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August 2016

What makes a great chemistry teacher?

Pedagogical content knowledge from teachers and academics has been captured and coded to create a new resource for chemistry education.

It is surprising that science academics who place high levels of importance upon evidence‐based practice for research do not consider the same evidence‐base as being important in their teaching. da Silva K.B. (2008). Raising the profile of teaching and learning: scientists leading scientists. ALTC. p. 25

Classroom teaching practice is a personal skill that develops with experience and through reflection. Teacher behaviour involves responding to a specific group of students in a particular class and so is impossible to completely plan in advance. However, steps towards the development of more effective teaching methods are possible even with limited time and resources.

Associate Professor Gwen Lawrie from the University of Queensland and I, together with research assistants Bronwin Dargaville and Chantal Bailey, have spent the past two years investigating teaching strategies within the framework of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) as described in the September 2014 issue. PCK can be loosely defined as ways of teaching specific content, including the choice of representations, examples and analogies along with an understanding of typical student difficulties. While there is a vast body of research into PCK at the secondary level and it is explicitly taught and practised, PCK has been investigated less at the tertiary level.

The motivation for this project came from the recognition that in general, novice teachers in universities rarely receive professional development in discipline-specific teaching practices. Instead they rely on a mixture of their own learning experiences, advice or mentoring provided by their colleagues and learning from their own mistakes as they gain experience. This process is in stark contrast to the culture in secondary school teacher training in which awareness of how students learn is linked to a disciplinary context to help teachers develop their PCK, and PCK is often taught explicitly.

A decade prior to this project, internationally renowned chemical educator Professor Bob Bucat from the University of Western Australia wrote in Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 2004, vol. 5(3), pp. 215–28):

The chemical education enterprise is crying out for ‘applied research’ that probes and documents the topic-specific PCK of respected teachers.

Currently in the teaching profession the accumulated PCK of each of its participants grows with experience, peaks at retirement, and then disappears - often with hardly a contribution to the collective wisdom of the profession. (p. 225)

To try to capture some of the wisdom to which Bucat refers, this project has collected topic-specific PCK from more than 50 chemistry academics from around Australia within workshops. In addition, we conducted interviews with ten recognised exceptional tertiary teachers about their personal teaching strategies. The interviewees were chosen on the basis of institutional or national awards for teaching excellence and were a mix of teaching and research-intensive academics representing different subdisciplines of chemistry. The resulting data from workshops and interviews were coded and a website was built (, which distils the specific teaching strategies that are used for particular topics in chemistry. The site can be searched by chemistry topic or type of teaching strategy. Teaching strategies have been collated for a range of topics and subtopics (see table).

The website has been live since April this year and has attracted national and international attention. Feedback from users has been very positive, showing that it is a useful resource, particularly for those new to teaching a particular topic. Further teaching strategies will be added and readers are invited to contribute their own favourite strategies to the website.

We collected many insightful quotes from the expert teachers. Combining these with the current educational literature led to the development of a series of seven steps (see box) to enhance teaching that are applicable in any discipline. The website and the steps are recommended to any academics in the early stages of their teaching careers.

We found that the most favoured teaching strategies evolve with increasing numbers of years of teaching experience. In the first two years of teaching, most academics’ teaching strategies rely on demonstration and explanation. Participants with three to seven years of teaching experience were more likely to use examples and real-world applications as their most favoured teaching strategies. After eight years of teaching, the most common strategies involve student participation, and this persists through to the most experienced and expert academics. Thus, these strategies are likely to be most effective and novice teachers could attempt to move towards expert behaviour.

Tertiary chemistry teachers typically have a focused research background within a specific chemistry subdiscipline other than chemical education. This background influences their epistemological perspectives and can inform their understanding and explanations of basic chemical concepts. This project aimed to capture the PCK of chemistry teachers with a variety of backgrounds to compare their teaching strategies for the same topics and to seek common threads that tie together chemistry PCK.

Some quotes illustrate the depth of interviewees’ affiliation to their subdiscipline. For example, an organic chemist, describing the use of curly arrows to understand reaction mechanisms, said

... it takes organic chemistry from a rote learning discipline ... to an understanding and an intuitive discipline ... for students that can make that transition and can fully understand that concept, then they have a much deeper and more profound understanding of and relationship with the whole discipline ...

A bioinorganic chemist had a different perspective on what is most important:

It is imperative for all future understanding of chemistry that they understand that molecules are 3D things, they have a spatial requirement and a 3D shape that may change when the molecule reacts with something.

Perhaps the strongest statement about what is fundamental to understanding chemistry came from an inorganic chemist:

... that’s the underpinning of all chemistry. If you don’t understand how atoms bond together, you can’t do chemistry, or you can’t understand chemistry ... chemistry is all about electrons and electron configuration, and you can forget everything else, it’s just what’s your electron configuration? How does that atom attain more stable electron configuration? And that’s chemistry.

The expert teachers gave examples of advice they wished they had received when starting out. For example, in terms of preparation: ‘it’s very important to be able to know what’s coming, know what’s gone behind and know what you’re doing at the moment fits both ways’. During class time, perceptive comments were ‘focus on what they’re doing rather than what you’re doing’ and ‘teaching through intuition is not good enough, and teaching the way you were taught is not good enough’. The value of experience is shown by the quote: ‘it’s taken me a little while to realise is that the students weren’t understanding what the question was’.

Finally, to help combat what Bucat has called ‘professional amnesia’, a metareview of all outcomes of federally funded chemistry education projects in Australia over the past 20 years was completed. The outcomes from the 22 grants for which information was available form a major source of PCK and TSPK (topic specific professional knowledge), and the outputs provide additional resources relevant to this project’s community. The review will be published in the Australian Journal of Education in Chemistry in 2016 and the collected resources are available on the website.

If you are interested in more detail on the project or would like to contribute a teaching strategy to the PCK website please email

Madeleine Schultz MRACI CChem was a senior lecturer in chemistry at Queensland University of Technology until recently and is currently working at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, synthesising fluorescent dyes for live cell microscopy. Support for this project has been provided by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching (SD14-3737). The views expressed in this project do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching.


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