Expert Insights

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.

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. 

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.

I think we’ve all sat in lectures and gone, that was dreadful, so we learned quite a lot from understanding how not to do it as well as how actually to do it.  And of course the key is preparation and organisation..... whenever I go into a class knowing that I am beautifully organised, that gives you that extra confidence to project and to present, and you come away with that feeling that you know that the class has gone well and you’ve got the information across to the students in the way that you wanted. 

In the lab it comes out in a variety of ways.  It comes out most commonly when the student gets to actually start doing their calculations and you ask them to relate that back to what they’ve actually physically measured.  And when they start doing those sorts of things you realise there’s a bit of a misplaced idea here or a misconception that you can deal with there.

So the strategy is to reflect, to change things, to be flexible, to talk to them but not talk down to them, and certainly I would say to any young lecturer don’t be writing the lecture the night before. Know what your course is because then you can jump back and forth as you talk about something.  You can say yeah we talked about this a week ago or something like that, you know. Know what you’re going to talk about, the whole thing, because then you can put it all together as a package.

The concept of a continuum is, I think, really important in chemistry and… what I see is that students come up with this issue of things being black or white.  They struggle with this concept of the in between stuff.

When they come in I give a very simple quiz which we do using clickers, the sort of anonymous audience response systems, and I just test a few multiple choice questions, just testing their understanding of some of those terms and then when I notice that there’s, well, anything more than 10 or 15% of students who don’t correctly understand those terms then we go through a process of exploring what those terms are and why they apply to what they apply to and then I retest that a couple of weeks later.... I notice at the end of the year some of the students can lapse back into their old habits, so it’s something that I am going to need to think of continuing to reinforce.

So I think we just, I used to give them, perhaps, 10 minutes to work on a problem, now I probably only give them two or three minutes.  I find that concentrates them and prevents them just talking about the State of Origin or whatever it is that’s on their mind.  We just need to keep changing the activity, rather than have extended activities... we want them to chat, but I think human beings won’t sit and chat about quantum mechanics for more than two or three minutes, they’ll get onto what they want for lunch.  So it’s that balance.

I use a lot of eye contact. The people in the back row are not anonymous, you know.  Make sure you’re talking to them and make sure that you see them.

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