Expert Insights

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.

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.

I think for a lot of people, before they started chemistry, especially if they haven't done any chemistry before, they've got no real understanding of the difference between macroscopic things and microscopic and atomic sized things. We all know how important that distinction is.

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. 

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

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.

The difference between chemistry as it happens in a flask, chemistry as we show it on paper or in a textbook and helping students to understand that these are representations and they're conceptual frameworks that we use to understand our discipline and so helping them put those two pieces together.

So you shouldn’t be rigid, you shouldn’t be rigid in what you’re going to do.  It’s always stunned me that people say you should know where you start a lecture and where you’re going to finish, and if you get to that point and you finish ten minutes early you then should just finish.  I’ve never worked on that principle.  I never know where I’m going to start because I never know where I’m going to finish, right.  So where I finished the lecture before is where I start the next day, I haven’t got a set content.  If a student asks me an interesting question and I get the feeling that they want to know that answer I’ll go off for five or ten minutes or three or four minutes answering it, and if I don’t get to the end of where I thought I was going to get to, too bad I’ll do it next time.  So you go with the flow, you don’t go with a rigid thing ‘I’ve got to get through these 15 slides today and if I don’t the world will end,’ because it won’t.

We teach way too much stuff.  We teach way too much stuff that we used to teach because students didn’t have the resources available to them that they’ve got now.  I mean if you look at the resources - they’ve got textbooks, they’ve got electronic media, they’ve got Sapling. They can do the problems in their own time in a guided way with something like Sapling. We don’t have to do it, all we’ve got to do is give them the framework to solve the problems.  And I think we often misunderstand how much we should give them because I think we underestimate the value of letting them solve problems in a guided way with things like Sapling.  And I think, you know, in the old days we’d just do problem after problem after problem, which is as boring as anything.

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.

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