Expert Insights

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. 

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.

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

Ions and ionic chemistry are essential to life and just about everything they will run across.

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.

Students see equations and panic. Students struggle to transfer mathematical knowledge to chemical situations. Students silo knowledge and find it hard to relate concepts to actual systems.

It now does come down to the quality of the presentation in terms of what you put on the PowerPoint I suppose, cos we all use PowerPoint.  But I try most lectures to switch that off and use the visualiser and write things down by hand, where I can see that something is missing on the PowerPoint, or if I think the students haven’t got a particular message, don’t understand a reaction, don’t know about a mechanism. I’m happy to stop, go to the visualiser and write it down at the correct sort of pace, by which they can actually write it down themselves.

It was a revelation to me in second year when [one of the top professors] said to me, "Buy a model kit." And so now I tell all my students.

So, it’s helping to bed down analysis, problem solving, doing the sort of detective work to get to an answer.  And the students also seem to quite enjoy having material presented to them in that way - here’s a spectrum, what do you think the structure is, because it’s a more active form of learning as well.  So I find I enjoy teaching it, and they respond well in terms of, they keep coming in and asking me for additional problems to practise on which is clearly evidence that they feel it’s challenging them.

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’.