• Dr Kate Nickson

Making Chemistry Learning Active and Accountable in Online Classes

As a teacher I love to innovate in my classes and constantly think about ways to make online learning more effective. I was a classroom teacher for over a decade and a Head of Chemistry, but I only teach online these days, with small group classes for home educated students – currently for KS3 and IGCSE Chemistry. Lots of my students are UK based, but I also have a number who sign in from the Middle East, so we end up with a lovely mix of students who all bring different experiences and perspectives to the classes.

Some of my students are shy and struggle with anxiety, and as in traditional classrooms, there is always the challenge of how do you ensure that everyone is engaged in the lesson. In school, I was always a very active teacher, who rarely sat at my desk. I would always be wandering around the room, prompting students who were struggling, keeping everyone on task and challenging students at the top end to further extend them. When I first started teaching online classes, my big challenge was how do I replicate this in my online classes? How do I know what students are doing when I can’t look over their shoulders? Some students are really keen to answer questions and share their ideas. But what about the others in the class, who would rather blend into the background – let’s face it plucking up the confidence to talk over Zoom in a group situation even as an adult can be pretty daunting, let alone as a teen!

My first answer was Kahoot! Quizzes. They do take a bit of getting used to for some of my students, but mostly once they realise that it is all about identifying areas to improve, rather than me trying to catch them out, they go with it. The Kahoots bring accountability, as everyone has to participate. Many of my students love the challenge of being pitted against their peers! It also me insight into what they do and don’t understand, enabling me to address issues on the spot, but also in future teaching. These also provide an opportunity for feedback to parents about what students would benefit from doing a bit more work on, enabling the creation of strong relationships where we work as a team to maximise individual learning.

My next answer was a stand-up desk. It may sound strange, but I struggle to teach classes in a dynamic way when I am sitting, after all my years bouncing around the classroom! I find that standing up for my classes, gives me the buzz of being in the classroom and flips me into my teacher persona, which is so important for engaging everyone. It may be a grey winter day out there (at least in the UK), but we can all have some fun learning Chemistry!

My biggest win for teaching tricky concepts though and really enabling me to look over my student’s shoulders and give them gentle nudges without just telling them the answers, has been “Classkick”. This is an app that gives each student their own individual whiteboard. I prepare assignments in advance and then students work individually on their own boards. I am able to see all their work in real time. Initially I found a love of this for teaching calculations in Chemistry, as I can see exactly where in the process their understanding is breaking down and nudge them forwards, as I look over their shoulders. But I find myself using it more and more throughout my online teaching, as it brings accountability to students when they have to launch straight into answering questions for starter tasks, based on the previous week’s work. It’s a great motivator for making sure they are up to speed before the lesson starts! It also allows students to work at their own pace and promotes dialogue as we write each other little notes. I find that they often even tell me what they need to go away and do some more work on – what could be more perfect in terms of learning? Classkick is proving to be a particularly effective way of teaching my masterclasses for my Flipped Learning IGCSE Chemistry course, which isall about students pre-learning the content and then putting it into practice to move them further forwards.

My latest step forwards has been creating professionally hosted video courses. I intended that it would open up my teaching to a wider audience, with a more flexible way of learning at more affordable prices, all of which has been true. But actually, the real wins at present have been in being able to introduce Flipped Learning courses, but also in supporting my class students with more structured independent learning tasks between our classes. Self-marking quizzes and enrichment resources, provide accessible active learning tasks to help keep them engaged in learning Chemistry between our live classes. Plus, they know that I can see exactly what they have been up to on the course, which is a great motivator. Now it is early days, since introducing it, but I have just had my best ever set of test results, after a topic with lots of quizzes to aid engagement and accountability between classes. I am excited about seeing where it goes next.

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