Teaching Chemistry During COVID-19

As someone who has taught chemistry for 17 years, I’ve tried a variety of lecture styles. Some have been of my choosing, while others have been forced upon me due to administration or even the set up of my classroom. Teaching in the format of distance and hybrid learning has not had much of an impact on my teaching style; instead the method of delivery has changed.

I teach chemistry and physics at a small, rural Midwestern high school and our classes are an 84 minute block for one semester. We started off the school year in a hybrid format, where students came in person once every three days. Our at-risk and higher need students could come daily or two out of the three day rotation. We recently switched to distance learning due to high COVID numbers in our community.

Teaching Chemistry in the Midwest

I know that some teachers absolutely love using class discussion, jigsaws or fishbowls as a method for delivering curriculum, but it is one of my least favorite. Discussion works better when sharing ideas and viewpoints but it is difficult to use as a method for instruction of facts. Whenever I attend a workshop, I cringe whenever we’re asked to do group work in this fashion.

It probably has to do with my type A personality and that I like to be in control of my classroom, but I have a hard time allowing others to be in charge of delivering the content. I don’t trust that the students will do a thorough enough job of explaining the concepts and it is especially awkward if the content that they deliver is incorrect.

I have had this experience while mentoring a student teacher. I had assumed that she had worked on learning the chemistry concepts that she was presenting during her time as the full-time teacher in my classroom while she developed her lesson plans.

Chemistry Lectures Online

Unfortunately, she spent so much time working on the activities and assessments that she completely forgot to review the content, which led to me having to step in and correct some of her information. Because she was teaching about bonding and valence electrons, misinformation presented would lead to a poor understanding for the students in units to come.

When high school students are asked to learn a concept and then share it with the class, I feel that I inevitably have to teach the content again anyway, so what initially may be used as a time saver, has actually not saved me any time in the long run.

Also while the intent is to put students in charge of their own learning, there are always those students who don’t pull their weight and will leave the rest of the class without learning that particular concept, which again falls to the teacher to contribute the missing information.

A second type of instruction that I have always struggled with is incorporating demonstrations into my lessons. Many chemistry teachers that I know will go to great lengths to set up fantastic demonstrations for their classes but that has never appealed to me.

For one, I have struggled with my own laboratory skills throughout my chemistry courses. A thyroid disorder causes me to have fairly unsteady hands, which is extra prominent when trying to demonstrate techniques to my students. I also have had demos, which worked perfectly when I practiced them on my own, fail miserably when presented in front of students.

Discussion Topics in a Chemistry Class

I would then include assessment questions regarding the demonstrations, and the students’ comprehension on the concept always seemed to fall short. They would remember the demonstration but wouldn't be able to explain what the objective or purpose was in terms of the chemistry.

In my opinion, they are not worth the time to set up and execute when now there are so many virtual resources available.  Other teachers have recorded themselves performing these demonstrations and uploaded these videos to YouTube. 

They are usually high quality and deliver the same results as if I were to put these demonstrations together myself. During distance learning this past spring, I tried to record myself performing demonstrations and experiments and it was incredibly difficult to do-not to mention that few students were watching those videos, which increased my apprehension to perform virtual demonstrations.

Using the Document Camera in Chemistry

What was the point of spending the time when so few students were even watching the videos? I tried incorporating information for extra credit questions but even that wasn’t motivation for students to watch the videos.

Instead, what I have found to be the most successful for me and my classroom is to break up the block into a lecture and an activity. My lecture style is to share a powerpoint with my students and provide an outline that includes sample problems and diagrams.

Then during lecture, the students can fill in the outline with the information that is presented and add their own notes if needed. For students who have IEPs, I can easily modify the outlines for those who need notes with a little more information and structure. I do not include the solutions to the math problems in my powerpoints.

Rather we work them out together in class which forces students to follow along with the notes. I have found that this helps with student attention and engagement. When students are absent, it can be a challenge for them having the notes this way because the examples are not worked out. However, it does require them to ask for help to ensure they understand those concepts.

Using the SMART Board in Chemistry Lecture

One thing to note, I have a SMART board but it doesn’t “talk” well with my school laptop so I do not use it for notes; however I do use it to write and draw on and currently during distance learning, I am using my SMART document camera so I can handwrite examples. I also like the flexibility that PowerPoint allows with making adjustments to my slides.

I have coworkers who prefer Google Slides because the changes are updated immediately for students, whereas with PowerPoint, I do have to save the file and upload the new copy to our online learning platform, Schoology.

After the lecture, I try to have some activity that reinforces the concept of the day. That could be a laboratory experiment, virtual lab, project or calculation worksheet. Every one of my assignments has value in it and is not assigned as busy work for students.

Some concepts work better as an in-person lab while others are better virtually. My favorite unit in chemistry is stoichiometry because we’re able to use an experiment with calculations in order to reinforce concepts. That unit is the culmination of all the concepts my students have learned and I love how they are able to put everything together and demonstrate their understanding.

Group Activities in Chemistry Class

One of my favorite curriculums that I have used is called the modeling curriculum. Originally it was developed as an instructional method for teaching physics but has now been developed to include chemistry and physical science as well. While I use it primarily in my physics course, I have incorporated some lessons into my chemistry curriculum as well.

The modeling curriculum starts off each unit with an introductory lab experiment or activity. This introduces key concepts by having students develop models, some visual and some mathematical. I feel that this has led to a deeper understanding of those concepts.

It is in my states of matter unit that I have used the chemistry modeling curriculum the most. Students do a series of experiments to investigate the particulate nature of matter and the law of conservation of mass.

Teaching Chemistry with Powerpoint
They are asked to draw models at the atomic level and modify their drawings as new information is gathered and presented. A large part of the modeling curriculum is having students share their models and ask questions to help guide their thinking.

In order to develop an equation, students manipulate variables in an experiment which requires them to decide what type of mathematical relationship is present. There is such a higher level of thinking that goes on during this type of instruction that students thoroughly understand the concepts and relationships.

Chemistry Lectures YouTube

Now that we are learning virtually, I am utilizing these same principles for my lectures. Using PowerPoints for notes has been an easy transition for distance learning. I use my document camera daily to write out problems and to draw diagrams. We still have some sort of activity but it does look a little different.

For example, I am giving them the background information and data for a lab, but they are performing the calculations and analysis. I also am using some more video examples of labs than I would have previously.

Again a downside to that is that the students have to watch those on their own time. Live Streaming a video during our online classes leads to glitching and buffering issues which makes it difficult for students to watch.

I do think that students appreciate the familiarity of my lecture style because they know what to expect on a daily basis. I love attending workshops to see what other teachers are doing in their classrooms to see if there other styles that would work for me and my students.