Research in Chemical Education

Organizers: Organizers: Barbara Gonzalez, Department of Chemistry, California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA 92834, tel: (657) 278-3870, Email:; and Kereen Monteyne,  Department of Chemistry, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, KY, tel: (859) 572-5408, Email:

The symposium “Research in Chemical Education,” was held as part of the Division of Chemical Education program at the 241st American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition, Anaheim CA. This symposium provided a forum for the exploration of research conducted on the teaching and learning of chemistry. Papers addressed the four critical aspects of chemical education research: motivation for the research, methodology, findings, and significance of the results and their potential ramifications for education practice and future research. The symposium consisted of both a morning and afternoon section.

Erin O'Connell (co-author Kristen Murphy) started the symposium by describing her project on using an eye−tracker to validate measures made with new assessment techniques. Rapid knowledge assessment (RKA) uses a rapid−measurement scheme to determine the degree to which performance on a task and reported mental effort may be used to help determine an individual's problem solving efficiency. An eye tracker was used to relate objective measures of mental effort through eye movement and pupil diameter to students’ self-reported mental effort. Task Evoked Pupillary Response (TEPR) increased when the problem was loaded onto the computer screen. It was found the perceived mental effort decreased as student performance on the items increased.

Hui Tang (co-author Norbert J. Pienta) also employed an eye-tracking device to study chemistry problem solving in a separate study that took place at Iowa State University. He combined a tablet computer with an eye-tracking device to capture students’ efforts to solve gas law problems. His research explored how and why complexity factors such as number format and variable units influenced students’ ability to correctly solve chemistry problems. The eye tracking approach used in this study can provide more rich information on learner attention and cognitive processing as compared to traditional assessment methods such as exam scores and times. The unsuccessful problem solvers were found to spend more time on the planning and execution steps, but the same amount of time on reading the information provided in the problem variables.

John Pollard described the modalities of spatial thinking in chemistry in a study of the pathways students use to visualize the rotations of objects. Recent work in neuropsychology and neuroimaging suggests that males and females may inherently utilize different problem solving pathways, which challenges the notion that a visuospatial assessment such as the Purdue Visualizations of Rotations Test (PROT) can force all participants to choose a holistic over an algorithmic pathway. Pollard’s study involved eye−tracking experiments to explore the visuospatial pathway heuristic that students utilize. Males who reported using a holistic approach were faster in solving spatial tasks and females who reported using an algorithmic approach were faster using in solving spatial tasks. Findings from Pollard’s study support the emerging idea that in general, there is an inherent tendency to select different problem solving pathways by gender and that the pathway of preference does not necessarily correlate with success in the spatial task.

Barbara L. Gonzalez (co-authors Matthew Radcliff, Elizabeth Dorland, Robin Heyden) investigated interactivity, dimensionality, and assessment in an online animation prototype for visualizing molecular geometry and polarity. The subjects of the study were general chemistry students and summer research experience students at a public comprehensive university. After formal instruction, students correctly selected the molecular geometry from a Lewis diagram cue and correctly drew bonds in three simple molecules, but their explanations indicated a shallow understanding of molecular geometry in three−dimensional space. Students were not able to relate the symmetry of an electron distribution to the polarity of a bond or a molecule in written explanations. There was an increase in the frequency of three molecular geometry misconceptions; symmetry as solely a two-dimensional phenomenon, confusing the polarity of individual bonds with the polarity of a molecule, and incorrect application of VSEPR theory in the instance of lone pairs with regard to polarity of a molecule.

Cianán B. Russell (co-authors Erica L. Borgers, Sindhuja Padmanabhan, Jingya Ying, David M. Collard) then described the impact of faculty development workshops on the students of faculty attendees. The study was conducted under the auspices of the Center for Workshops in the Chemical Sciences (CWS), a summer faculty development program that hosts eight to twelve workshops a year. The workshop programming at CWS is content-driven, focusing on providing faculty participants with laboratory-based experiences and access to experts in a given chemistry content area. A two-year evaluation of the students of faculty participants from 2009-2010 used classroom observations, student surveys, and faculty and student interviews to construct case studies for each institution that were subsequently subject to cross-case analysis. The results of the study indicated that faculty participation in the workshops had a positive self-reported impact on only three factors: faculty excitement, the curriculum and content of the course and classroom approaches. The impact of faculty participation in professional development workshops on student attitudes was slightly more favorable based upon survey and interview data.

Karen Knaus (co-authors Susan Schelble, Margaret Asirvatham, Kristen Murphy) measured teachers' perceptions of conceptual versus traditional questions on the forty matched-pair items of the 2005 American Chemical Society Exam for general chemistry. The sample size was 3386 students across 15 colleges in the United States. A cognitive complexity rating scheme was used by teachers to rate the complexity of the exam items. While a non−statistically significant difference was found in overall student performance on the conceptual versus traditional content mean scores, a statistically significant difference was found in the teachers' complexity ratings for these different types of items. A linear regression analysis demonstrated that 11% of the variance in performance on the ACS exam was explained by the complexity ratings. The complexity ratings provided by the instructors accounted for 40% of the variance. These findings shed new light on the importance of faculty perceptions as they relate to student performance in first year college chemistry.

Samuel Pazicni (co-authors Victor Benassi, Daniel Pyburn, Elizabeth Reiley) reported on the relationship between reading ability and performance in general chemistry. The subjects of the study were students in two general chemistry courses, a two-semester course and a one-semester advanced chemistry course for engineers. Scores were collected for each student on the Toledo Placement Exam, SAT Reading Comprehension or the Gates-McGintie Reading Test. It was found that reading ability was significantly correlated with general chemistry course performance even when more typical predictive factors such as mathematics ability were controlled in regression analyses. A significant interaction was found for reading comprehension and prior knowledge. The results of this study imply that the correlation between reading comprehension and chemistry course performance is related to knowledge construction ability rather than students’ inability to comprehend text. Preliminary results were presented for an intervention that consisted of multiple quiz attempts that indicated that students with low comprehension scores close the performance gap between those with high comprehension scores.

 Jo L. King described her project on a comparison of the effectiveness of homework and quizzes. The performance of high school students in Pre-AP chemistry were followed over two years in which homework was assigned and graded for the first year and the following year in which homework was suggested but daily quizzes provided the assessment. The scores on two-thirds of the unit tests delivered in each course where significantly different for the course that included the daily quizzes. There was no statistically significant difference in mean scores on the Texas Assessment Test between the groups assessed with homework and daily quizzes.

Carrie A. Cloonan (co-author John S. Hutchinson) investigated the issue of silent students in a large active-learning chemistry classroom. The use of more active learning environments provides students with opportunities to formulate ideas and participate in the scientific process during class. This study investigated the impact of an interactive, participatory environment on those students who did not participate via questions and discussions. Interviews of the silent students revealed that they prefer to be less engaged in the classroom, were less confident in their chemistry knowledge, but do benefit from the discussions lead by more vocal students.

Paul L. Daubenmire (co-author Angelica M. Stacy) described interview studies of student understanding of the dynamic aspect of chemical reactions. Semi−structured interviews were conducted at a large research university with students from different levels of chemistry preparation, freshman to graduate, and on different degree tracks. Studies were conducted in which students drew representations of chemical reactions and interpreted dynamic representations of chemical processes. In general, students at all levels and degree tracks tended to use symbolic representations for chemical reactions. The ability to link dynamic visualizations to other forms of representation of chemical reactions depended on student level of chemistry preparation.

Marcy H Towns (co-authors Nicole Becker, Renee S Cole, Chris Rasmussen, George Sweeney, Megan Wawro) capped the symposium with a project on a Toulmin analysis of student discourse in a discussion-oriented physical chemistry classroom. Video and audio data and student work artifacts were collected over a semester in a junior level physical chemistry course that employed active learning strategies. Transcripts of the video and audio data were used to perform Toulmin analyses for students’ use of evidence, warrants and claims. In whole class situations, the instructor scaffolded models of reasoning which were adopted by students in small group discourse. In these small group discussions, use of rebuttals and counter-claims by students were observed. The results from this study are consistent with science education studies that focus on how communities of learners establish ideas through discourse and inquiry.

The paper by Jeffrey Paradis was withdrawn.