Expert Insights

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.

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 like to approach chemistry as a different language, because it used symbols to convey ideas across, but they are not the reality.  When we draw a little stick structure, alcohol does not exist as I’ve just drawn it, it’s a representation.

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. 

The difference between chemistry as it happens in a flask, chemistry as we show it on paper or in a textbook and helping students to understand that these are representations and they're conceptual frameworks that we use to understand our discipline and so helping them put those two pieces together.

Chemistry is a different language so I try to approach it that way by explaining the ideas behind symbols.

I think it’s really important that people mark assessments.  Mark, and see what the students actually end up knowing.  Because they can pretend to themselves that students have understood everything, but if they actually have to mark the exam papers, or the quizzes, or whatever it is, they actually are confronted with the students actual knowledge.  I think that’s really influential.  The second semester of teaching, when you think you’ve explained things well, and then 90% of the class have not got it, then it’s not the students fault at that point, it’s probably your fault.  So I think that assessment is really important.  Not only for the students, but also for the marker.  I think you can learn a lot from marking.

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.

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'.

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.

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