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.

I started lecturing before I did my Diploma of Education and I would have recommended to all of the lecturers to do it because it really helped me in my teaching.  Mind you, I already had a bit of experience, I don’t know, you know, the chicken or the egg type thing.

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.

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. 

In the lab it comes out in a variety of ways.  It comes out most commonly when the student gets to actually start doing their calculations and you ask them to relate that back to what they’ve actually physically measured.  And when they start doing those sorts of things you realise there’s a bit of a misplaced idea here or a misconception that you can deal with there.

I changed my method of teaching to be a team-based learning approach where in fact as teams they are responsible to each other within the team for their level of engagement or for what they put into that team and if they don’t put in what the team thinks is useful then they get marked on that, their peers mark them on how much they’re contributing to the team’s goals.  So rather than me as the educator saying you need to do this and you need to do that, in fact the system is such that as a team they’re responsible for a certain outcome and the team must achieve that outcome and so they need to work together.  For the students who don’t put in as much as the team expects of them then there is peer pressure to increase their level of input and their engagement and if the students don’t then the team members get a chance to reflect upon that and give them a sort of team work score.

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.’


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.

So the strategy is to reflect, to change things, to be flexible, to talk to them but not talk down to them, and certainly I would say to any young lecturer don’t be writing the lecture the night before. Know what your course is because then you can jump back and forth as you talk about something.  You can say yeah we talked about this a week ago or something like that, you know. Know what you’re going to talk about, the whole thing, because then you can put it all together as a package.

I use a lot of eye contact. The people in the back row are not anonymous, you know.  Make sure you’re talking to them and make sure that you see them.