From Scribbles to Symbols: Investigating the Development of Representational Competence

Organizers: Nathaniel Grove, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of North Carolina Wilmington, 601 S. College Road, Wilmington, NC 28403, tel: (513) 593-0341, Email:, and Sonia Miller Underwood, Department of Chemistry, Clemson University, Clemson, SC 29634, Email:

The “From Scribbles to Symbols: Investigating the Development of Representational Competence” symposium was held during the 241st American Chemical Society National Meeting in Anaheim, California. The symposium highlighted issues of consequence to all chemists – namely, students’ use of symbolic representations during their study of chemistry and the creation/assessment of instructional materials that may help chemistry students develop more robust understandings of how, when, and why to use such representations.

Joel Russell of Oakland University kicked the session off by describing a series of computer-based visualization tools that were developed specifically for first-year chemistry students. These tools incorporated both simulations of molecular motion with more traditional pen-and-paper activities and were found to be effective in helping students develop a better understanding of particulate-level phenomena. The first-year experience was also the subject of Sean Madden’s presentation. Currently at Greeley West High School, Sean talked about the results of a qualitative research study that sought to understand students’ use of representations as they solved ideal gas problems. The results suggested that both beginning and advanced chemistry students gravitated towards a single representational model; however, the more advanced students were more likely to use this preferred representation as a heuristic when presented with other, less familiar representations. Sonia Miller Underwood from Clemson University closed out the first half of the session by presenting her work on students’ use of Lewis structures. According to her research, many general and organic chemistry students do not recognize the importance of using Lewis structures nor the information that can be derived from their use. To help combat these issues, Sonia reported on the use of a new general chemistry curriculum – Chemistry, Life, the Universe, and Everything (CLUE). Her results showed that as opposed to students enrolled in a traditional general chemistry course, students taught using the CLUE curriculum were not only better equipped to create Lewis structures but had a much more realistic understanding of how they can be used.

The second half of the symposium began with a presentation from Basil Naah of Middle Tennessee State University. Basil expounded upon a mixed-methods study he conducted to identify students’ misconceptions about dissolving ionic compounds in water. Specifically, it was noted that many students felt the water reacted with the ionic salt through a double displacement-type process to form a metal oxide and an acid, that polyatomic ions dissociate into individual atoms, and that ionic salts dissolve as neutral ion-pairs in water. Robert Kojima from the University of California, Los Angeles presented a computer-based chemical nomenclature system used at two community colleges in the Los Angeles area. The system was created to be individually adaptive, and Robert presented specific information about the computer algorithm designed to drive the system. Finally, Nathaniel Grove from the University of North Carolina Wilmington talked about the use of embodied cognition to enhance the learning of organic chemistry mechanisms and the curved-arrow notation. The research utilized BeSocratic, a system designed to combine gesture with graphically-based prompts and individualized feedback, and asked students to complete two, 20-minute activities during their study of the material. Results documented a dramatic increase in the ability of students using the BeSocratic system to solve both near and far transfer tasks and in the number actually using mechanisms in comparison to students in a control group.      

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