Assessing Students’ Reflections in Chemistry

Assessing Students’ Reflections in Chemistry

Dr Peter Henderson, School of Natural & Computing Sciences


Dr Peter Henderson, School of Natural & Computing Sciences outlines how making reflections part of the course assessment, encourages students to engage in reflective learning.


Our Level 4 Integrated Chemistry course has a ‘general paper’ exam and oral exam. These are broad assessments covering topics from across the degree programme. Whilst staff and external examiners view these synoptic assessments as useful to counter the very modular assessment in most courses, students find them difficult to prepare for and stressful due to the different format. The exam paper includes descriptive (we try to avoid saying ‘essay’) questions, which are less common in Chemistry exams. Students have several opportunities for presentations and questions on prepared topics such as lab experiments or research projects, but have little experience of a more general oral exam.


Short exercises and reflective writing were introduced to help students with preparation for the exam and oral, with writing and communication skills, and also to raise awareness of strengths and weaknesses and metacognition. This was more about seeing the ‘big picture’ of a chemistry degree rather than grading specific knowledge. The Journal and rubric options in MyAberdeen were used to deliver and assess the material. The rubric was more holistic rather than analytical1.The assignment information and feedback were given using a combination of written instructions and short video recordings.


The three assignments were:

  1. Complete an online chemistry concepts inventory
  2. Write a letter to a non-specialist explaining an experiment which you think demonstrates an important chemistry concept
  3. Record a video or podcast explaining a key concept using Johnstone’s triangle2

 Students then had to write a reflective piece on each exercise, using specific prompts. 




All students completed each the assignments and reflections, and although there were a couple of questions asking for clarity about what to do there were no complaints despite this being a fairly new type of assessment for the majority of them. Unfortunately, due to the Covid lockdown the oral exam for the course (10%) was cancelled. The exam became a 48 hour take home assessment. The questions were relatively unchanged due to the general nature of them. This means we cannot easily compare performance to previous years. Students had to write personally about their experience, and this is an authentic assessment exercise which will be applied to other courses.


The Course Feedback Form had a low response rate, presumably due to lockdown, but there were only positive comments about the journal. Students were very creative with the work they submitted, and this is something to look into further, with regard to opportunities in other course assignments. A thematic analysis of the journals can be carried out. Students often wrote about their more general experience throughout their degree, and their attitudes to engagement with material, assessment, and staff.


My own reflections on the experience of setting and marking the assignments means I will update the instructions and marking rubric for next academic year – students appeared to be less tentative than I expected, but need to be guided in becoming more critical in their reflection. The exercise will be repeated, this time with a more formal evaluation.


Offer a poster or presentation at future Centre for Academic Development events. With further evaluation the work could be presented at one of the annual Chemistry education conferences held each year. The assessment and outcomes (in particular the students’ honest comments about what the degree is like) have been discussed at course review and staff meetings, and mentioned in course and programme annual reviews.