Tag Archives: pedagogy

We Lied To You

Click to download the book

This book contains 50 lies taught in the VCE Chemistry course.

These lies include well-meaning simplifications of the truth, mistakes in the textbook, and, in a few extreme cases, blatant falsehoods.

This book isn’t a criticism of the VCE Chemistry course at all. In fact, I just want to highlight the sheer complexity of Chemistry and the need to make sweeping generalisations at every level so it can be comprehensible to our students. This is a legitimate practice called constructivism in pedagogical circles. (Look that up.)

Many of these ‘lies’ taught at VCE level will be debunked by your first-year chemistry lecturers at university.

Here’s a preview of some of the lies mentioned in the book. Check out all 50 by clicking the download link at the bottom of the page.






Get my latest book here: Common VCE Chemistry Mistakes… and how to avoid them

Common VCE Chemistry Mistakes COVER.jpg

This book is a collection of common mistakes in VCE Chemistry and how to avoid them.

It comes from years of marking student SACs and exam papers, and from reading Examination Reports from the VCAA as well.

It’s free of charge, very informative, and very concise.

Click here to download the FREE book.

Five most important things in any classroom

Students in a classroom
Students studying in a classroom. Source: theguardian.com

At the beginning of each academic year, I ask my VCE Chemistry students what the most important things are in the classroom in order to learn Chemistry. Typical answers include ‘pens’, ‘notebooks’, ‘tables’, ‘chairs’ and ‘a teacher’. I have a different view.

1. Students

Students are the most important ‘things’ in the classroom if any learning is going to happen. No learning happens without students present!

2. Textbooks

The primary source of information is not the teacher. It’s the textbook. The textbook explains every topic on the course concisely and accurately, and teaches students all the theory required for the end-of-year examination. Textbooks contain so many practice questions that some students don’t even complete all of them. Before hunting for extra resources or question sets, do all of the questions in the textbook first.

Learn how to use a textbook here.

3. Stationery

Pens are more important than notebooks because the textbook is designed to be annotated. The giant margins in a textbook (which aren’t there in novels) are placed purposefully to accommodate students’ personalised notes. Students should use at least two different colours of ink to annotate their textbooks, and they should highlight important definitions and phrases as well. (They should translate words, too, if they are fluent in another language.) Teachers will need to guide and encourage students through this process initially. Some students enter your classroom with an aversion to writing in textbooks.

4. Notebooks

Making your own notes is a very efficient way to learn. Any teacher who gives pre-made notes to their students is depriving their students of the opportunity to learn for themselves. It’s fine to give some notes to students as an example, but the vast majority of student notes should be written by the students themselves (even if they’re copying most of it from the whiteboard).

An interesting study found that students who reviewed their own notes outperformed students who reviewed notes given to them by their teacher.

Several interesting studies have found that students who hand-wrote their notes learned more than those who typed them.

Learn how to make great notes here.

5. Teacher

A teacher’s role, in addition to providing academic and moral support, is to bring the textbook (or the subject) to life. A teacher is the difference between reading a play and watching a play. A teacher makes the subject more engaging, more interesting and more relevant by bringing their own experience, funny stories and exciting experiments into the curriculum. Great teachers make even the dullest academic subjects exciting to learn. They serve to inspire and guide students to an extent that technology will never be able to match.

Not in my top 5…

  • PowerPoint slides
  • Internet access
  • iPads, laptops and other gizmos
  • interactive whiteboards
  • laboratory equipment & chemicals
  • printed notes for students
  • past examination papers

What do you think of my low-tech “top 5” list? Should technology be in the top 5? Will technology reduce the need for teachers? Is something other than the textbook the primary learning resource in your classroom?

Let me know in the comments section below.

How to Make Great Notes (15 steps + video)

Image: Shutterstock/isciencetimes.com

Look inside the notebooks of any student who gets excellent grades and in most cases, you’ll find that they have a pristine notebook, too.

Source: The Beauty Type Blog
Source: The Beauty Type Blog

Before you begin, make sure you’ve already started reading your textbook and have made gorgeous annotations inside it.

Learn more about how to use a textbook. See examples of more great notes here.

Now, follow these steps to transfer your notes to an A4 pad. This key learning exercise is suitable for Years 10-12 and undergraduate level.

Part A: Stationery Shopping!

  1. Get three colours of pens ready: black, blue and one other colour
    Always write in black or blue. Use the other colour to draw boxes, underline important words or make things stand out.
  2. Use a large, sturdy, lined A4 pad.
    Do not use notebooks smaller than A4, and do not use notebooks with cartoons or other distractions pre-printed on the pages.

Part B: Making notes

  1. If the teacher gives you notes for their PowerPoint lecture, don’t use them. Make your own notes instead. You learn by making notes!
  2. Always write the date, title and subject in the same places on the page.
    It’s a simple rule but many students (especially in middle school) still don’t do this!
  3. Use the same subheadings as the textbook.
    Organise your notes by writing titles and subtitles. Use the same subtitles that your textbook uses, and summarise the essence each section into your own words (see tip #8). Do not try to keep your notes to one page per section. This will become very restricting in future.
  4. Add textbook reference next to the title.
    Always write the textbook page number in your notebook. If the teacher doesn’t tell you, just ask them for it.
  5. Use at least two colours.
    Colours guide the eye around the page. Use them logically: one colour for headings, another for questions, and another for definitions, etc. Only use legible colours such as black, blue and one other colour. Write mostly in black or blue.
  6. Summarise the textbook’s content into your own words.
    Include: important words and definitions; diagrams; mnemonics and things you need to memorise. Exclude: chapters not on the course; things that won’t be tested; and those superfluous information boxes that don’t help you to remember the important stuff. Add things at you learn from examiners’ reports to your notes in future (see tip #13). Write very neatly in easy-to-read, lowercase letters.
  7. Draw diagrams large and clear.
    Every time you draw a diagram, you need to label it and explain what it means. Keep diagrams simple enough that you can reproduce them quickly and accurately during an examination if you need to. Don’t print ‘perfect’ diagrams and stick them into your notes.
  8. Write notes using “examination language”.
    The definitions and explanations in your notebook should be acceptable to use as answers in an end-of-year examination. The glossary in your textbook is the best source for definitions of scientific words. Make sure you can explain the concepts learned in both colloquial language and in exam-specific language.
  9. Leave plenty of white space on the page. Don’t try to save paper!
    White space is crucial to making the notes easy to re-read so don’t cram your text onto the page: leave some white spaces where necessary (e.g. between paragraphs and in the margin). You will probably need to come back to your notes and add tips, definitions and facts that you learn from examiners’ reports later on (see tip #13). Your goal should be to use up every page of your notebook – not to save paper.

Part C: Reading and sharing your notes

  1. Re-read your notes regularly
    Add to your notes using new knowledge you’ve learned from the textbook (and from class). This is why it’s important to keep your notes tidy and organised!
  2. Add comments from examiners’ reports.
    For example, “always write the ‘+’ symbol near the nitrogen atom on an amino acid in an acidic environment” would be a great comment to add (with a diagram) to the biomolecules section of your Chemistry notebook. This comment is paraphrased from a VCAA Examiners’ Report.
  3. Share your notes proudly with students who miss lessons.
    Email them or share them online.
  4. Re-make them into larger versions and put them onto your wall.
    This not only looks impressive but also reminds you to stay focussed as examinations draw closer.

There are dozens of great note-taking tutorials on YouTube. Here’s one you can refer to for Science classes. Remember that the specifics of note-taking vary from person to person but keeping your notes complete, neat and organised should be one of your most important learning goals as a student.

Any questions? Are you a student with note-taking tips? Leave a comment below!

15-Step Checklist when Teaching a New Class

Students in classroom

It’s so much easier to change your teaching style at the beginning of a year than in the middle. This is because new students in a new class after a long summer break are much more receptive to change than the ones who are already used to the way you teach. In fact, most students return from their summer vacation eagerly expecting something new!

The following checklist is based on what I’ve learned since I started teaching in September 2006; and I believe it’s a great way to start teaching a new class.

Part A: Get to know your students

1. Make a grades database in Excel

Start with the following columns: Surname, First name, Email address and Gender.

Make columns for any compulsory assessment tasks (raw score and percentage). If any assessment tasks are submitted late, just add a comment to the relevant cell in the spreadsheet. Nothing more needs to be recorded in this database. Keep it really simple!

2. Set up group email lists

Use your email client (e.g. Outlook) to create groups for (a) your students and (b) your students’ parents. You’ll use these to distribute resources and reminders in future.

3. Email the parents

Send an introductory email to the parents and attach the course outline. For most students, this will be the only time you ever email their parents. Just send them one message to establish contact at the start of the year, and they’ll feel welcome to email you if they have any concerns regarding their child’s progress in your subject. Remember to put their addresses in the bcc field to hide their addresses from each other!

4. Prepare start-up packs for your students

See next week’s post on creating start-up packs for VCE Chemistry students, or make a similar start-up pack for the students in your subject.

5. Put students’ birthdays into your calendar

Take the time to put all your students’ birthdays into your calendar at the start of the year, then wish them a happy birthday face-to-face on the day. This builds rapport, and students really appreciate it!

Part B: Get to know your curriculum

6. Read and annotate all your textbooks

Teachers need to be very familiar with all the resources they give their students. Just as you’d pre-watch a YouTube video before you show it to the class, you also need to pre-read the textbook before you endorse it and use it in class.

Unless you’re already done so, read all the textbooks for all the subjects you’ll be teaching from cover to cover. Make notes in the margins as you would expect your students to do. Highlight important facts carefully and summarise every paragraph all the difficult sections in your own words. These will be the words that you write on the whiteboard (along with any important diagrams) during the lesson.

See my post on How to Read a Textbook: 6 Rules to Follow for more information.

7. Add the following to your course plan:

Your school will give you a plan for the course you’re going to teach. However, these plans don’t always contain all the information you need. Get a copy of your course plan and add the following columns to it:

  • Textbook chapter references for each week
  • Any extra resources you want to use (e.g. YouTube videos) – you can always use more later; add them to the course plan if you do.
  • Assignments / tests and their due dates. Give each assignment/test a name and stick to it. Label how much each assignment/test counts towards the student’s final grade.
  • Experiments. Label how long each experiment takes and plan which days to do each of them for the entire term in advance.

8. Gather misconceptions for each topic

Dialogues about misconceptions are a brilliant way to introduce new Chemistry topics. Derek Muller, founder of the YouTube channel Veritasium, explains this beautifully.

Using your own experience marking tests and examinations, annotate your own textbook with misconceptions that students have about each topic. For example:

Great resources include:

9. Find out what’s going to be on the tests and exam!

Not all schools teach all topics on the curriculum, and not all schools test all the topics in the examination. Find out the topics to be tested on the tests and examinations and tell the students in advance (with textbook chapter references) so they can plan their revision.

Part C: The first few lessons

10. Monthly Seating Plans

Allow the students to choose their own seats in the first lesson. Sketch a map of the room so that during the introduction session, you can label who chooses to sit where. Tell the students that you will modify the seating plan every calendar month to break up students who don’t work productively together.

Be very strict about maintaining the seating plan. This creates an atmosphere of order, structure, fairness and respect very early in the year. Be strict about punctuality and homework as well.

11. Introduction lesson

  1. Stand in a circle: “What’s your name” and “tell me something interesting about you”
  2. Ask around the circle again: “What is [Chemistry/Physics/History]?
  3. Sit down. Teacher answers questions 1 and 2 for the class. Distribute the start-up packs and show their contents.
  4. Show students the textbook and get them to write their names in it. Don’t be afraid to write in your textbook!
  5. Revision of fundamental concepts from last year (a worksheet). Use this to recap the required knowledge for this course.
  6. Dictate classroom rules & homework expectations into students’ notebooks
  7. Show the students your office
  8. Homework is to make a name plate to put on your desk (be strict about this)
  9. Dismiss

12. Second lesson

  1. How to Read the Textbook: 6 Rules to Follow
  2. How to take great notes (see my post on this in November 2014)
  3. Start teaching the theory behind first topic to be learned. Follow textbook closely.

13. Third lesson (experiment/demo)

Do the first week’s experiment in the third lesson if possible. For year 11, doing flame tests in watch glasses is a great place to start. Keep the students motivated by questioning every aspect of the experiment: why use methanol, not ethanol? (Try both!) Why does methanol emit light when it combusts? (Electrons absorb energy/emit quanta of light) Why does the presence of metals change the colour of the flame? (Electrons at different energy levels in different elements emit light with different wavelengths when falling back to their ground state, producing different colours).

Flame tests (YouTube frame)

14. Do a feedback survey

Use SurveyMonkey to set up a very simple, anonymous survey and send it via group email to your students on Friday afternoon. There should be very few questions:

  1. Which class are you in? (Tick-boxes)
  2. How would you rate Chemistry lessons so far? (1-5 rating)
  3. (Any other questions you want to ask)
  4. Is there anything you particularly (dis)like about your Chemistry lessons so far? (Large comment box)

Thank the students for their honest feedback on Monday. Honest feedback builds rapport!

15. Plagiarism & Referencing Session (optional)

To establish an honest work ethic in the classroom, you can give your students a one-off session on Plagiarism & Referencing. Use PowerPoint such as t h e s e and give all students a printed handout. The purpose of this session is merely to raise awareness that copying is detrimental to student learning and should include:

  • what plagiarism is (and why it hinders learning);
  • the severe punishments for plagiarism in academia and in industry;
  • how to locate good learning resources (with emphasis on the textbook!); and
  • how to reference those resources in an assignment (using Harvard or APA style).

In some schools, the library staff are happy to arrange (and teach!) these sessions for you. Arrange this Plagiarism & Referencing session early in your course if you think that copying and cheating is a widespread problem in your class. ■

Is there anything I’ve missed out? Write in the comments section below.