Expert Insights

Students see equations and panic. Students struggle to transfer mathematical knowledge to chemical situations. Students silo knowledge and find it hard to relate concepts to actual systems.

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 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 personally the quicker the students can see that holistic approach to chemistry the better... Because that’s when they start to realise how cool it is.

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.

Students should [only] be limited by students' curiosity.

So my approach to teaching is that I want students to be actively engaged with the material throughout the lectures, all the tutorials, all the workshops or whatever, and so I’m not giving didactic lectures, I’m not using lots of PowerPoint slides.  I’m giving them information. I’m describing things to them, but then I give them lots of examples and lots of things to do, lots of activities to do. 

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 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. 

So, just to make them do some work, and made them think about the ideas themselves.  Talk amongst themselves about it.  I think that just too much of me in the lecture just washes over them after five to 10 minutes.  So they just need to have a break, think about the problem, do a couple of problems, talk amongst themselves... that seems to help, with both the variety of students in the class, but also just keeping them engaged.  Keeping their attention.