Expert Insights

I was thinking about Le Chatelier’s principle and how that’s quite cumbersome in its wording, and so when I teach it, and how I always break that down into language that’s probably easier for students to understand, and Bob tells me that’s called repackaging, and I sort of thought that through all my teaching I do a fair bit of repackaging, a lot of the time, so I guess that was just a trait that I use and has been pretty successful for me, I think.

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. 

The big picture is that in any topic there’re key principles, and if you as a lecturer can get across the key principles, that then sets them up to solve problems and to think about the other principles and how they connect.  But if they don’t, if they’re not prepared to accept the fact that there are these key principles you need to understand then it’s not going to work.

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.

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. 

Students from high school might understand that vinegar for example is a weak acid compared to hydrochloric acid, but they never knew why. And you could then show them that with equilibrium, this is why. And all of a sudden they’re, 'oh, I’ve always known that I shouldn’t spill HCL on my hand, but I can spill vinegar on my hand and put it on my fish and chips'... Those sorts of moments can really... the students go ‘oh wow.’

Anonymous

So the first thing that I really stress that people do, is that they actually go and watch some classes.  I think that’s the most important thing.  When they’re coming straight out of a post doc, or they’re coming straight out of the Research Centre, and then, they’re told they’re going to be lecturing 300 first year students, they’ve got to go and sit in the back of the lecture theatres for a few weeks.... when I came over from the UK to here, and the class sizes are about three or four times as big, it was just a real help to be able to see what worked and didn’t work  – how little time the students were on task in quite a few lectures.  Where the lecturer would just be talking and be oblivious to this.  I think people just learn a lot by seeing good things, but they also learn a lot by seeing quite bad things going on.

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.

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’.

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.

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