Expert Insights

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 culture in the chemistry department was always lots and lots of content.  And that’s changed now because you don’t need it, because they can find it another way, but you’ve got to give them the framework to understand the content.

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.

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.

Students should [only] be limited by students' curiosity.

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.

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.

I was thinking about Le Chatelier’s principle and how that’s quite cumbersome in its wording, and so when I teach it, and how I always break that down into language that’s probably easier for students to understand, and Bob tells me that’s called repackaging, and I sort of thought that through all my teaching I do a fair bit of repackaging, a lot of the time, so I guess that was just a trait that I use and has been pretty successful for me, I think.

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.

We all spend a certain amount of our class time going through definitions and jargon and getting students up to speed with the basic area and now that’s material which I take out of the class and put online and let students read and understand that in their own time before they come to the class.