Dr Tony Wright - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Dr Tony Wright (Senior Lecturer, Chemistry, IFS, Massey University) - a Sustained Excellence Award winner 2002
Senior Lecturer, Chemistry, IFS, Massey University
Tony Wright uses alternative approaches to introduce students to chemistry, ‘... making the mathematical concepts a challenging addendum to the course rather than an often impossible hurdle.' These approaches include online learning, flexible delivery for the student and enhanced internal and extramural versions of the papers. Tony's students believe ‘That every lecture delivered by him is energetic, stimulating and always relevant to his audience. He has a remarkable ability to find chemistry in day-to-day life.' Tony's philosophy mixes both the traditional setting of the lecture and the laboratory with new communication technologies, ‘... I believe the wise course is a steady integration of the new methods beside the old.' Tony has been the recipient of Massey's Distinguished Teaching Award for first-year chemistry for each year since 1998.
Approach to Teaching
I came to Massey University inspired with the idea of making the student (and not the chemistry) the primary focus for teaching. This came from a spell working with and observing teachers involved in integrating constructivist ideas into science teaching. While I think this change from the traditional focus of teaching chemistry has been the most useful insight that has guided my teaching, I am steadily adding to the range of ideas I use from different learning theories.
It seems to me that teaching chemistry is usefully informed by social semiotics. This theory captures both the social aspects of the construction of chemical knowledge by chemists and chemistry students and the diversity of images that we use in our current understanding of the subject. I have come to appreciate that both aspects of teaching are particularly well served by online learning, and provide a unique motive for the development of online resources in chemical education.
On the other hand adult learning theories also prise the chemistry teacher away from the traditional focus on the concepts and turn attention to motivation and the applications that will satisfy the student's demands for utility of their knowledge. The application of these ideas has greatly influenced my approach to curriculum design as well as the act of teaching. Resource Rich Courses A primary goal of my recent work has been to provide students with a rich variety of resources to aid their learning. In science and especially chemistry, the key ideas are often abstract and complex, often being best understood through mathematical models. Appreciation of the ideas often comes from practising their application in a variety of contexts of particular interest. Giving students access to materials in print-based, web-based format, as well as the traditional lecture and laboratory, greatly increases the flexibility of the delivery process and caters for the increasingly diverse student cohorts that are coming to university.
This has been an important step because it means that the chemical content of the curriculum is now defined so that the course can be taught on multiple campuses (Palmerston North and Albany) and in multiple modes (internal and extramural). At the same time we can alter the curriculum to reflect changes in our student group and the changing tertiary environment.
More recently we have authored online materials so that a colourful version of each study guide, containing interactive exercises, simulations and illustrations, is available online to students. This frees up the students so that they are no longer tied to the lecture as a source of information. It also frees up the lecturers because they can concentrate on the features that lecturers do best, such as motivation and integration of ideas.
Enriching the Lecture
The demonstration lecture has a long history of success in chemistry dating back to the public lectures given by Sir Humphery Davy in the late 18th century. I believe that this type of lecture plays a very useful role in subjects that contain difficult and abstract ideas that are alien to our everyday experience. Demonstration lectures can introduce a topic while providing links to students' background knowledge. At the same time they can be used to motivate, by conveying the excitement, interest and utility of the topic. Lastly, demonstration lectures can be infused with humour and used to illustrate the human side of chemistry with anecdotes and stories.
I have spent a number of years refining my style of lecturing in an attempt to cover all of these features. I frequently pose questions in a lecture, leaving time for brief discussion between students if the point is of sufficient importance. A number of techniques such as voting on answers provide different ways of accessing student response without embarrassing individuals.
"A primary goal of my recent work has been to provide students with a rich variety of resources to aid their learning".
Demonstrating the relevance of the chemistry that students are learning is very important. This is best done by using the chemical ideas that form the substance of the lecture to inform events in the news or things of immediate relevance to students. The recent theft of hydrofluoric acid from a chemical firm in South Auckland formed a setting for the day's discussion of intermolecular forces. This leads naturally to an examination of the value of knowing about chemicals and their hazards. In reflective moments, I enjoy examining the relationship between the chemistry lecture and a dramatic performance. An element of drama adds to the attention paid to the lecture by students but, if overdone, can replace learning by entertainment.
Tutorials are much more problematic than lectures in many chemistry courses. This is a serious problem because the tutorial is a pedagogically vital part of the teaching programme. It is meant to be the place where students review their learning and elaborate their ideas of the basis of problems they solve.
Solutions to the problem in addition to the traditional face-to-face tutorial include the use of formative online mastery tests to cover basic concepts which students need to be able to address the chemical problems they are required to solve. In informal workshops based in chemical laboratories, students can work on problems and get individual assistance when needed. Interactive web-based tutorials on particular topics that have been identified as causing students particular difficulty, such as stereochemistry and reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry, are also useful.
Bringing Chemistry Down to Earth
The laboratory course is a very traditional part of chemical instruction for the good reason that chemistry is a practical subject that involves handling materials. To make sure students gain the maximum amount from the laboratories we are revising the courses to include a strong emphasis on increasing the amount of actual practical work the students perform. The first laboratory most students experience at Massey has been changed from a pencil and paper tutorial on basic chemical concepts to a practical investigation in which students extract an aspirin precursor from the bark of local willow trees. There is an increased usage of contexts for experiments that are relevant to students such as the synthesis of dyes and the analysis of household products. The courses now include a measure of investigative work and many of the experiments require collaborative group work. The system of laboratory reporting has changed to encourage the development of student report-writing skills. The laboratories have also been supplemented by computer-based exercises and a series of computer-based pre laboratory exercises that help students prepare for some of the more difficult aspects of the labs.
The power of online learning is often not appreciated at first sight. The medium is not as personal as face-to-face contact and therefore it is unlikely to replace face-to-face teaching. But is does allow new and different forms of communication. A temptation is to compare it with other technological innovations such as the overhead projector, the television broadcast or, indeed, the book. But the online medium is different and much more flexible. We have explored some of the dimensions of the online medium and become aware of the power.
There is no sign yet that the online medium will replace conventional texts. You can take a book to bed and most people still express a preference to read extended passages on paper rather than on a screen. But the computer screen is a much more flexible way of delivering materials in other ways. In science, access to the scientific report is a key understanding and appreciation of the idea being reported. There is a strong onus on teachers to help students develop the discriminating mechanisms that allow them to make use of the plethora of free information that is available on the web, much of it very up-to-date and authoritative. At the same time student access to electronic versions of scientific journals through university libraries is increasing very rapidly and is readily built into online course resources.
While the traditional examination is not threatened by the online medium at the moment, most of the other forms of assessment are. We have taken advantage of the instantaneous feedback element of online assessment. This transforms the formative assessment offered in our first-year chemistry papers and provides materials to help students prepare for the summative assessment with online resources.
Online learning provides a tool for freeing up the curriculum, making it possible to cater for diversity in the student body, while there is also a need for more personal initiatives. Personal contact is very important, particularly for cultural groups for whom the scientific approach is less well rehearsed.
Variety in Assessment
My earliest experience of educational research involved the examination of validity issues associated with nation-wide examinations. A straightforward conclusion from this work and other literature on assessment is that variety in assessment is a good thing and involves providing the student with a range of opportunities to demonstrate knowledge.
Translated into the setting of the chemistry courses at Massey University I have introduced a range of different types of assessment. Multiple choice and other computer-markable questions are used to provide prompt feedback on learning while a choice is given with extended answer examination questions so that students can choose where to show their problem-solving and analytical skills.
In 1999, a change in staffing meant that I had the opportunity to teach second-year quantum chemistry. Using a grant from the Massey University Fund for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching, a number of licences for a molecular modelling software programme were purchased and the course designed with a problem-based pedagogical approach. This approach gives students motivation to learn while making the mathematical concepts a challenging addendum to the course rather than an often impossible hurdle.
Evaluation of courses and course developments is critical when matching changes to student needs. Although the University provides the SECAT student evaluation instrument, this is an evaluation instrument that is aimed at the teacher rather than the course. For this reason I have developed less formal evaluations. These have been used to evaluate individual components of the courses and identify targets for review and development.
Evaluation of online learning is much less well developed. We started evaluating our efforts when we first bought commercial software to supplement courses in 1995. Since then we have an evaluation methodology for online learning based around the stimulated recall technique for data collection. This methodology is being actively developed for more widespread use in tertiary education.