The Soft Introduction

chalk text on blackboard: The Soft Introduction

A bunch of years ago I had the privilege of contributing to several Ontario-curriculum approved Chemistry textbooks.1 It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. It was a lot of work, especially on top of full time teaching and a family. But what made this particularly challenging was writing to someone else’s formula. (Did Frank Sinatra—or anyone—ever sing: “I did it their way”?)

Among a zillion rules, we were not permitted to refer to a given concept—the Mole, for example—before its formal appearance in its designated unit.

I see nothing wrong with mentioning, say, the Mole, starting pretty much on day 1. It’s a unit of quantity, similar to a dozen.

No big deal. That’s all you need to say early on in 11 Chemistry.

Later, when we balance Chemical Equations, I pitch the coefficients in terms of moles, as well as in terms of molecules or formula units:

Figure 1: The early introduction of the Mole Concept when balancing chemical equations. Students find this intuitive.


Naturally, students will be formally taught—and tested on—this concept later, but why not introduce it softy, without hoopla? This way, when students begin their formal study of the Mole later in the course, they will have a certain comfort level; they won’t be surprised, and likely won’t be overwhelmed.

Here’s another example of a soft introduction: In a lab activity completed on the first day of the course, students determine the relative atomic mass of Mg to Zn.2 I use this quantitative activity to review Single Displacement reactions, which were studied in 10 Science. And more importantly, I use it to softly introduce the idea of Confidence Level in scientific measurement. I begin to bandy about the idea of significant figures in advance of their formal study3. This increases students’ comfort with this challenging—and crucial—concept.

As a final example, when we study Percentage Yield of a Chemical Reaction, I softly introduce Chemical Equilibrium, in a way appropriate to 11 Chemistry. At least students will have heard of this major concept before its appearance in 12/AP Chemistry.

Students are smart. Smarter than textbook publishers and curriculum wonks give them credit for. We can use this to simplify—not complicate—their journey of learning Chemistry.

  1. Clancy et al, Chemistry 11, McGraw-Hill Ryerson (now Nelson Canada), Toronto, 2011; Clancy et al, Chemistry 12, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto, 2011; Chemistry 11, McGraw-Hill Ryerson (now Nelson Canada), 2001, Toronto, Mustoe et al; Chemistry 12, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2002, Toronto, Mustoe et al; Chemistry (Nova Scotia/ PEI and Newfoundland editions), McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Michael P Jansen et al, March 2002, Toronto, 2004. Chemistry 11, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto, 2001, published as Chemie 11 by Chenelière McGraw-Hill, Michael P Jansen et al, Montreal, 2002.

  2. M. Jansen, A Super-Engaging Way to Start 11 Chemistry, Chemical Education Xchange, April 2022.
  3. M. Jansen, Confidence Level: Measurement and Significant Figures Simplified, Chemical Education Xchange, March 2023.