Expert Insights

I know it's hard for them to 'suspend reality' and just accept a concept. They grasp for real life examples or metaphors which make sense to them. Students don't like the concept of something that can shift/change. They like one answer which is set and that's it, right or wrong - not 'shifts to the left/right'.

The difference between chemistry as it happens in a flask, chemistry as we show it on paper or in a textbook and helping students to understand that these are representations and they're conceptual frameworks that we use to understand our discipline and so helping them put those two pieces together.

I think to get the students to straight away mark for somebody else what they’ve just done and then to mark or take part in the marking of two other versions of the same thing is really powerful.  So it’s not so much me directly finding out what they do and don’t understand but using methods by which they can diagnose for themselves.  I haven’t got this, she has, or yep I have got most of that, she hasn’t, and I can see where she went wrong.  Very powerful, very powerful indeed. 

Difficulties are having to relearn something that they thought was true from school and not understanding the evolving nature of science. New knowledge is easier to assimilate than changing old knowledge.

It always seems like we're starting from further behind than a lot of the other sciences are because they seem to know less about chemistry when they get here.  If I say ‘think of a famous physicist’ you probably already have thought of three.  Then you could go outside and ask someone to think of a famous physicist and they'd probably think of at least one of the same ones.  You do the same thing with biologists.  If I say to think of a famous chemist … that's within chemistry circles, we can't do it.  We can name one but you know if you go out there and say, ‘Who is this person?’ they've got no idea.  So for some reason … we've never … chemists have never been able to popularise our topic, our content.  We've never been able to make it exciting enough that someone who is not studying it still wants to know about it.  And so I do think we've got a bigger challenge, for whatever reason.  Maybe there's something about chemistry that makes it less enjoyable, I don’t know.  There's definitely been an ongoing issue for us that it's not … people just don't know anything about it... Most people know Einstein's theory of relativity.  You don't see that really in everyday, go, "There's the theory of relativity at work." Newton's Law, sure, you see those and you … but, yeah, everybody knows Einstein.  And a lot of … I'll call them lay people, I don't like the term, but non-science people, could probably give you a hand wave explanation of what the theory of relativity is about, which is a pretty abstract thing.  I mean, if we think of the equivalent types of things in chemistry that are that abstract, nobody has a clue.  We teach them in third year to the remaining hard core people that are left. 

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.

So into the lectures I put kind of ad breaks, I suppose, short 'meet the scientist' breaks.  So we would have a photograph and fun facts about a scientist and various places we would have a stop, and I have told them that all of that information wasn't on the exam, so they knew that they could stop and just take a breather and then pick back up on the chemistry afterwards.  So that, I think helped, especially the ones that were just finding it all a bit kind of overwhelming. 

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.

The big picture is that in any topic there’re key principles, and if you as a lecturer can get across the key principles, that then sets them up to solve problems and to think about the other principles and how they connect.  But if they don’t, if they’re not prepared to accept the fact that there are these key principles you need to understand then it’s not going to work.

They [students] expect to either succeed or fail immediately or very quickly on particular problems. They do not see the process as a learning process.

Pages