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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2016


Making Students Eat Their Greens: Information Skills for Chemistry Students

Sarah George
Subject Librarian for Archaeology, Chemistry, Environmental Sciences and Forensics
JB Priestley Library
University of Bradford
Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK

Tasnim Munshi
Deputy Head of School
School of Chemistry
University of Lincoln
Brayford Pool, Lincoln, UK


Employers are increasingly requiring a range of "soft" skills from chemistry graduates, including the ability to search for and critically evaluate information. This paper discusses the issues around encouraging chemistry students to engage with information skills and suggests curricular changes which may help to "drip-feed" information skills into degree programs.


Today's chemistry graduates face an increasingly complex jobs market, with employers looking for a range of transferable "soft" communication and information skills alongside subject knowledge and laboratory practice (Lawal 2001; Wallace 2003; Runquist and Kerr 2005; Hanson and Overton 2010; Windsor et al. 2014). The American Chemical Society (2015) notes that:

"Essential student skills include the ability to retrieve information efficiently and effectively by searching the chemical literature, evaluate technical articles critically, and manage many types of chemical information" (p17)

These skills are included within the Joint Information Systems Council (JISC) concept of Digital Literacy, defined as "the capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society" (Joint Information Systems Council 2014). This has been adopted by the UK's Higher Education Academy (2015) as one of the key areas for enhancement in Higher Education. JISC identifies seven elements of digital literacy which should be embedded into all degree programs. They cover a broad range of critical and evaluative competencies as well as the more technical aspects of effective use of Information technology. The elements are:

The first three of these elements cover skills competencies such as searching for information, critically appraising its reliability and usefulness for a particular purpose and collating it into written work, eventually allowing the students to participate in digital scholarship. This paper groups these skill-sets under the broad heading of "information skills," which also incorporates traditional library skills such as citing sources and discouraging plagiarism. Although these competencies are vital for employability and further study, chemistry undergraduates often consider them peripheral to their interests and do not engage with them (Sunderwirth 1993; Paulson 2001; Gallagher and Adams 2002). In particular, chemistry students have been observed to adopt a surface learning approach to information searching, being more likely than most to engage in quick-and-easy methods such as Google rather than more targeted searches covering higher quality resources such as library databases (Salisbury et al. 2007). This can become problematic in employment, as information skills are often required by employers and seen as a skills deficit by chemistry graduates in the workplace (Hanson and Overton 2010; Meyer et al. 2011). A survey for the Royal Society of Chemistry found that "research skills" (finding and interpreting information) were mentioned frequently by employers as skills needed by chemistry graduates but practically never by the undergraduates surveyed (Purcell et al. 2008).

This study focuses on the attitude of chemistry students to information skills, the role of information skills in chemistry education and the issues surrounding embedding them in undergraduate curricula.

Chemistry Courses at the University of Bradford

The University of Bradford has been running chemistry courses since the university was granted its charter in 1966. The suite of chemistry courses has recently undergone periodic review with a view to updating and rationalizing the course structures, and much of the work in this paper arose from the reflection surrounding this process. The School of Chemical and Forensic Sciences previously offered 19 BSc and MChem courses, recruiting between 100 and 120 students per year. The Chemistry 4 programs were a suite of vocational courses with a strong focus on specific training for the practice of chemistry in major employment sectors, including pharmaceuticals (drug discovery and medicines development), analytical science, and the forensic sector. The school also ran multi-disciplinary courses such as chemical, pharmaceutical and forensic sciences and forensic and medical sciences. BSc Integrated Science is housed within the school and integrates chemistry, engineering and computing. Finally, the school ran traditional single honors courses in chemistry (BSc or MChem) and forensic sciences (BSc).

The University of Bradford recruits students from a wide range of educational backgrounds, including both traditional routes such as A'levels and newer courses such as BTECs and access courses1 (UCAS 2016). In addition, there is a large intake of international and European students, who will have a different educational background and for whom English is not their first language. The challenge faced by staff is to ensure that the curriculum imparts the necessary skills to all of these students, supporting those for whom information skills are most challenging while still engaging those with more experience, and fitting all of these "softer" skills into a full curriculum without sacrificing subject content.

Library Resource Use and Degree Grade

The Library Impact Data Project, a source of information on student engagement with information skills, has not yet been widely discussed with regards to chemistry (Stone and Ramsden 2013). The University of Huddersfield utilized a three-year window of data (2005-2008) from eight UK higher education institutions, including the University of Bradford. It examined the possibility of a link between use of library resources (borrowing books, logging into electronic books and journals, and visiting the library) and final degree grade. The project found a strong correlation (though they emphasize this does not prove causation) between degree grade and books borrowed and e-resource logins, but no correlation with library visits. Their headline findings are shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Book loans and e-resources plotted against final exam grade. Example data from the Library Impact Data Project (Adapted with permission from Stone et al. 2012: figure 2)2

Figure 2: Book issues for chemistry and forensic students and all students plotted against final degree grade (data used with permission from Pattern 2011)

Figure 3: E-resource logins for chemistry and forensic students and all students plotted against all final degree grade (data used with permission from Pattern 2011)

The data for students of chemistry and related courses at all institutions3 is shown plotted against the results for all students in figures 2 (book issues) and 3 (e-resource logins) (Pattern 2011). The correlation between degree grade and book issues is still quite clear, though with a slight rise between 2:1 and 2:2. The data for e-resource logins is much less clear-cut, with a large spike in the number of logins to students with 3rd class degrees. Given the well documented preference of physical science students for electronic resources (Meyer et al. 2011; Collins and Stone 2014; Chrzastowski and Joseph 2015) this pattern is surprising and worthy of further study. We would hypothesize that weaker students tend to have a more "scattershot" approach to information searching, searching Google rather than library databases. This approach would involve logging separately into each individual article downloaded rather than once per database. Weaker students might also have a less focused approach, logging into and downloading a large number of papers rather than optimizing their search strategy and concentrating on a few highly relevant papers. Certainly, the authors' observations support this hypothesis, as we have observed the tendency for weaker dissertations to have long but barely relevant reference lists. Harwood and Petric (2012) give many examples of this phenomenon, and most academic writing guides (e.g. Redman and Maples 2011: 74; Greetham 2013: 171) warn against long, unfocused bibliographies.

Information Skills and Chemistry Curricula

The difficulty of embedding "soft" skills in chemistry curricula is widely discussed in the literature, with the main focus on writing and critical thinking skills (Sunderwirth 1993; Wilson 1994; Rossi 1997; Oliver-Hoyo 2003; Windsor et al. 2014; Stephenson and Sadler-McKnight 2015). There is also a substantial body of literature on library and information skills mostly from U.S. institutions (Gallagher and Adams 2002; Walczak and Jackson 2007; Forest and Rayne 2009; Gawalt and Adams 2011; Tomaszewski 2011; Bruehl et al. 2015; Ferrer-Vinent et al. 2015),. There is evidence from the literature that chemistry students have been less likely than those from many cognate disciplines to recognize online journals as "library resources" (Meyer et al. 2011). They are thus less likely to see the point of instruction in library skills. The traditional approach to embedding "soft" skills within the curriculum has been to place them in single standalone modules such as personal and professional development, often delivered in one session in the first year..Most of the literature on embedding information skills into chemistry courses describes this approach (among the most recent of this considerable body of literature are Liotta and Almeida 2005; Gawalt and Adams 2011; Joint Information Systems Council 2014; Mandernach et al. 2014; Bruehl et al. 2015; Ferrer-Vinent et al. 2015). However, a common experience is to find that students who need the instruction most are the ones who engaged least, considering information skills to be peripheral to their main area of interest (Kneale 1997; Lee and Wiggins 1998; Parker et al. 2005). There are fewer articles describing embedding information skills throughout the curriculum, which is the approach we examine in this paper (Walczak and Jackson 2007; Hanson and Overton 2010; Windsor et al. 2014; Jacobs et al. 2015; Yeagley et al. 2016).

Although many chemistry undergraduate courses have begun to incorporate more written work into the first years of their courses, a significant number still have little substantial written work until the third year (Bunce and VandenPlas 2006). Table 1 shows that, of the 54 single honors BSc Chemistry courses running in the United Kingdom in 2015, 21 (39%) have less than 25% of "coursework" in the first two years of the course (Unistats 2015). This definition of "coursework" can include in-class tests and laboratory notebooks, so does not necessarily mean that students are engaged in writing substantial pieces of work.

  <10% assessed by coursework 11-25% assessed by coursework 26-50% assessed by coursework 51-75% assessed by coursework >76% assessed by coursework
Year 1 13% 26% 35% 26% 0%
Year 2 15% 24% 46% 15% 0%
Year 3 7% 17% 44% 30% 2%
Year 4 0% 33% 33% 17% 17%

Table 1: Percentage of single-honours BSc chemistry courses assessed by coursework (n=54, produced from data derived from Unistats 2015)

Laboratory notebooks are highly structured and require little in the way of collation and assessment of information, something that might be seen as traditional library skills in the social sciences or humanities. It is, however, standard for students to produce a substantial dissertation in their final year. Even when science A'levels (taken between the ages of 16 and 18) included large essay-based assignments this dissertation was a major step-change in the students' educational experience, with the students writing their biggest piece of prose at the same time as engaging with concepts such as literature searching, referencing and plagiarism avoidance, and an unfamiliar topic. With today's A'levels being more exam-based, students may not have written essays since they were in secondary education (under the age of 16). The dissertation is thus not only an order of magnitude larger and more complex than anything the students have produced before, but the act of writing prose is a skill they have largely forgotten, if they ever mastered it in the first place.

At the University of Bradford, students are allowed to submit a number of drafts and receive feedback from their supervisors, but many students do not fully engage with this process. Many of the resulting dissertations show problems with extensive quotation and poor collation of information. Student feedback indicates that they find the process of dissertation a very stressful and alien experience. In an attempt to address this, the dissertation module was modified in 2013 to include lectures from the subject librarian on academic writing, citing sources, and plagiarism avoidance. However, the impact of this change has been slight, with those students who need the instruction most engaging least.

University of Bradford Chemistry Student Attitudes to Transferrable Skills

The literature reviewed in the previous section hints at the problems of getting students to engage with transferable skills. In an attempt to quantify this phenomenon among University of Bradford chemistry students, we carried out a simple survey about their attitudes to various skill-sets and how important they deemed them to be for various scenarios. The skill-sets were defined in the survey as:

The scenarios were importance for their current course, further study, and employability. For each scenario, the students both rated the importance of the skills-sets (as very important, slightly important, not very important or completely unimportant) and placed them in priority order.

The surveys were handed out on paper at the end of lectures during the autumn term of 2015, after a smaller pilot with a group from year 2 in April 2015. To ensure there was no feeling of coercion and to comply with ethical guidelines there was no check on completion and only the bare minimum of demographic information (course and level) was collected to ensure absolute anonymity. This meant that coverage was patchy but that students were not identifiable from their responses, which is generally held to encourage more honest opinions (e.g., University of Sheffield Learning and Teaching Services 2014). Table 2 shows that the students surveyed were from all levels of the chemistry programs, though concentrated in levels one and two. Students from forensic programs and integrated science (from which there was a single response) undertake considerably more written work in the first and second years of their courses than their peers on the chemistry courses.

  Number of students surveyed by course and stage (total number of students in brackets)
  1 2 3 4
Chemistry 64 (94) 54 (78) 3 (85) 2 (50)
Forensics 5 (37) 5 (30) 0 (13) 0 (4)
Integrated Science 0 (22) 1 (12) 0 (17) 0 (0)

Table 2: Number of students surveyed by course and stage

Table 3: Students' rating of importance of various skills types (135 responses)

    Very important Slightly important Not very important Completely unimportant % choosing very important % choosing not very important or completely unimportant
Current academic work Employability 74 49 10 1 54.8% 8.1%
Lab skills 107 27 0 0 79.3% 0.0%
Library skills 57 63 14 0 42.2% 10.4%
Subject knowledge 118 16 0 0 87.4% 0.0%
Employment Employability 121 12 0 0 89.6% 0.0%
Lab skills 80 49 5 0 59.3% 3.7%
Library skills 28 67 34 5 20.7% 28.9%
Subject knowledge 99 33 2 0 73.3% 1.5%
Future study Employability 84 37 11 2 62.2% 9.6%
Lab skills 89 42 3 0 65.9% 2.2%
Library skills 56 55 21 2 41.5% 17.0%
Subject knowledge 115 18 1 0 85.2% 0.7%

Table 3 shows the results of the survey, with numbers and percentages of students rating each of the four skill-sets as very important to unimportant for their current academic work, employment and future study. Most students rated library and information skills (finding information, assessing its reliability, referencing) as very or slightly important, although the percentage choosing "very important" was lower than for all other skill types in all categories. Subject knowledge was at the top of their ratings for current and future academic work, with employability skills understandably rated most important for future employment.

Table 4: Students' ranking of importance of different skills types (135 responses)

    Average rank (4 being most important) % of students choosing 4 (most important) Number of students choosing 1 (least important)
Academic work Employability 2.6 32.1% 21.5%
Lab skills 2.7 20.1% 10.4%
Library skills 1.9 11.2% 51.9%
Subject knowledge 3.2 56.0% 12.6%
Employment Employability 3.2 59.0% 12.6%
Lab skills 2.5 15.7% 12. 6%
Library skills 1.8 15.7% 61.5%
Subject knowledge 2.8 26.9% 9.6%
Future study Employability 2. 6 37.1% 26.7%
Lab skills 2.6 22.0% 13.3%
Library skills 2.1 15.9% 40.0%
Subject knowledge 3.0 42.4% 14.1%

Table 4 shows a similar pattern, with subject knowledge being rated as the most important for current and future study and employability as the most important for employment. Library and information skills again came at the bottom in each category.

This small sample shows that library and information skills consistently come last when students are asked to rank them against other skills such as employability, laboratory skills or subject knowledge, even though students generally rate library skills as very or slightly important, overall. This implies that struggling students would be more likely to de-prioritize information skills as they are perceived to be least important part of their course. As various studies have shown that they are in fact important in their future careers (Purcell et al. 2008; Hanson and Overton 2010) this poses a challenge to those designing curricula to attempt to increase students' engagement with information skills.

Incorporating Information Skills into the Chemistry Curriculum

The literature suggests that many chemistry courses still address the issue of imparting "soft skills" by introducing them in a single standalone module or course, often detached from written work until the final year dissertation. We would suggest that curricula move from this "sudden death" introduction to academic writing to a steadier "drip-feed" of information and writing skills. This could be done by embedding information skills in subject modules at every level, introducing skills of increasing complexity in each level. Table 5 shows the scheme proposed for the new University of Bradford chemistry curriculum, embedding information skills into each level of study (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education 2008).

Table 5: Scheme for embedding information skills

Year4 Information skills Teaching method Assessment method Other skills
Year 1
  • Find relevant information
  • Assess information
  • Present information orally
  • Team-based learning
  • Group presentation on "hot topic" in chemistry
  • Group work
  • Presentation skills
  • Awareness of current developments in chemistry
Year 1
  • Basic plagiarism awareness
  • Concept of citing sources
  • Blended learning
  • Online quiz on plagiarism and citing sources
Year 2
  • Structure searching
  • Reference sources
  • Bibliographic software
  • Hands-on workshops
  • Search strategy
  • Annotated bibliography
  • Structure drawing
Year 2
  • Analyze information
  • Collate information into written work
  • Cite sources
  • Intermediate plagiarism awareness
  • Hands-on workshops
  • Independent study
  • Mini-project
  • Annotated Turnitin draft
  • Produce substantial piece of written work
  • Paraphrasing
  • Develop students' own interests within subject
Year 3
  • Analyze current research
  • Produce major piece of written work
  • Advanced awareness of good academic practice
  • Lectures
  • Blended learning
  • Independent study
  • Literature-based project on staff research interest
Year 4: MChem
  • Advanced writing skills
  • Link between laboratory and written work
  • Independent study
  • Laboratory-based project
  • Laboratory skills

The most basic information and writing skills center around the ability to find relevant information, assess its relevance, and present it in a way that answers the question. These can be inculcated along with other "soft skills" such as teamwork and presentation skills in a group presentation on a "hot topic" in chemistry. The students can be encouraged to assess the relevance and reliability of information sources in team-based learning sessions, then produce an assessed presentation (Tweddell 2013). This shows students the relevance of information skills at an early stage, in addition to introducing them to employability skills such as presentation and group work. We would suggest little formal citing is needed in Year 1, but an online quiz about good academic practice (such as University of Bradford Library 2014) would help to introduce students to concepts of citing sources and avoiding plagiarism.

The next level of skills involves analyzing information and collating it into a substantial piece of work, also introducing formal citation and emphasising plagiarism avoidance. These can be combined with the subject-specific skill of structure searching. Analysis of information and citation can be assessed via an annotated bibliography exercise, where the students search for an unknown structure and find literature on synthesizing the compound. They submit a search strategy and a bibliography produced using bibliographic software such as Endnote, Refworks, or Zotero. The bibliography is graded on the accuracy of their search and the relevance of results. This should provide a low-stress introduction to producing written work and inculcate good academic practice by emphasising paraphrasing, citing of sources, and avoiding plagiarism. Linking the structure searching to a bibliographic exercise also shows the direct relevance of information skills to chemistry practice. The introduction of bibliographic software highlights its usefulness in numeric reference formats, and follows feedback from Bradford MChem-level students that Endnote is invaluable when they come to write major projects, allowing them to organize their resources and edit their work more easily, and that they wished they had encountered it earlier in their studies.

At the same level, a mini-project can assess collation of information and the production of a substantial piece of written work The project assesses skills of information searching, collation, and writing. In addition to the project, the students submit a preliminary draft to Turnitin (TurnitinUK 2015). The students then produce a critique of the Originality Report, highlighting unattributed quotations, inadequate paraphrasing and other problems, building their awareness of poor academic practice within their own work.

These preliminary exercises should enable a more gradual transition into major projects in the third and final years of degree programs.


Information skills are vital to enable graduates to function in the 21st century job market, but chemistry students often see these are peripheral to their interests and are unwilling to engage with them, taking fast and easy options for information searching wherever they exist. Our job as educators is to persuade them that this "fast food" option is not good for their long term prospects and to instead show them that the "healthy eating" approaches imparted in information skills sessions are worthwhile.


Our thanks to Ellie Clement, Subject Librarian for Law and Management and Alison Cullingford, Special Collections Librarian, for reading and commenting on this paper. Also to Graham Stone, head of University of Huddersfield library, for his help in discussing the Library Impact Data project and for permission to use the data. This study has received ethical consideration by the Chair of the Biomedical, Natural, Physical and Health Sciences Research Ethics Panel at the University of Bradford on 17th December 2015.


1A-levels are two-year courses generally focussed on traditional "academic" disciplines and assessed by examination. BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council awards) are more practical, vocational qualifications often assessed by work-based learning. Access courses are run by Universities and other Higher and Further Education providers to allow learners with a non-traditional education background to enter degree courses.

2A first class degree is roughly equivalent to a US GPA of 3.7, a third class roughly equates to GPA 2.5. For more on the equivalence of UK to US degree grades, please see National College for Teaching and Leadership (2015)

3This includes Chemistry, Forensic and Analytical Science, Forensic Science, Applied Science and Forensic Investigation, Crime Scene Science and Chemical, Pharmaceutical and Forensic Sciences.

4Year 1 equates to FHEQ level 4, through to year 4 / MChem level equating to FHEQ level 7


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