Expert Insights

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.

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.

And it’s so essential, if you are in the middle of a discipline, to have a really well developed sense of what your colleagues around you are teaching, so that you can make connections.

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.

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.

In the lecture theatre the best strategy there, where you’re confronted by all the constraints of the lecture theatre, is to stop and do stuff with the students, walk around amongst them, see what they’re actually doing... And out of that you might go back and address some aspect of it and revisit it or something like that or you might point them to some tools to use to work out some other aspect.  So in the lecture theatre it’s very much for me a case of stopping and going and seeing what they’re doing and if you don’t then clearly you don’t know. 

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.

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.

We do an awful lot of focus on teaching but realisticly, authentic assessment that actually engages the student, that’s a tougher ask... I set a lot of essay type assignments. I think we ought to do more of that in science.  But when I started doing this I used to get very poor results and it’s taken me a little while to realise that the students weren’t understanding what the questions was.  They didn’t understand what I meant by compare and contrast or discuss or argue for this.  So increasingly now I use workshops to actually spend time with the students unpacking, what is this essay assignment about?  What am I actually asking you to do?  What do you need to think about? And not assuming that they know how to write an essay.

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. 

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