Laboratory-based teaching and learning
Laboratory-based teaching and learning is generally, but not universally, accepted as a fundamental element in science education. While our understanding of teaching and learning processes has advanced through education research, the application of this knowledge to the laboratory has lagged behind. We are interested in addressing a number of general educational questions relating to laboratory-based teaching and learning, such as what are the purposes of teaching in laboratories, what strategies are available for teaching in laboratories and how are they related to the purposes and how might we assess the outcomes of laboratory instruction?
Of particular interest is identifying how generic skills and graduate attributes may be developed in the laboratory context. Laboratory work provides ample opportunities for students to cultivate skills such as collecting, analysing and organising information, communicating ideas and information, planning and organising activities, working alone and in teams, using mathematical ideas and techniques, solving problems and using technology.
Mathematics in chemistry education
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the many science students are finding the mathematical aspects of their courses to be difficult and therefore a barrier to their studies. We are interested in determining if anecdotal evidence can be supported by research, in discovering why this position has come about, and developing approaches to achieve the desired learning outcomes for our graduates, which includes the ability to use mathematical tools in a confident and competent manner.
Maths anxiety in chemistry students
Maths anxiety is described in a number of ways, but the common themes are that a sufferer feels, to greater or lesser extent, panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganization. This may mean that the student stops him- or herself from starting on a task, even if capable of doing it.
Students may be caught in a cycle of maths avoidance when, in the past, the student has suffered a bad experience relating to maths. The student then avoids mathematical tasks, resulting in poor mathematical preparation. This then leads to more negative maths experiences, reinforcing negative perceptions, and hence completing the cycle.
In the milder form of this behaviour, simple reassurance and guidance may be sufficient to break the cycle. In the strong form, this will result in a true lack of mathematical preparation and a fear of doing anything about it.
The protocol for dealing with students suffering from maths anxiety should be different from that for those students simply lacking adequate mathematical skills, but without anxiety.
For this reason it is necessary to measure the extent of maths anxiety amongst the student cohort, and develop mechanisms for identifying these people early in their studies, so that appropriate support for them can be provided.
Chemical misconceptions and constructivism
“Constructivism” refers to the theory that the process of learning is not one of simple acceptance and remembrance of facts, but one where the learner must incorporate them into an already constructed world-view. If that world-view can not be modified to fit the new knowledge, then the knowledge is not retained. In other words, the learner must construct meaning for the knowledge for it to be preserved. It is therefore necessary for teachers to understand the ways in which students incorporate knowledge into their “world-views”.
Students bring with them many preconceptions and/or misconceptions. These form the scaffolding on which students build all subsequent knowledge, unless they are distinguished, confronted and replaced or reconstructed in line with modern scientific thinking. Preconceptions in chemistry are extremely persistent.
There is typically a rapid evolution in fundamental ideas about chemistry between the ages of 6 and 12, but only very slow change thereafter, in spite of intensive instruction in chemistry. These misconceptions are likely to still be present in tertiary level students, right through to those studying for their PhD. It is important that teachers are aware of the range of preconceptions and misconceptions that students bring with them, and put in place appropriate teaching methods that adequately address these issues.