Research in Chemical Education - the Third Branch of Our Profession

Research in Chemical Education - the Third Branch of Our Profession...

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Research: Science & Education edited by

chemical education research

Diane M. Bunce The Catholic University of America Washington, D.C. 20064

Research in Chemical Education—the Third Branch of Our Profession Diane M. Bunce Chemistry Department, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC 20064 William R. Robinson Department of Chemistry, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907 Almost everyone who teaches chemistry in the K-12 system (or its foreign equivalents) and almost everyone employed as a faculty member in a chemistry department qualifies as a chemical educator: we are chemists interested in helping others understand chemistry. One way to look at the chemical education community is to divide our activities into a spectrum of three intertwined branches: instruction, practice, and research. The branches intertwine because many of us are active in more than one branch. Instruction is familiar to all of us. Even if we do not engage in instruction, we have been on the receiving end. Instructors use their knowledge to assist their clientele’s learning. It is not difficult to identify the largest group of instructors: we are teachers in K-12 classes or faculty in post-secondary classrooms and teaching laboratories at all levels (from technical schools and two-year colleges to medical and graduate schools). Graduate teaching assistants, who bear a significant part of the responsibility for delivering instruction at many institutions, constitute another group. However, instruction occurs in settings other than the classroom and teaching laboratory. Tutors who staff learning centers are instructors. Research directors who direct the laboratory work of undergraduate and graduate students are instructors. The chemical education component of their activities lies in the transmission of attitudes, skills, and habits of inquiry to their students.

Many chemical educators are practitioners. Practitioners coordinate or direct programs and develop the tools and methods used to teach chemistry. The obvious practitioners are directors of general chemistry or directors of teaching laboratories. Others of us include software developers, textbook authors, and those who develop laboratory experiments or lecture demonstrations. Less obvious may be those involved in curriculum development, outreach, and teacher preparation. We should also include institutional staff at the ACS, NSF, and government departments of education in addition to laboratory managers and many other professional staff at post-secondary institutions. Another important and overlooked group are reviewers. Their work goes almost unnoticed, yet a thoughtful review can greatly improve a textbook, laboratory experiment, or journal article. A smaller group of chemical educators do research in chemical education. Those engaged in chemical education research examine what works and why or why not. Some are members of schools of education; others are members of chemistry departments. Chemical education researchers can provide tested, theory-based, or data-based insights and methodologies to the chemical education community. We focus on a variety of basic research questions. How and why do students learn? Why is chemistry difficult, even for many good students? What works to facilitate effective learning

Mission Statement: Chemical Education Research Diane M. Bunce Chemistry Department The Catholic University of America Washington, D.C. 20064 Phone: 202/319-5390; Fax: 202/319-5381; Email: [email protected] We are all chemical educators whether we teach in college or high school classrooms, direct undergraduate labs, serve as teaching assistants or tutors, or develop curricula. Some chemical educators also conduct chemical education research in either their own classrooms or other settings. This feature aims to provide reliable and valid reports of chemical education research that address how students learn, the factors affecting learning, and the methods for evaluating that learning. The results reported should be understandable to practicing chemistry teachers and directly applicable to the teaching/learning process. These studies should include the hallmarks of good research as outlined in the ACS Task Force Report on Chemical Education Research: the research must be theory based; the questions asked should be relevant to chemical educators and able to be tested through the experimental design proposed; the data collected must be verifiable; and the results must be generalizable. This feature will also illustrate or summarize different aspects of chemical education research and provide insights for those who would like to participate in such research. Chemical education research papers should follow the Guide to Submissions on page 472 of the April 1997 issue, be sent to the Journal office (not the feature editor), and be prominently labeled “Chemical Education Research”. Mission statements for other feature columns were published in the January 1997 issue, pages 24–28, and this issue, pages 1042– 1044.


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Research: Science & Education of chemistry? Such research can serve two audiences: those who want to better understand the problems involved in teaching and learning chemistry and those who want to know more about how such knowledge is obtained. Analogies between Research in Chemistry and Research in Chemical Education Good research in chemistry education has features identical to features of good research in other areas of chemistry. Quality research in chemical education is theory based. It is based on data collected and analyzed by accepted protocols, and it produces generalizable results. The goal of research in chemical education is to enhance the transmission and understanding of chemistry. In some respects, chemical education research is not unlike research in natural products chemistry. Natural products chemists often study folk remedies that work in a particular situation. They systematically separate and investigate the components of the remedy in order to identify the active component of the brew. Once identified, the chemical structure is determined and a synthetic method developed. The synthesis is then scaled up to commercial production to produce a product efficiently and economically. In many cases structurally related compounds are synthesized and tested. Sometimes derivatives prove more efficacious than the original active ingredient. The chemical education equivalent of exploring folk medicines and identification of active components is the examination of learners, instructors, and the learning environment to identify the various components at work in a learning situation. Such qualitative studies attempt to identify what is or is not working in the teaching/learning process. These studies help us identify the important variables in the situation by observing, probing, and listening to the key players in the enterprise. Subsequent studies, which may involve quantitative comparisons of treatment and control groups, can be employed to study the effect of changes (derivatives) in the important variables. We can find other analogies between chemistry research and chemistry education research. For example, analytical chemists develop new or improved techniques for quantification or identification of a variety of chemical species. Some chemical educators study how to use traditional measures to measure learning in new, more efficient ways, while others develop new measures, such as group testing or concept maps. Both the analytical chemists and chemical educators in these situations must apply their techniques to samples that have been analyzed by alternate methods (knowns) in order to verify the new methodologies.

reds Figure 1. Which is a THOG? This figure consists of four designs: black diamond, white diamond, black circle, and white circle. Assume that on another page is written a shape (diamond or circle) and a color (black or white). A THOG has either the shape or the color specified, but not both. If a black diamond is a THOG, classify the other objects as (a) definitely a THOG; (b) definitely not a THOG; (c) perhaps a THOG, perhaps not. The correct answer is after the Literature Cited.

The Structure of Chemical Education Research The ACS Task Force on Chemical Education Research (1) identifies three characteristics of chemical education research, characteristics that are shared with research in other areas of chemistry. Chemical education research is theory based. These theories provide the basis for hypotheses and predictions that can be tested. The research is based on data that have been collected and analyzed by accepted protocols and that others can use to verify the result or to repeat the experiment. Finally, chemical education research produces generalizable results—results that can inform teaching, learning, and other research projects or problems.

Theory in Chemical Education Research Among the definitions of theory in Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (2), we find: 3. a systematic statement of the principles involved 4. a formulation of apparent relationships or underlying principles of certain observed phenomena which has been verified to some degree 5. that branch of an art or science consisting of a knowledge of its principles and methods rather than its practice

There are those who doubt that theories are applicable in education research because they believe that principles of behavior differ from person to person. However, that is not the case; there are general cognitive behaviors. One example of a general cognitive behavior is the tendency to find patterns. Our brains have a bias favoring seeing something rather than nothing (3). The tendency of an idle mind to find patterns in cloud formations is an example of this behavior. Deductive reasoning is another area where humans are generally consistent in their behavior. Typically, more than two-thirds of individuals asked to characterize a THOG (Fig. 1) produce an incorrect response (4). (The correct response follows the literature cited.) Everyone has a limited ability to “juggle” several ideas or bits of information at the same time (5). We are limited because our short term memory (the memory we use to hold a phone number we just looked up, to hold information we have just read, or to solve problems) is limited to a capacity of about seven pieces or chunks of information. Once this capacity is exceeded, excess information is dumped. We compensate for these limitations by expanding the size of each chunk of information. For example, experienced instructors can condense a complicated stoichiometry problem to one chunk by recognizing it as a gram-to-gram problem. Unlike novices, chemists do not see a carbon atom, two oxygen atoms, a hydrogen atom, a double bond, and three single bonds (eight pieces of information); instead we see a carboxylic acid radical (one piece). Pattern formation is one way of chunking, that is, integrating a larger number of information bits into a smaller number. Each of the preceding examples of common cognitive properties illustrate data that have been used to build theories of learning. The limitations of working memory play an important role in the Information Processing model of learning described by Alex Johnstone in a recent issue of this Journal (6). Constructivism is another learning theory that can serve as an effective model for understanding how learners learn. The basic tenet of constructivism is that we cannot transfer an exact copy of our understanding to our students. Knowledge is not passed directly from the mouth of the teacher to the mind of the student (7). Instead, students build their own understanding by integrating new informa-

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Research: Science & Education tion with their preexisting understandings. If there is no preexisting understanding, the incoming information is held by the student through rote memorization until it is no longer needed for the task at hand (like passing a test) and then quickly forgotten. This nonintegration of information and subsequent forgetting becomes obvious when we try to build on chemical concepts presented earlier in a semester and our students do not seem to recognize that they have ever seen the information before. Connectionism (8) is a theory of brain function that is based in part on research in biology and neuroscience and frames explanations for learning in terms of neural networks. It ascribes learning and other mental phenomena to both temporary and lasting changes in synaptic connections. Inasmuch as each of us develops different neural networks as we mature, connectionism provides a physical explanation for the process of and differences in constructing knowledge. We can find research based on each of these theories that speaks to chemistry learning. Johnstone’s review (6) addresses several methodologies derived from research based on the information processing model. Other approaches are based on constructivist research. New teaching approaches attempt to help the process of integration by directly involving the student in the process through small group discussion in lecture (cooperative learning groups [9]) or short-term interactions (ConcepTests [10]). New curricula attempt to present chemical information within the context of real-world problems (Chemistry in Context [11]) as a means of helping the integration of new ideas.

The Data of Chemistry Education Research Measuring student learning is a problem similar to an analytical problem faced by chemists. Chemists rely on indirect measurements and instruments to be their eyes and ears in the world of molecules and atoms. Chemical educators also rely on indirect measurements and instruments to be their eyes and ears in determining students’ understanding. The instruments used in these two fields may be different, but the logic is the same: if we cannot see something directly, then we look for related measures that provide data that can be interpreted in terms of established behavior. Chemical educators borrow investigative techniques from other disciplines. We use many of the qualitative research methods employed in education, psychology, and sociology to help identify variables that affect learning. Here we attempt to understand the learning process from the participants’ point of view. Observation, interviews, and opinion surveys are often used (12–14). However, there are pitfalls in the naive use of these instruments (15) that can lead to invalid assumptions about the learning process and erroneous interpretations of results. The other approach to uncovering evidence of improved teaching or learning is a quantitative research approach. Quantitative research typically involves a statistical comparison of performance scores of two or more groups of students. If we ask the right questions, properly designed studies can determine whether or not one group has learned more, faster, or better than the other. Often statistical comparisons do not result in a definitive conclusion that one treatment is better than another. We can identify several reasons for statistically nonsignificant results. The most obvious is that there is no advantage of one method over another. Other reasons could include an inadequate research design that fails to identify and isolate a number of other variables that mask the true


results, or use of inappropriate assessment instruments— for example, using lecture-based examination questions to evaluate learning resulting from changes in the laboratory. Many chemical education researchers use several kinds of measurements taken from different perspectives (triangulation) to investigate learning outcomes. This is analogous to using several spectroscopic techniques to characterize a new compound. Where a single type of measurement might lead to an ambiguous or statistically insignificant result, a combination of types of measurements may provide other explanations or insights. Without including the participants in the analysis, misinterpretation of the results of a study is much more likely. A study of the introduction of the shape of crystals to first graders provides an excellent example. The study had a simple design. Students looked at both sugar and salt crystals through a microscope and then drew the shapes of the crystals. The intent was to collect the papers and analyze the drawings. Examination of student papers produced some rather startling results. Most students depicted both types of crystals as round. It wasn’t until the students were interviewed that it became clear that they were identifying the round illuminated microscope stage as the crystal shape. When asked about the actual crystals in the middle of this illuminated stage, the students described them as dirt particles in the round crystal. This example illustrates how combining student responses with other results can help researchers interpret their results more reliably.

The Results of Chemical Education Research The results from research in chemical education inform a variety of different areas. In her plenary address to the International Conference on Chemical Education (16), Dorothy Gabel reviewed the research concerned with learning chemistry. Among other issues, this research addressed the following: the mental and conceptual demands the study of chemistry makes on the learner; the type and prevalence of specific student misconceptions in the learning of chemistry; the need to understand matter on several different levels (macroscopic, particulate, and symbolic); student difficulties involved in meaningful laboratory experiences; the role language plays in the understanding of scientific concepts; the value of using everyday materials and analogies to explain chemistry; and the impact the integrated structure of chemical knowledge has on the learner. Chemical education research articles published in this Journal in the past five years also address a variety of issues, including the following: curriculum innovations, factors involved in learning, techniques for and evaluation of conceptual teaching, and laboratory innovations. Articles reporting and testing curriculum innovations include work on the effectiveness of cooperative groups (17, 18); studies of mathematical problem solving and mathematical understanding (19–21); use of particulate or submicroscopic representations of matter (22); and student-directed learning (23). Studies on the identification of factors involved in learning include teachers and professionals’ perceptions of chemistry courses (24, 25), the effects of teachers’ beliefs about chemistry on the organization of their course (26), and the effect of chemistry language skills on chemistry learning (27). Studies of techniques for and evaluation of conceptual teaching include an analysis of the conceptual understanding of selected chemistry concepts by graduate students (28), development of a single concept test for diagnosing misconceptions (29), assessment of achievement on algorithmic vs. conceptual chemistry questions (30), and development of a model for teaching conceptually (31). Research articles on laboratory innovations include the use of

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Research: Science & Education computational chemistry in organic chemistry (32) and computer or multimedia laboratory innovations (33, 34). This survey of research published during the past five years is not exhaustive. These papers were selected to illustrate a variety of studies with a common factor, an experimental approach to assessing the problems associated with teaching and learning. They provide examples of research design and data analysis. Some address difficulties we observe in the classroom. Others suggest changes in teaching approaches—changes that can have large payoffs in terms of increased student understanding and comprehension. A Chemical Education Research Feature Subsequent issues of this Journal will contain a new feature, Chemical Education Research, that will communicate results of chemical education research projects and their underlying theories and methodologies. Thus this new feature will serve two audiences: those who want to better understand the problems involved in teaching and learning chemistry and those who want to know more about how such knowledge is obtained. The problems involved in teaching and learning have changed over the years. With an increasing emphasis on accountability and serving the needs of the learner, more of us are searching for realistic explanations of why students are not learning and for teaching innovations that can help us address these difficulties. The emphasis on accountability has ramifications for the number of students in a chemistry department and the quality of students who graduate with chemistry degrees. Research on the effectiveness of teaching and learning is also emphasized by funding agencies who require that increasing portions of the time and money of projects be devoted to evaluating the effectiveness of new approaches. This feature will publish research studies that provide reliable and valid information on how students learn, the factors affecting learning, and methods for evaluating learning in a way that is understandable to the practicing chemical educator. Chemical education research is a young area. Only in the past 25 years have we begun to understand why the pedagogical techniques that once appeared to serve our students effectively may not work as well as we might wish, particularly with the emphasis on introducing useful chemistry to a wider range of students in a broader range of disciplines. Many chemistry departments do not have someone who can conduct chemical education research, or even critique it in a knowledgeable manner. In spite of the fact that most faculty have research backgrounds, it requires additional effort to become familiar with the theories, methods of assessment, and research design that characterize quality research in chemical education. A second purpose of this feature is to highlight papers that illustrate or summarize different aspects of the chemical education research discipline and that provide insights into the factors that constitute good research in this area. Articles accepted for this feature must meet the research criteria of the ACS Task Force on Chemical Education Research (1), including identifying a theory base, documenting the data collection process, and producing generalizable results that advance understanding of learning and teaching chemistry. But most importantly, these articles must report the results in a manner useful to the practicing chemical educator. Because of the audience this Journal serves, it is not possible to publish a chemical educa-

tion research study simply because it is a good research study. An article must exemplify high quality chemical education research and speak to those involved in teaching chemistry in any one of the many possible teaching environments. Specific guidelines for those who would like to submit articles for this feature appear in the Chemical Education Research mission statement which appears on page 1076 of this issue of the Journal. Contributions are welcome from practicing chemical educators and chemical education specialists. Literature Cited 1. Herron, J. D.; Bunce, D.; Gabel, D.; Jones, L. J. Chem. Educ. 1994, 71, 850–852. 2. Webster’s New International Dictionary Deluxe, 2nd ed.; Simon and Schuster: New York, 1983. 3. Gregory, R. L. The Intelligent Eye; McGraw-Hill: New York, 1970. 4. Wason, P. C.; Brooks, P. G. Psychol. Res. 1979, 41, 79–90. 5. Johnstone, A. H. J. Chem. Educ. 1983, 60, 968–971. 6. Johnstone, A. H. J. Chem. Educ. 1997, 74, 262–268. 7. Bodner, G. M. J. Chem. Educ. 1986, 63, 873–878. 8. Fowler, D.; Brooks, D. W. J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 748–752. 9. Experiences in Cooperative Learning: A Collection for Chemistry Teachers; Nurrenbern, S. C., Ed. and Compiler; ICE, University of Wisconsin–Madison: Madison, 1995. 10. Mazur, E. Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual; Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1997. 11. Schwartz, A. T.; Bunce, D. M.; Silberman, R. G.; Stanitski, C. L.; Stratton, W. J.; Zipp, A. P. Chemistry in Context, 2nd ed.; W. C. Brown: Dubuque, IA, 1997. 12. Phelps, A. J. J. Chem. Educ. 1994, 71, 191–194. 13. Bowen, C. W. J. Chem. Educ. 1994, 71, 184–190. 14. Pribyl, J. R. J. Chem. Educ. 1994, 71, 195–200. 15. Gardner, P. L. Res. Sci. Educ. 1995, 25, 283–289. 16. Gabel, D. L. In Chemistry: Expanding the Boundaries; Beasley, W. F., Ed.; Royal Australian Chemical Institute: Brisbane, 1996; pp 43–49. 17. Wright, J. C. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 827–832. 18. Smith, M. E.; Hinckley, C. C.; Volk, G. L. J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 413–415. 19. Selvaratnam, M.; Kumarasinghe, S. J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 370–372. 20. Friedel, A. W.; Maloney, D. P. J. Chem. Educ. 1995, 72, 899– 905. 21. Phelps, A. J. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 301–304. 22. Smith, K. J.; Metz, P. A. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 233–235. 23. Katz, M. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 440–445. 24. Walhout, J. S.; Heinschel, J. J. Chem. Educ. 1992, 69, 483–487. 25. Kirkwood, V.; Symington, D. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 339–343. 26. Bowen, C. W. J. Chem. Educ. 1992, 69, 479–482. 27. Ver Beek, K.; Louters, L. J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 389–392. 28. Bodner, G. M. J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 385–388. 29. Krishnan, S. R.; Howe, A. C., J. Chem. Educ. 1994, 71, 653– 655. 30. Zoller, U.; Lubezky, A.; Nakhleh, M. B.; Tessier, B.; Dori, Y. J. J. Chem. Educ. 1995, 72, 987–989. 31. Nakhleh, M. B.; Lowrey, K. A.; Mitchell, R. C. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 758–762. 32. Delaware, D. L.; Fountain, K. R. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 116– 119. 33. McNaught, C.; Grant, H.; Fritze, P.; Barton, J.; McTigue, P.; Prosser, R. J. Chem. Educ. 1995, 72, 1003–1007. 34. Treadway, W. J., Jr. J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 876–878.

Answer to Question in Figure 1 Which is a THOG? The white diamond and black circle are definitely not THOGs; the white circle is definitely a THOG.

Vol. 74 No. 9 September 1997 • Journal of Chemical Education