Many of us tend to ‘over-teach’ because it is
very tempting to subscribe to the notion that
the more we teach, the more students can
learn. This is obviously a misconceived notion
because the learning outcome is determined
by a complex mix of factors and the amount of
materials we dish out is hardly a gauge of our
effectiveness in teaching, let alone learning.
Let us not forget the basic rule of education —
teaching can only be as effective as learning
We can all learn from the science of chemistry
here. The yield of a chemical reaction is not only
determined by how much substrates it consumes,
but also by how the reaction conditions are
optimised. There are many reactions with 100%
consumption of reagents but very poor yields of
products. In the classroom, this is translated into
poor learning outcomes because of a disconnection
between teaching and learning, and the less-than conducive
environment. This is where the freshman
seminar can make an impact.
Students generally learn best when they are (a) motivated, (b) inspired, (c) engaged and (d) challenged. We can put these into practice in these seminars.
I have conducted two freshman seminars since the programme was launched: “The Artistic Molecules and Molecular Art” and “The Five S’s of Molecular Science”. They have one feature in common—the use of molecules to motivate learning.
The most valuable teaching materials are often those that matter most to our lives. Molecules in all shapes and sizes are present everywhere. Without them, we cannot live. Yet, if we come into contact with the wrong ones, we are dead.
The irony of these statements provides a great
driving force in motivating even the most “unmotivatable” students. The seminars give us
an opportunity to introduce a myriad of activities
that help students overcome the kinetic barrier of
Inspiration is the best catalyst for knowledge
acquisition and application. Different students
get their inspirations from different sources. They
are also inspired by different modes of teaching.
The freshman seminar gives one a the chance
to know each student and take a personalised
approach to meet individual needs.
One of the biggest challenges facing teaching and
learning in NUS is the large classes, impersonal
environment and the ‘free size’ curriculum. These
are by no means unique to NUS but the common
side-effects of any large comprehensive national
or state university. Every challenge creates an
opportunity. By injecting some ‘fresh air’ into
a ‘boutique education’ within a comprehensive
structure, we can seize the opportunity and make
a real difference here.
Researchers take pride in their new discoveries
and creation of new knowledge. An inspirational
teacher can offer new insights that can help
students grasp difficult concepts. Inspirational
teaching is not about delivering a highly
organised lecture or one that is delivered by
a charismatic professor. It is about offering
insights and perceptive ideas that make learning
enjoyable and enriching. Learning molecular
chirality is such an example. It is a topic that even a chemistry major would find difficult, let alone
novice students in the heterogeneous freshman
seminar class. Yet, there are many examples in
life that can inspire such learning; cutting dragon
fruits is one of them (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Appreciation of the concept of homo- and
heterochirality through cutting dragon fruits.
Is it too hard to differentiate “homochirality”
from “heterochirality”, or “diastereomers” from
“enantiomers”? How about taking on a challenge
to cut a dragon fruit so that two halves are the
same and yet not the same? Or cutting two
dragon fruits in the same yet not the same way?
Sounds mind-boggling? My students had hours
of serious fun doing it.
Teaching would never be effective without
engagement. Why do our students need to attend
our classes if they can learn everything from
textbooks, literature, the Internet and so on? The
key and the difference is engagement.
The small group setting of freshman seminar
provides an ideal opportunity to engage the
students on a one-to-one basis. My typical
freshman class comprises 50% of chemistry
major, 25% of life science major and 25% of other
majors such as physics, mathematics and statistics.
The heterogeneity presents a formidable challenge
to any professor in a big class. In the freshman
seminar however, it presents an ideal opportunity
to practise personalised teaching. Every student
is different and each requires a special approach
to maximise the learning outcome. This can only
be achieved if we make a serious effort to engage
individuals in the class.
Engagement requires more than personal
attention. It is a chance to introduce different
activities in and outside the classroom including
projects, essays, field trips, literature review,
presentations and teamwork. One will find that
different students respond to different situations
and demands, and the mindset of ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ students will change as soon as the class
is put through different challenges. I have not met
a student in my 25 years of academic life who is
strong in everything or weak in everything.
Students can be classified according to four
levels of abilities: (a) gifted, (b) admirable, (c)
competent and (d) inadequate. The bottom-line of
a professor is to transform an inadequate student
to become a competent one and to stretch the
potential of students regardless of their abilities.
This requires patience, skill and resourcefulness.
One will never be considered as an adequate
professor if one fails this challenge.
Chemistry offers another example to show us how
we can approach students of different abilities.
Take for example a simple 3-step reaction: A +
B ? … ? … ? C + D. An inadequate student
would struggle to get the answer of “C + D”. A
competent one would get this, but unable to
explain why it must be “C and D” instead of
“X and Y” or whatever. An admirable one can
go beyond the basics by offering an alternative
pathway such that A + B ? C + D takes place
in one step. This is an academic challenge that is
With a group of gifted students, one should
challenge them to propose a single-product
reaction (condition) such that A + B ? C when the
formation of D would be undesirable. This would
then become a molecularly economised equation
and a model process of our future chemical and
pharmaceutical industry. Freshmen seminars thus
allow us to introduce contemporary concepts to
the class in an informal atmosphere. The horizon
of learning is thus expanded, not by the quantity
of the teaching materials but by approaching the
materials from a fresh angle.
It is relatively easy to bring ‘hot-from-the oven’
research findings to the classroom. This
is where education and research intersects
and how even the most gifted students can be
intellectually challenged. A good example is
the concept of molecular assembly. It is natural
for materials scientists to introduce to students
ideas of Molecular Porous Materials (MOM),
Porous Organic Materials (POM) and Molecular
Organic Framework (MOF) (see Figure 2). These
materials are good illustrations of the essence of
the five S’s (Shape, Space, Structure, Symmetry
and Science) of molecular science, and are taught
as advanced topics in a standard chemistry
curriculum. Yet, when these are shared in our
seminars, students would be surprised at their
own ease of absorption and assimilation.
Figure 2. Porous materials developed in the research laboratory
of the author.
Molecular symmetry is another essential concept in chemistry, but it is rarely possible to introduce it to freshman classes. The freshman seminar is an exception. There is an easy way to learn symmetry through molecular models and daily encounters (see Figure 3). This is another example of how we can lower a learner’s kinetic barrier. When we further link symmetry to molecular origami, it is not difficult to see why we are getting some delightful responses from the students.
Figure 3. Home-made “molecular models” built by students
as a means to learn chirality and symmetry.
Freshman seminar is an experience not only for
the students, but also the professors. It provides
an ideal forum to build rapport and trust between
faculty and students. This form of experiential
teaching lets us exploit our desire to influence
how our students should approach knowledge
acquisition, integration and application. This is
achieved not by over-indulgence in the process of
knowledge transfer, but by sharing the different
mechanism in knowledge dissection, assimilation
and creation. If the freshman seminar can impose
a positive infl uence on the subsequent learning
and development of our students, we would have
every reason to rejoice as a faculty member.