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.

So my approach to teaching is that I want students to be actively engaged with the material throughout the lectures, all the tutorials, all the workshops or whatever, and so I’m not giving didactic lectures, I’m not using lots of PowerPoint slides.  I’m giving them information. I’m describing things to them, but then I give them lots of examples and lots of things to do, lots of activities to do. 

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.

The actual curly arrow mechanisms are in a way themselves cartoons, how they map to the reality in the way that a Micky Mouse might map to real life.

I think for a lot of people, before they started chemistry, especially if they haven't done any chemistry before, they've got no real understanding of the difference between macroscopic things and microscopic and atomic sized things. We all know how important that distinction is.

It’s something that needs to be reinforced, it’s not that you taught it in this unit for three weeks, we are over it. It’s something that keeps coming back, and that you can possibly reintroduce it, with not much change to your teaching. Not every single time, but every now and then remind the students, ‘remember, you still have to think about stoichiometry and limiting reagents’.

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, 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.

They [students] expect to either succeed or fail immediately or very quickly on particular problems. They do not see the process as a learning process.

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.

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