Expert Insights

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.

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.

We do an awful lot of focus on teaching but realisticly, authentic assessment that actually engages the student, that’s a tougher ask... I set a lot of essay type assignments. I think we ought to do more of that in science.  But when I started doing this I used to get very poor results and it’s taken me a little while to realise that the students weren’t understanding what the questions was.  They didn’t understand what I meant by compare and contrast or discuss or argue for this.  So increasingly now I use workshops to actually spend time with the students unpacking, what is this essay assignment about?  What am I actually asking you to do?  What do you need to think about? And not assuming that they know how to write an essay.

The influence has been to stand back and let the students do the learning, rather than for the teacher to be barnstorming them with teaching.

You could identify people and you use it in a constructive way.  But if you could show some identity, that you’re not a remote person up the front, that the big class is not anonymous, it just helps to break down that barrier.  And once they trust you and once they like coming, that solves a lot of other problems - behavioural problems, learning problems and so on.

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.

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.

In the lecture theatre the best strategy there, where you’re confronted by all the constraints of the lecture theatre, is to stop and do stuff with the students, walk around amongst them, see what they’re actually doing... And out of that you might go back and address some aspect of it and revisit it or something like that or you might point them to some tools to use to work out some other aspect.  So in the lecture theatre it’s very much for me a case of stopping and going and seeing what they’re doing and if you don’t then clearly you don’t know. 

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.

It was a revelation to me in second year when [one of the top professors] said to me, "Buy a model kit." And so now I tell all my students.

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