see this helping me get that grade. How do you help with the buy-in for this project?

Layne (11:27):
I mean, I think the letter from a mentor helps with that too, because they're hearing it from others, not just from us. It gets back to that thing of like trying to communicate to them. Okay. So most of our courses, you're learning content, right? And there's a ton of content, organic chemistry, and it's really valuable. But a piece of this is learning a really huge, applicable skill that if you look at what all employers are looking for, like at the top of almost everything is communication skills, teamwork skills. I mean, those are usually no matter what kind of job you're trying to get some of the most important things we're looking for. And so what we try to convince them of, or help them to see us like, okay, so the content is going to be important and it will help you, but you're also learning another really applicable skill that no matter what you end up doing after you graduate, it will help you with that.

Julia (12:08):
Yeah. I actually, as somebody, who's now had to hire people. I always look for that growth mindset, that ability to decide, I don't know everything, but I, I sure know. I can find it out. I can work with others to find it out. So those are the kinds of, if you ever want me to tell you're students, I'm serious because you know what their grades are. I rarely see grades. I know they use their grades to get into med school and grad school and all that. But as an employer, ah, I just wanted to see that they communicate, look me in the eye and can solve problems with each other because most problems are not solved individually. I mean, there is an individual component to problem-solving, but it is a collaboration. And I think that's really, really important. Now, have you seen different activities work better than others?

Brett (12:58):
We have observed. There is a strong importance that the two faculty member or the group of faculty members involved in the project have aligned the assignments to ensure that an assignment doesn't open until the content has been covered, because some, some groups will meet the night it opens. So if you're thinking, well, I'll open it on Monday and we teach it on Wednesday and they'll be okay. Cause they have to tell the next Monday to do the assignment. Some groups will try and meet and say, "I haven't seen this content yet". And that creates a barrier to the experience. So as long as we have that content covered students when they try and say to, their partner, well, "I haven't learned this content. It hasn't been covered at my university". Our response is always, we have scheduled them. Every campus involved, every university involved has covered the content. And so if your partner hasn't seen it yet, that might be, they haven't learned it. Not that they haven't been taught it.

Julia (13:58):
So it's only groups of two students?

Brett (14:00):
We try and do groups of two because it makes it easier for scheduling this year. We have a lot of students involved. We have a different number between we have a lot of Canadian and less American students involved this year. And so we have two Canadians and one American most groups. And then the group that we're going to try and design for in about what two weeks with, uh, with our partners in Ireland, it'll be three Canadians and two people from Ireland to create a larger group.

Julia (14:27):
That's really neat. Did this activity lent itself pretty well to COVID teaching then you can continue throughout, right?

Layne (14:36):
Yeah. You know, one of the things that I think is really interesting, we've only touched the surface of this area, but it's an area that we're interested in is there's a movement of that's called internationalization at home. And what part of it is, is that you know, study abroad is a great thing. And you know, it's great for a ton of students, but there are limitations on it. And some of them are financial. Like, you know, some people, if they have more money or more feeling of mobility, they might feel like they can do that. Whereas other students, you know, based on either income or other aspects may make it difficult for them to study abroad. And so we've thought about the value of that. Having this, a person that you can talk with that's in another country is such a huge value.

Layne (15:15):
You know, even though Canada in the United States are nominally similar, but you know, there's still a great difference. Isn't, there's great differences between Calgary and Springfield or, you know, between the students and where they come from. And so I think that there's a really valuable piece of that. And so with COVID for us, it didn't really change anything. I mean, the, the changes that our students are so stressed and, you know, we feel it, we feel it for them, you know, everyone is so stressed about what's going on. And, and so at least, you know, it's encouraging that pretty simply from your bedroom or from your, you know, whatever your library or wherever you can sit, you can talk with someone else. And that part of that too, that's been really cool for us to see is because we do all these reflections with the students. We've heard so many times things like I thought I was the only one that struggles with organic chemistry, but my friend in Calgary or in the United States, they've got the same issue as I have. And it broadens that aspect of like, it's not just me.

Julia (16:03):
That's amazing. So how do you match the people? Is it random?

Brett (16:07):
The first time we did, it was essentially random assignment. And our plan was to actually change partners after three assignments, because we wanted to ensure that they weren't developing too much familiarity with the partner, that they, again, to avoid using professional language. And when we propose that for assignment four, we were going to change partnerships. They jumped to their feet and they started yelling. You can't take my partner from me. They were really invested in that relationship.

Julia (16:36):
I think it all goes to this even on zoom right now, even to get students engaged in a classroom requires that level of trust and communication. I've heard that people in breakout rooms, they don't want different people every time. It's just much more effective when you build that communication and feeling of, Oh, I know this person now. Yeah.

Brett (17:02):
And so we've recognized that. And so what we do now to at least minimize the barrier of scheduling is at the beginning of the term, students do an availability survey. And so there is about seven options for them to pick like they like meeting weekday afternoons or weekday evenings. And, we set up these choices and they can rank them to identify what they prefer. And then we match students based on their preference of when they would like to meet. And we find that as a result, the number of students who report a scheduling problem almost goes to zero.

Layne (17:37):
I would add, we were looking at lots of different ways to match students and personalities and interests and things. And as we were talking about sort of this was going into year two, we were talking about that. We said, you know, nobody complained about that. Nobody complained "my partner sucks because they like soccer too much" or, you know, whatever it was or they like, you know, hard rock music, nobody complained about anything like that. It was all about schedule. And so we thought, well, really that's the limiting factor is when are you available? And it doesn't matter if you and your partner love each other, if you're only available on weekend evenings and they're only available on weekdays because of work schedules or whatever, that's not going to work.

Julia (18:10):
Yeah. Now, where do you see this going? I know you're bringing in, um, Professor McDonnell of DIT in Dublin, but you know, five years out, what do you think?

Brett (18:19):
It's interesting that I recently got reached out to, by a faculty member in Spain. Who's not in chemistry and their chariot is around intercultural exchange. So Europe with so many different languages and cultures really close together, they see a lot of value within the humanities in terms of helping students develop those relationships across cultural boundaries and learn about one another's culture within the context of their course, although that was never our intentionality really Layne and I, we focused on professional skill development. Within the context of chemistry. We found that students are reporting that they are developing familiarity with different cultures and lived experiences. You know, one of the ones that always stands out to me was a student here in Calgary that said him growing up as a white male in Calgary, he had no idea how different his lived experience was from someone who grew up in Chicago as a black female. And so that cultural exchange that occurred as a result of a partnership in chemistry was something that we could never really have planned but has improved the experience for a lot of our students. And I think that's something that we can look at going forward is how do we continue to allow that to be a valuable experience and organic experience within the course?

Julia (19:45):
That's amazing. And I, I always think you never can walk in somebody else's shoes, but you can appreciate somebody else's shoes when you start understanding them and trusting them. Well, this honest to gosh this 20 minutes just went by so fast. I knew it would. I want to thank both Brett and Layne for joining me in this podcast. And I look forward to more work and more research, good luck to you the rest of the semester, and stay healthy.

Layne (20:14):
Thanks, Julia.

Brett (20:14):
Yeah, You too.

Layne (20:14):
Good to see you

Outro (20:18):
Thank you for listening to Ideas That Matter. Is there a guest you want to hear on the show? Send us your opinion by being a part of our growing community and join the discussion by following us @learnalchemie on Instagram and Twitter, this podcast was created and published by Alchemie edited by Liz Gross, produced by Typhany Jones, and narrated by Gianna Manchester.

Co- Author
liz Gross