Expert Insights

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. 

So I think we just, I used to give them, perhaps, 10 minutes to work on a problem, now I probably only give them two or three minutes.  I find that concentrates them and prevents them just talking about the State of Origin or whatever it is that’s on their mind.  We just need to keep changing the activity, rather than have extended activities... we want them to chat, but I think human beings won’t sit and chat about quantum mechanics for more than two or three minutes, they’ll get onto what they want for lunch.  So it’s that balance.

Too often I think students and others think that analytical chemistry is just that measurement step.  When you use the AA, when you use the ... and doesn’t take into account, well all of the other stuff, what’s the actual problem you’re trying to solve?  What are you actually trying to do, sampling, measurement, validating your results? Because only then when you’ve got a result, only then does it actually become information.

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.’


In the lab it comes out in a variety of ways.  It comes out most commonly when the student gets to actually start doing their calculations and you ask them to relate that back to what they’ve actually physically measured.  And when they start doing those sorts of things you realise there’s a bit of a misplaced idea here or a misconception that you can deal with there.

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.

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

I have one slide where I'm first demonstrating how we use curly arrows and that shows an arrow going in a particular direction from a nucleophile to an electrophile and emphasising that the arrow shows electrons moving - so it's got to start from where they are.  There has to be some electrons there for them to move.  So the whole screen goes black and comes up with a little orange box of 'never do this' which is an arrow starting from an H+, which has no electrons. The dramatic emphasis that the whole room goes dark and then it's just up there.

I think it’s a key teaching topic, also because it’s teaching students to look at data and to interpret data, to assess which part of that data is going to get them to the answer and which part is exquisite detail that they can come back to later on. 

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.