Leah Martin-Visscher is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at The King’s University, Edmonton and the 2021 winner of the Margaret-Ann Armour Award for Early Career Chemistry Education. Her research with undergraduates explores the use of bacteriophages and antimicrobial peptides for food preservation.
CIC News recently asked Martin-Visscher to share some insights from the classroom.
Some of your students talk about how they were close to failing chemistry before they landed in your class. That you turned it around for them. What’s your secret sauce?
Oh, I wish I knew the answer to this question! To be honest, I think the answer has very little to do with chemistry, and more to do with helping students understand how to learn and creating an environment where they want to learn.
In terms of learning how to learn, I encourage my students to develop some of the following habits and strategies:
Take messy notes in class and recopy them nicely afterwards. And when rewriting, keep asking yourself, “do I understand what this means?” or “can I do this example by myself without looking at my notes?” If not, then stop and deal with it – go to the textbook, talk to a classmate, or send me an e-mail. Deal with those gaps as soon as possible.
When studying, talk out loud. You might feel silly, but when you say something out loud, you very quickly recognize whether you understand it. And by saying it, you are engaging with material in a new way.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I strongly encourage students to avoid using resources such as solution manuals or CHEGG. In some of my courses, homework is assigned frequently and marked for completion, not correctness. This takes the pressure off “getting it right” and hopefully, creates a safe, low-stakes environment where they can make meaningful mistakes and receive appropriate feedback.
Create a weekly study schedule. This strategy takes discipline, but the positive impacts can be dramatic. I invite student to work with me one-on-one to develop a personalized study plan. Their job is to come to me with a weekly timetable listing all their courses, work and extra-curricular commitments. Together, we identify five or six days each week when they can commit to a block of time to work on chemistry.
Creating a classroom where students want to learn is at least as important (if not more so) than knowing how to learn. I think most of us remember teachers who made the material come alive. I think people want to learn when:
Learning activities are memorable. I love to use props and act things out. Yes, I might look silly, but if that lets us laugh, it also creates an inviting classroom.
The material is relevant. I do this by focussing on student learning outcomes and using a combination of rich contexts, worked examples and sharing the history of chemistry. I use three guiding questions when planning and teaching: What do we know? How do we know it? And why do we care?
Students feel they belong. I want students to know they belong in my class and have a role to play in each other’s learning. This might be through group problem-solving, or student presentations. It’s also through the questions they ask. In the lab, it’s about brainstorming together and having students be part of the decision-making process.
So, I’m not sure if there’s one simple answer to this question. My students know I love to teach. And even if they don’t love chemistry, I think they know that together, we’ll work hard so that they can be successful.
You’ve talked about the sensory experience as an important part of learning. Can you elaborate?
One of the reasons I love chemistry is because it engages our senses. This is certainly true in the lab: We can feel temperature changes, see the appearance or disappearance of colours, watch crystals suddenly emerge from a solution, catch a whiff of different smells, hear hisses… I love it when I’m in the lab and hear students say, “that looks so cool.”
I also try to bring the sensory experience into the regular classroom. Demos are incredibly effective at increasing student engagement while highlighting key concepts. For example, when teaching VSPER or hybrid orbitals, I bring garbage bags full of balloons to class. When teaching conformational analysis and stereochemistry, molecular models are incredibly helpful. And sometimes, students have to get physically involved: When learning about IR, everyone needs to stand up and act out molecular vibrations (and it feels great to stretch and bend like that in the morning).
What are the overall principles that inform your teaching strategy?
Be organized. I know this sounds obvious, but there are lots of ways being organized makes for better teaching and learning. It means I have an overarching understanding of how a certain topic fits within a course and program. Being organized means I have thought about how to teach a particular topic – what prior skills and content students need, what examples, contexts and activities will be effective and in what sequence, and what follow-up activities will enable students to gauge their understanding.
Give students fair and meaningful assessments and evaluations. By fair, I mean students should know how they are going to be assessed and evaluated. Have they been given opportunities to practice testing activities? Have they received feedback? Is the assessment formative or summative? For group projects, will there be peer evaluation? If they bomb a test, are there make-up options? For major projects, is there a rubric? And by meaningful, I am referring to assessments and evaluations aligned with student outcomes. Meaningful also means that students are invited to participate in the design of these items and in self-assessment.
Remember every student is different, so check your bias and be cautious when evaluating effort and participation. Some students are outgoing and love to ask questions. Some students are terrified to speak in public. A student might look OK on the outside, but may be barely holding it together inside. Some students will be able to attend help sessions, while others can’t because they have work or children to take care of. With the move to online teaching, some students are embarrassed to have their cameras on, or can’t join Zoom because their internet isn’t stable. This is a reminder that I need to make students feel good about what they can do, not judged for what they can’t.
What is the single most important tool for you as a teacher?
A huge whiteboard with lots of coloured markers! I love to draw when I teach and one of the most common things I say to students when they come for help is, “Draw me a picture of what is going on.” During COVID, my iPad has been a lifesaver. It’s not quite the same as having a physical board, but it has certainly made the transition to online teaching easier.
When we’re trying to solve a multipart question, drawing a picture or flow chart can help us identify the parts of the question. When a student is wrestling with a key concept, having them draw a molecular level picture might help clarify what they do or do not fully understand.
I also believe that pedagogically there is something very different about seeing material displayed on a PowerPoint slide versus drawing it. First of all, drawing something (a diagram, calculation, or reaction mechanism) helps to pace the class. Secondly, students learn how to draw, which is part of learning the language of chemistry. For example, in O-chem, students benefit from seeing how to draw hexagons, chairs or a curvy arrow between two molecules. Third, as we draw, we can talk through what we’re doing, which helps students engage with the material on multiple levels.
Some of my students have joked that I need a holster for all my markers – that way I can keep them on me at all times, ready to whip out a red or blue or green marker as needed. Maybe one of these days I’ll finally get one made!