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.

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. 

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 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'.

They struggle with the language of chemistry.  So we sort of need to teach them the process and how to work out how to do these things.  We know that their tendency is just to attempt to memorise reactions.  Whereas if we can teach them to derive … find out what the nucleophile and the electrophile is then all they have to do is draw a curly arrow from the nucleophile to the electrophile, rather than trying to work out what the reaction is itself. 

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.

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.

But if you’re honest, they’ll be honest right.  And I think that’s really important. If you b*gger something up and you really do make a blue or even a little blue, tell them.  Say ‘oh look this was wrong, you know this is what it should be’.  So that’s important - to be honest, to be upfront.  Recognise that we’re dealing, in 2015 or 2014, we’re dealing with OP1 to maybe 14. Recognise the breadth of that class. Don’t teach the top, don’t teach the bottom, teach somewhere in the middle, but try to make sure that you don’t lose the top ones and lose the bottom ones, which is very difficult to do and you only do it with experience.

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.