Expert Insights

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.

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.

It is vitally important for their understanding of chemistry that they understand that molecules are three-dimensional things and that they have a spatial requirement in that they have a shape of their own and that shape will change.  They can't do higher level manipulations without an understanding of three-dimensional nature of molecules.

I started lecturing before I did my Diploma of Education and I would have recommended to all of the lecturers to do it because it really helped me in my teaching.  Mind you, I already had a bit of experience, I don’t know, you know, the chicken or the egg type thing.

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. 

It’s continuous learning.  I mean, what I used to try to say to students when I taught the acid-base stuff I’d say ‘look there are only about six types of problems and if you can solve one of them you can solve them all because they’re all the same.’ But what you’ve got to be able to do is look at the question and say to yourself ‘this is one of those types of questions therefore this is the way I should think about approaching it.’  So take the question, dissect it, decide what you’re being asked to do, decide what information you’re given, and then say ‘yeah that’s one of those types of questions, this is the way I should go about solving it.'  If you can get that across to them, that it’s not a new universe every time you get a question, it’s simply a repeat universe of the same type of question... But many students tend to look at each problem as a new universe and start from the beginning again.  Many students don’t see that there is a limited number of problems that can be asked on a certain topic.

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 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.

I think personally the quicker the students can see that holistic approach to chemistry the better... Because that’s when they start to realise how cool it is.

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