Expert Insights

[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.

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.

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 find that some students pick up what the mole concept is from the idea of grouping numbers of things that are every day size. 

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.

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 what I try to get students to see is that we use models and you use a model, while it works. Then when it doesn’t work you develop a more sophisticated model, and what we’re doing now is developing a more sophisticated model of the structure of the atom, of bonding between atoms. So they find that difficult, the fact that you’re putting aside the model you used previously and developing a more sophisticated one. I think that’s something, it just knocks their confidence a bit. I think we’ve got to convince them that, actually, what your teachers told you at school wasn't wrong, it’s just that this is more sophisticated, that science is all about building models to explain reality.

They struggle with the language of chemistry.  So we sort of need to teach them the process and how to work out how to do these things.  We know that their tendency is just to attempt to memorise reactions.  Whereas if we can teach them to derive … find out what the nucleophile and the electrophile is then all they have to do is draw a curly arrow from the nucleophile to the electrophile, rather than trying to work out what the reaction is itself. 

I think to get the students to straight away mark for somebody else what they’ve just done and then to mark or take part in the marking of two other versions of the same thing is really powerful.  So it’s not so much me directly finding out what they do and don’t understand but using methods by which they can diagnose for themselves.  I haven’t got this, she has, or yep I have got most of that, she hasn’t, and I can see where she went wrong.  Very powerful, very powerful indeed. 

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

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