Writing it down

Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through the lips and fingertips – Dawson Trotman

There’s much value in writing down what we are teaching. This past week, i’ve had feedback from students telling me they understand the lessons much better. 

The secret formula is to actually write down what i’m saying. Not every single word, but the important structures (i’m teaching organic chemistry at the moment).

And then to draw arrows to show the linkage between structures, use different coloured ink to highlight changes in functional group. For example,

halogenoalkane concept map

This simple action of writing down the concepts is easy to say but hard to do. It is always easier to rattle off what we are thinking because it’s faster. But spoken words floats into the air and dissipates. Before the students has time to process what structures you are referring to, you would already be going on to the reactions. Reagents and conditions. Isomerism. Mechanisms. There is so much going on, on so many levels, that students might get lost at any one of those levels.

For example, a quick check might have intended to assess whether they know how to process nucleophilic substitution mechanism for acyl chlorides. But students don’t even know what’s the structure of ethanoyl chloride to start! Most of the time, in a big JC lecture theatre, they will just pretend to be busy while just waiting for you to flash the answers. This really defeats the purpose of the quick check.

The point is, you’re the only one who has thought it through and have a clear image in your mind. Students are trying to listen to what you’re saying but most of the time they get lost when you refer to an imaginary structure. Then once lost, they tend to space out since whatever else you’re saying makes no sense to them. I always had to pause and ask myself, “Am i rushing to cover the syllabus or am i making sure everyone understands what i’m teaching?”

Writing down your thoughts and speech on the board will allow them to follow you, so even if they lost you half-way, they can easily pick up from where they left off. I can’t emphasize this point enough, WRITE IT DOWN. With different colours for them to know what has changed, what’s important etc.

Teaching Organic Chemistry

For me especially, it is easy to just project the answers on the screen and let them copy it down. But they have no idea how to work out the answers from ground zero, what’s the thought process. Increasingly, i see that if i lead them step by step, by writing it out, they will understand so much better. 

Whittling the lesson down to just 1 or 2 main ideas makes it easier for absorption. Like zipping a big chunky file into a manageable size allows it to be downloaded faster.

I’m glad that my classroom has this white wall which i can use to write on. Ample space to spread out structures and mechanisms clearly.

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