Expert Insights

You're learning a new language as well as new concepts. There's lots of vocab, so terms like electrophile and nucleophile and many others. So learning the language, learning the code that we use, the curly arrow code, and then starting to apply that in half a dozen or a dozen or so different contexts, different reactions.

This understanding builds students' knowledge about the basic structure of matter which stimulates them to think in sub-microscopic level that provides the fundamental understanding for further chemistry learning.

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.

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’s something that needs to be reinforced, it’s not that you taught it in this unit for three weeks, we are over it. It’s something that keeps coming back, and that you can possibly reintroduce it, with not much change to your teaching. Not every single time, but every now and then remind the students, ‘remember, you still have to think about stoichiometry and limiting reagents’.

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. 

It now does come down to the quality of the presentation in terms of what you put on the PowerPoint I suppose, cos we all use PowerPoint.  But I try most lectures to switch that off and use the visualiser and write things down by hand, where I can see that something is missing on the PowerPoint, or if I think the students haven’t got a particular message, don’t understand a reaction, don’t know about a mechanism. I’m happy to stop, go to the visualiser and write it down at the correct sort of pace, by which they can actually write it down themselves.

So you shouldn’t be rigid, you shouldn’t be rigid in what you’re going to do.  It’s always stunned me that people say you should know where you start a lecture and where you’re going to finish, and if you get to that point and you finish ten minutes early you then should just finish.  I’ve never worked on that principle.  I never know where I’m going to start because I never know where I’m going to finish, right.  So where I finished the lecture before is where I start the next day, I haven’t got a set content.  If a student asks me an interesting question and I get the feeling that they want to know that answer I’ll go off for five or ten minutes or three or four minutes answering it, and if I don’t get to the end of where I thought I was going to get to, too bad I’ll do it next time.  So you go with the flow, you don’t go with a rigid thing ‘I’ve got to get through these 15 slides today and if I don’t the world will end,’ because it won’t.

And it’s taken me a long time to discover what sort of teacher I actually am.... I had a colleague who said to me, ‘oh you’re a narrative teacher’.  I said, ‘I’m a what’? ..... I tell stories, essentially.  I tell stories.  I turn everything into a story in some way... and again, analytical chemistry lends itself to that.  That you can link it to stories that are in the media, personal experiences, my own personal research experience.  The student’s own experience.  So it’s shared.  So while I thought I was a straight forward didactic teacher, you know I just stood there but I’m not, I asked students, ‘alright who’s got experience of this’, and then I use a narrative form to get that across, and it seems to work.

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. 

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