Expert Insights

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

So, it’s helping to bed down analysis, problem solving, doing the sort of detective work to get to an answer.  And the students also seem to quite enjoy having material presented to them in that way - here’s a spectrum, what do you think the structure is, because it’s a more active form of learning as well.  So I find I enjoy teaching it, and they respond well in terms of, they keep coming in and asking me for additional problems to practise on which is clearly evidence that they feel it’s challenging them.

[Analytical chemistry] is probably one of the things that’s easiest to tie back to their own experiences.  Because it’s very easy to link the idea of the importance of chemical measurement, is actually pretty easy to get across. You just talk about what is sports drug testing, road side testing, when was the last time you went to the doctor to get a path test.  These are all forms of analytical chemistry.  So I have a significant advantage over some people [teaching other topics] in being able to imbed it in their experiences.  Everybody has some kind of experience we can draw on to say, yeah that’s analytical chemistry.  The difficulty is of course to ensure that misconceptions don’t creep in.

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.

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.

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.

Pages