Power to the Students: Turning the Chemistry Lecture Around


19 December 2013

Sometimes taking a standard format and flipping it around can lead to new and perhaps better ways of doing things. So when Dr Mike Casey started to think about the limitations of the standard chemistry lecture, he turned it on its head.

“Around five or years ago I became much more aware of the limitations of the traditional pedagogy of giving a lecture,” says Dr Casey, who is a Senior Lecturer at UCD School of Chemistry. “The lecture definitely has its place, there is no question, and it can be done very well, but at the same time it doesn't tap into all the possibilities, so I began reading the literature and trying to make the lectures a bit more engaging.”

For one thing, he got the first-year undergraduate students to engage more actively with the material: he encouraged them to have discussions and solve problems during class instead of simply receiving the information. “I think because they are engaging with the material and doing problems, it is better for their learning,” says Dr Casey.

More recently he has been expanding that interactivity by piloting a ‘flipped classroom‘ model, where the students prime themselves with the lecture material before the class.

“You give the students the lecture notes or the reading from the textbook in advance and ask them to read it and think about it and maybe do a little quiz ahead of the class,” he explains. “Then almost all the class time is given over to problems and discussions.”

In practice this helps the students to understand fundamental concepts, such as how buffers work, which in turn can help prepare them for the practical elements of the course too.

He has also been harnessing the power of software to get students thinking about the nuts and bolts of chemistry using an online tutoring programme. “The students have to draw chemical structures and reaction mechanisms,” he explains. “The software is able to analyse their answers in a chemically intelligent way and give them feedback.”

Dr Casey credits the UCD Centre for Teaching and Learning with catalysing his interest in this area, and he is now attending conferences and researching more ways to make learning interactive. “That is making me aware of the possibilities but also of the limitations of what is currently available,” he says. “There are opportunities to go much further here.”

And as Dr Casey introduces the more interactive and ‘flipped’ modes to larger numbers of students, he is struck by how well the students work together.

“The thing that has the biggest impact on me is the recognition of the importance of that peer interaction,” he says. “I am convinced of the value of getting students into the habit of coming together into groups and collaborating.”

Dr Mike Casey, a Senior Lecturer at UCD School of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, was interviewed by freelance journalist Dr Claire O'Connell.