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.

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. 

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.

The influence has been to stand back and let the students do the learning, rather than for the teacher to be barnstorming them with teaching.

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

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.

Many years ago, lecturers only had one style, you know they just wrote on the blackboard, actual blackboard with chalk.  That was the only style.  They just talked... That’s all I knew so that was fine and so I thought, well I’ll just continue that and the students weren’t understanding what I was saying and explaining and I thought, oh hang on what’s going on here?  This is the way I was taught.  Come on, it should work.  So, yeah I think it would be good if someone told me that at the start, but as I said because I’d end up doing my Diploma of Education that opened my eyes to that and that’s when I started to utilise different strategies and I appreciate that not everyone is going to understand one way of, my teaching way.

When you think of things in terms of energy you can represent energy … energy can be modelled as a particle, as matter.  It can be modelled using waves and then trying to talk about how we would use each model as it's appropriate for a particular situation.  It's the sort of things we observe might dictate which model we use to explain it, by recognising that in each case there is another model but perhaps just not as useful.  So maybe it goes back to just trying to show that everything that we do is a model, every model has its upside and its downside and that we usually only use a model that’s as detailed as it needs to be for the particular concept that you're trying to get across.  If you want to get across a concept of a car to someone who has never seen a car you don't probably show them a Ferrari or a drag racing car.  Maybe you show them a Lego style block and we do the same thing with our scientific models as well.  I guess trying to get across that idea that this is the model that we're going to use but it can be a lot more complicated.  I don't want you to think it's as simple as this but it's appropriate under the circumstance.  So I guess I spend a lot of time talking about things as models when I'm talking about quantum mechanics.  Our treatment in the first year, which is where I cover it, a little bit of second year but I don't take a mathematical detail treatment of quantum mechanics.  Someone else does that, so I really bow to them. So most of mine is non-mathematical, just simple mathematics and mainly conceptual type of stuff.  I guess some of the things I try and do to illustrate the differences between the models and the way that we use them is to ask questions in class that might be postulated in such a way that you can't answer it if you're thinking about both models at the same time.  So the one I like is where I show say a 2s orbital and the probability distribution of that node in between.  I talk about things that … there's one briefly, this plum pudding model which they all laugh about.  When you look at this 2s model there is a probability and a high probability, relatively so, that the electron can be inside the nucleus, if you think about it in particle terms.  Then talk about the nodes and so on and how they arise in quantum mechanics and so on and then ask questions like if the electron can be here and here but it can never be here how does it get there?  ...  I try and get across maybe the bigger picture, everything we're going to do from this point on (because we do this fairly early in first year)  - everything is going to be a model.  Nothing is going to be right.  Nothing is going to be wrong. Nothing is going to be exactly the way it is.  Everything will be just a model. You'll hear us saying things like ‘this is how it is’ or ‘this is what's happening’.  But really you need to interpret that as ‘this is a model and this is how this model is used to explain this particular phenomenon.

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.

[Analytical chemistry] is probably one of the things that’s easiest to tie back to their own experiences.  Because it’s very easy to link the idea of the importance of chemical measurement, is actually pretty easy to get across. You just talk about what is sports drug testing, road side testing, when was the last time you went to the doctor to get a path test.  These are all forms of analytical chemistry.  So I have a significant advantage over some people [teaching other topics] in being able to imbed it in their experiences.  Everybody has some kind of experience we can draw on to say, yeah that’s analytical chemistry.  The difficulty is of course to ensure that misconceptions don’t creep in.

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