Expert Insights

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.

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.

At the start of every class my standard thing was ‘can you see me, can you hear me, can you see the slide?’ I would always look up the back for someone to put their hand up and always I would never talk to the front row. I’d always talk middle and back row and if someone was talking in the back row I’d pick them up and say ‘hey you, be quiet’ and then they know that I’ve seen them.

So you’ve got to focus on the whole class not just the people at the front - the people at the back as well.  Because sometimes smart people sit at the back as well, not just the dummies who want to get out. You’ve got to make sure you know everyone in the class.  And the surprising thing is that most kids sit in the same place every lecture.

So you can actually recognise where they are and who they are.  You don’t know their names but there’s a pattern in the way they sit.  You’ve just got to be aware of that.  So the trick is to embrace the whole class with your - you know physically, just with your eyes and and the way you talk.  You know, when you wave your hands, wave it to the back row. Make sure they’re involved.

It is vitally important for their understanding of chemistry that they understand that molecules are three-dimensional things and that they have a spatial requirement in that they have a shape of their own and that shape will change.  They can't do higher level manipulations without an understanding of three-dimensional nature of molecules.

I find it [teaching] enjoyable, and I think that if you’re enjoying teaching something then your passion and desire and enjoyment gets transmitted to the students.  It’s not necessarily easy to teach, but it’s satisfying and generally we want to inspire them to increase their level of intrinsic motivation to want to continue to study chemistry.

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.

It now does come down to the quality of the presentation in terms of what you put on the PowerPoint I suppose, cos we all use PowerPoint.  But I try most lectures to switch that off and use the visualiser and write things down by hand, where I can see that something is missing on the PowerPoint, or if I think the students haven’t got a particular message, don’t understand a reaction, don’t know about a mechanism. I’m happy to stop, go to the visualiser and write it down at the correct sort of pace, by which they can actually write it down themselves.

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. 

I think what I try to get students to see is that we use models and you use a model, while it works. Then when it doesn’t work you develop a more sophisticated model, and what we’re doing now is developing a more sophisticated model of the structure of the atom, of bonding between atoms. So they find that difficult, the fact that you’re putting aside the model you used previously and developing a more sophisticated one. I think that’s something, it just knocks their confidence a bit. I think we’ve got to convince them that, actually, what your teachers told you at school wasn't wrong, it’s just that this is more sophisticated, that science is all about building models to explain reality.

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.

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