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. 

The culture in the chemistry department was always lots and lots of content.  And that’s changed now because you don’t need it, because they can find it another way, but you’ve got to give them the framework to understand the content.

I remember when I was taught this, that the only definition we were given was Le Chatelier’s actual definition, or his principle, and I remember reading that language and going geez, that’s really hard to follow as a student, so I used to always try and present that and then break it down in to a more simple sort of version that I thought would be easier to understand.

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.

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.

When they come in I give a very simple quiz which we do using clickers, the sort of anonymous audience response systems, and I just test a few multiple choice questions, just testing their understanding of some of those terms and then when I notice that there’s, well, anything more than 10 or 15% of students who don’t correctly understand those terms then we go through a process of exploring what those terms are and why they apply to what they apply to and then I retest that a couple of weeks later.... I notice at the end of the year some of the students can lapse back into their old habits, so it’s something that I am going to need to think of continuing to reinforce.

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.

And it’s taken me a long time to discover what sort of teacher I actually am.... I had a colleague who said to me, ‘oh you’re a narrative teacher’.  I said, ‘I’m a what’? ..... I tell stories, essentially.  I tell stories.  I turn everything into a story in some way... and again, analytical chemistry lends itself to that.  That you can link it to stories that are in the media, personal experiences, my own personal research experience.  The student’s own experience.  So it’s shared.  So while I thought I was a straight forward didactic teacher, you know I just stood there but I’m not, I asked students, ‘alright who’s got experience of this’, and then I use a narrative form to get that across, and it seems to work.

At the start of every class my standard thing was ‘can you see me, can you hear me, can you see the slide?’ I would always look up the back for someone to put their hand up and always I would never talk to the front row. I’d always talk middle and back row and if someone was talking in the back row I’d pick them up and say ‘hey you, be quiet’ and then they know that I’ve seen them.

So you’ve got to focus on the whole class not just the people at the front - the people at the back as well.  Because sometimes smart people sit at the back as well, not just the dummies who want to get out. You’ve got to make sure you know everyone in the class.  And the surprising thing is that most kids sit in the same place every lecture.

So you can actually recognise where they are and who they are.  You don’t know their names but there’s a pattern in the way they sit.  You’ve just got to be aware of that.  So the trick is to embrace the whole class with your - you know physically, just with your eyes and and the way you talk.  You know, when you wave your hands, wave it to the back row. Make sure they’re involved.

I want them to get the big picture about what analytical chemistry is about in terms of solving an analytical chemistry problem.  They need to know the big picture rather than just focussing on the measurement step.