Tips from the McMaster Community

My students find it helpful to learn a difficult concept using a role play or skit in the large class setting

Pippa Lock, Department of Chemistry

Year 1 Introductory chemistry can be a challenging course because many of the concepts dealing with the molecular scale are abstract. After several years of teaching I have found that a visual example provides a concrete way for more students to connect with an abstract concept. If I create a quick skit or role play it provides a mechanism for accessing a difficult concept. It also provides a mental break from “lecture” mode. If the skit/role play also involves students from the class, so much the better, as the remaining students will connect more personally with their peers than with me. It also allows the students with learning styles that pre-dispose them to needing kinesthetic movement to engage with the concept by getting physically involved.

One complicated area for some students is the topic of thermodynamics, particularly the concept of a state function vs. a path function. Simply stated, a state function (e.g. temperature) is a measure of the state of a system, and is independent of path (path being a measure of how one arrives at that state). The skit we create is done by inviting as many students who wish to participate (typically 5-7 in a class of 380) to huddle at the front while I explain the idea to them. I provide a few parameters, namely: that each one travels from one side of the front of the classroom to the other, taking their route of choice (this means leaving the classroom is okay!). I then invite the rest of the class to observe what follows. Once all have reached the other side, we then have a few moments to discuss what has occurred, and what the class would have observed if they had all had their eyes shut while the actors moved from one side to the other. What the students observe is that all travelers start and finish at the same place (state), regardless of the path chosen. After one session using this demonstration I had to introduce a new parameter – namely that the travel be accomplished in less than 2 minutes (after one student left the room for an extended period of time!).

This has proven to be so beneficial that regardless of the course and topic, once I am comfortable with course content I find I will spontaneously create a people-based demonstration by taking the time to read the comprehension level of the class and responding as needed.

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