Expert Insights

I think it’s really important that people mark assessments.  Mark, and see what the students actually end up knowing.  Because they can pretend to themselves that students have understood everything, but if they actually have to mark the exam papers, or the quizzes, or whatever it is, they actually are confronted with the students actual knowledge.  I think that’s really influential.  The second semester of teaching, when you think you’ve explained things well, and then 90% of the class have not got it, then it’s not the students fault at that point, it’s probably your fault.  So I think that assessment is really important.  Not only for the students, but also for the marker.  I think you can learn a lot from marking.

I changed my method of teaching to be a team-based learning approach where in fact as teams they are responsible to each other within the team for their level of engagement or for what they put into that team and if they don’t put in what the team thinks is useful then they get marked on that, their peers mark them on how much they’re contributing to the team’s goals.  So rather than me as the educator saying you need to do this and you need to do that, in fact the system is such that as a team they’re responsible for a certain outcome and the team must achieve that outcome and so they need to work together.  For the students who don’t put in as much as the team expects of them then there is peer pressure to increase their level of input and their engagement and if the students don’t then the team members get a chance to reflect upon that and give them a sort of team work score.

And it’s so essential, if you are in the middle of a discipline, to have a really well developed sense of what your colleagues around you are teaching, so that you can make connections.

When we’re teaching ideas in chemistry, I liken it to hacking your way through a forest.  It’s all this detail.... and you can’t expect students to do the hard work of fighting your way through the forest or the jungle, unless they have a global view of where they’re going. What I mean by that is, the other factors that influence the way I teach intermolecular forces, is that I keep going back to applications in the real world.  How is it that geckos can crawl up a wall, and almost sit on the ceiling without falling off?  How is it they’re able to stay there with gluey legs or what?  But the interactions between their feet and the ceiling are just, how could they maximise the attractions between the molecules in their feet, and the molecules in the ceiling? So what I’m trying to do all the time is to show applications, powerful, interesting, hopefully, and engaging applications of the ideas that are important. So, for students to engage and to feel, ‘well this is worth hacking my way through the jungle of detail to be able to understand it’, is to zoom out and show them how this topic relates to all of the other topics.  It’s called scaffolding, and it’s a very, very important idea. So, the other factors are essentially the incredible number of other applications of this idea... that the power of an idea is its explanatory power, and when they can see just how important an idea is, in being able to explain all sorts of phenomena, they might be willing to care about it more.

We teach way too much stuff.  We teach way too much stuff that we used to teach because students didn’t have the resources available to them that they’ve got now.  I mean if you look at the resources - they’ve got textbooks, they’ve got electronic media, they’ve got Sapling. They can do the problems in their own time in a guided way with something like Sapling. We don’t have to do it, all we’ve got to do is give them the framework to solve the problems.  And I think we often misunderstand how much we should give them because I think we underestimate the value of letting them solve problems in a guided way with things like Sapling.  And I think, you know, in the old days we’d just do problem after problem after problem, which is as boring as anything.

In the workshops, the workshop idea as we run them is that you are out and about and amongst the students all the time in those groups, seeing what’s going on in the groups, seeing how they’re answering their questions.  They have set questions on sheets that they work through in groups and the groups of three just get one set.  They’re all working on them together and you’re moving in and out and around among the groups and seeing how they’re going.  In that circumstance you can quickly, having looked at three or four of your eight different groups, figure out where a particular issue would be and then that can be addressed on the board, it can be addressed with models or something like that.

The actual curly arrow mechanisms are in a way themselves cartoons, how they map to the reality in the way that a Micky Mouse might map to real life.

I guess what every educator deals with is needing to find out what preconceptions there are at the start of the unit and then correct those and then keep on top of those throughout the course.  For example I get students who use the word particle and the word droplet interchangeably. Whereas to an expert, a particle is something that is made of a solid material and a droplet is something that’s a liquid material.  Students use those interchangeably so they may be talking about a suspension of solid materials but then they use the word droplet because they think it’s interchangeable with the word particle. Or vice versa, they might be talking about an emulsion and they talk about particles where they should be talking about droplets.  So because they’ve heard these phrases before in first year... the importance of using exactly correct terminology hasn’t been reinforced.

I find it [teaching] enjoyable, and I think that if you’re enjoying teaching something then your passion and desire and enjoyment gets transmitted to the students.  It’s not necessarily easy to teach, but it’s satisfying and generally we want to inspire them to increase their level of intrinsic motivation to want to continue to study chemistry.

Chemistry is a different language so I try to approach it that way by explaining the ideas behind symbols.

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