Adapt & Engage

Throughout my life, I have landed continuously in teaching roles, from formally teaching to assisting my peers in understanding difficult concepts.  Recently I have had the opportunity to reflect on how these different opportunities have contributed to how I interact with and teach students.  What I discovered is that I wouldn’t accept only the answer from a student, but I would ask them to explain their rationale behind the choice.  My primary goal, whether I comprehended it at the time, was to have the students achieve mastery of the basic skills and use them to rationalize their choices.

Throughout my career as a student, I found that if I understood the basic concepts, for example how to use pKa to predict reactivity in organic chemistry reactions, it allowed me to work through harder problems, which is advice I pass onto my students.  Mastery is not memorization and regurgitation of facts, but the ability to critically explain why a phenomenon happens.  In the field of chemistry, even the most complex of concepts can be distilled down to a few key, basic concepts including electronics, acid-base chemistry and sterics. By being able to rationalize using evidence allows students to reason out the answer on examinations logically.  The ability to use logic-based reasoning to arrive at an answer is a universal skill to learn and develop, that will help beyond academia. 

Very few students that attend the introductory chemistry classes will continue in chemistry and often struggle to see why chemistry matters to them in the larger scope of their life and career goals.  As an educator, I strive to include connections from course material and how it can be used or applied in the real world, as well as including students to make their own connections.  This led to the development of the #orgo2213connect as part of the second year organic chemistry course to encourage students to find their own connections (Figure 1). By connecting concepts to the world or their degree at large, I found the students have greater engagement and interest in the course. Also tutoring first-year chemistry to the Brescia University College Food and Nutrition Students, I found it helpful to teach a concept with biological molecules they had heard of in their other courses, even if they weren’t the classic examples.

Chemistry is a field that exists on a scale not visible to the human eye and therefore is hard for students to conceptualize.  Spending the time to anchor difficult concepts to knowledge the students already possess allows them to grasp the concepts more readily.  What I have found is that engaging the student to come up with their own mnemonics and memory tricks helps them to think about the system and find their own unique perspective.  During a teaching session at the beginning of term I was trying to explain para- and diamagnetism and I could sense the students kept confusing the terms so I took a break and told them we were going to brainstorm different mnemonics, and hopefully they would each find one they could relate to.  The main one we arrived at is one I would never have made up; the students equated each scenario to the different local bars and the stereotypical people you would find there.  It was so absurdly ridiculous and the students were laughing, that I decided to go with it.  To understand chemistry, the students had personified electrons.  For the rest of term this analogy was used by the students to explain a series of concepts, and when I saw some of the students after their final exam they told me they had such a vivid memory of that lecture that they easily recalled the definitions and then correctly reasoned out the correct answers.  Anchoring the on something relevant and accessible to this batch of students, instead of using a generic example, allowed them to engage in the content and develop their own unique learning experience.

So far a lot of my teaching experience has come from running an optional, supplementary teaching program for first-year chemistry.  Although there is core group of students that attend, every session has a different feel depending on who attends, what is happening outside of class and what topics those present are struggling to comprehend.  More than once I have had a full session planned, only to abandon it a few minutes into the lecture.  I try to encourage instant feedback from the students and create a space where they feel comfortable to tell me what they need to succeed.  While teaching a math-heavy unit, I had one student tell me that she didn’t understand how I rearranged the formula.  I took a quick poll of the students and realized that the concept they were struggling with wasn’t how to set up the equation, but the math itself.  The students weren’t required to take a math course as part of their program so their math skills were out of practice.  I quickly discarded the rest of the session and focused on reviewing fundamental math skills.  The students later told me they appreciated this impromptu lesson as it allowed them to follow more examples during their lecture. Being adaptable to the needs of students is necessary for the students to succeed.

I am early on in my teaching career, but in the future, I want to continue developing a sense of community in my classrooms that I co-create with my students.  Being open to student feedback and the individual needs of students helps to promote the students taking an active role in their learning.  I aim to foster a love of learning and to think critically of the world around them.


©2020 by Rebecca Yardley