Expert Insights

Many years ago, lecturers only had one style, you know they just wrote on the blackboard, actual blackboard with chalk.  That was the only style.  They just talked... That’s all I knew so that was fine and so I thought, well I’ll just continue that and the students weren’t understanding what I was saying and explaining and I thought, oh hang on what’s going on here?  This is the way I was taught.  Come on, it should work.  So, yeah I think it would be good if someone told me that at the start, but as I said because I’d end up doing my Diploma of Education that opened my eyes to that and that’s when I started to utilise different strategies and I appreciate that not everyone is going to understand one way of, my teaching way.

You're learning a new language as well as new concepts. There's lots of vocab, so terms like electrophile and nucleophile and many others. So learning the language, learning the code that we use, the curly arrow code, and then starting to apply that in half a dozen or a dozen or so different contexts, different reactions.

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.

So into the lectures I put kind of ad breaks, I suppose, short 'meet the scientist' breaks.  So we would have a photograph and fun facts about a scientist and various places we would have a stop, and I have told them that all of that information wasn't on the exam, so they knew that they could stop and just take a breather and then pick back up on the chemistry afterwards.  So that, I think helped, especially the ones that were just finding it all a bit kind of overwhelming. 

I know it's hard for them to 'suspend reality' and just accept a concept. They grasp for real life examples or metaphors which make sense to them. Students don't like the concept of something that can shift/change. They like one answer which is set and that's it, right or wrong - not 'shifts to the left/right'.

They [students] reveal great misunderstandings about the molecular world. So the difficulties and limitations are as a result of not spending sufficient time on getting them to think about this world, and spending too much time on doing. You know, we’ve got to spend some time, but you can’t spend too much time, I think, on a lot of the ideas that we do teach, and doing calculations and things that, really, no one else does. It’s really something that’s done almost like it’s make-work-type stuff.

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. 

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.

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.

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.’

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