Remote Teaching Case Studies: Camiel Leake, School of Chemistry

Our series on remote teaching continues our conversation with a diverse range of people involved in teaching and learning at St Andrews. We’re listening not only to the voices of lecturers and tutors, but also to graduate and undergraduate students, all of whom have been learning online since the ‘lockdown’ began. This week, we’re interviewing Camiel Leake, a third year undergraduate in the School of Chemistry, currently on placement in Basel, Switzerland. Camiel has been learning online since he began his placement last September and talks about using online materials, how learning online has helped him with a new way of thinking and working, and about how tutorials are going. He stresses the importance of a study place with no distractions, dedicated to study only and thinks that the best thing to do with online learning is just to plunge in. Just do it!

Could you tell us about your role at the University of St Andrews?

I am currently in my third year at St Andrews, studying Medicinal Chemistry, while on placement with Roche, in Basel, Switzerland. I’m taking level 4000 modules. Next year I will be the School of Chemistry student president.

How much had you integrated the use of technology into your study habits before the Covid-19 outbreak? What did you use until now?

I’m away from St Andrews, so, apart from my work in the lab here in Basel, all of my university work has been online this year. That meant that I had adjusted to working online before the pandemic started. We got lecture notes online in the form of .pdfs, which I worked through myself, and which were then followed by tutorial questions and finally an open book exam. We also had to use an online program, Gaussview, for one of the modules.

What were your first thoughts when you heard that St Andrews teaching, learning, and study was moving online?

It made sense: universities could become a “corona-hub” where an outbreak could happen and thrive quickly.

How do you manage the process of learning and studying online?

At first, I struggled a lot. Studying online is different from studying in person in St Andrews. While I was disciplined before, in a way, you have to be even more disciplined when studying online. You have to learn in a different way too. At first, I tried to study and learn the way I had done before when I was living in St Andrews: I’d write down everything that the lecturer said, and then spend hours in the library working through any given mechanism/equation/theory over and over again until I got it right, every time. This did not work for me studying online while working in Switzerland. I just did not have the time to do this because I work during the day in the lab. But I now also think that studying like that is not a constructive way of learning. The long distance online learning, with open book exams, was more focused on understanding of the concepts and once you understand the concept properly you can apply it to everything.

Did the process of moving online make you think differently about the way you approach your study? Did you make any changes to your study habits?

Yes. For me, online learning coincided with working in a lab, where the knowledge you must have is less of the rote-memorization kind and more of the understanding-of-concepts kind.  My experience of online learning is that it is more focused on the understanding of concepts. This helps a lot when it comes to working in a lab. In labs, you work on things that neither you, nor anybody else, have ever seen before, thus having a solid grasp of the concepts is a lot more valuable than memorizing each individual example by rote. I am not saying one is better than the other: you must still know examples. But for me, the shift to concepts really started to click with the online learning and it really helped with my work in the lab.

The other change I should mention was to my study space. Since the pandemic started, I’m not at the lab and am working at my flat. At the beginning, before the virus broke out, I used to go through the St Andrews online lecture notes in a nice café, after finishing work in the lab. But since we cannot go to cafés at the moment, my balcony has become that place. I’ve discovered that I really need a separate study place with no distractions, somewhere dedicated to work only, somewhere I go when I only do work.   I think it’s important to be able to close the door on work at the end of the day too and having a separate study space helps with that.

In general, how has your student experience of learning and studying online been?

Pretty good! The modules I’ve taken this year are well established and well organised.

You are an undergraduate at the School of Chemistry. Which technologies have you found especially practically useful for studying Chemistry in particular?

Chemdraw gets you to draw molecules on the computer and it has been useful. I’ve also been using more online resources than I normally would: organic-chemistry.org is something I’ve used a lot too. Following the outbreak, a lot of other universities and research groups have made their notes openly available. Baran’s notes on Hetrocyclic Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute are especially helpful.

In particular, what has been your experience of having undergraduate supervision online been?

It has been good. Lecturers respond to questions very fast. One downside is that the discussion is more difficult, and I feel that technology can get in the way of the discussion you would have when asking a lecturer a question in person.

What one piece of advice would you give someone based on your own student experience of learning and studying online?

Just do it. The hardest part is starting with online learning. Then you just need to keep doing it. Maybe hide your phone!

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

No; that’s all.