Distillates - Chemical Education
David Read looks at some recent chemical education research.
In this issue: Is maths to blame, smartphones and QR codes
Is maths to blame?
The issue of maths has been troubling chemistry educators for many years. While it is clear that good mathematical skills are an essential part of any chemist's toolkit, the root causes of apparent deficiencies in the maths capabilities of chemistry students remain unclear. A study by Scott involving pupils aged 16-17 at a Scottish state school sheds light on the origins of pupils' difficulties with the mathematical aspects of chemistry.
A set of chemistry calculations were designed alongside a set of analogous maths questions, which students answered separately in chemistry and maths lessons. As the questions were testing the application of mathematical skills, students were permitted to use calculators with no time constraints applied. The questions ranged from simple one-step calculations to more complex multi-step operations, and these were administered to three mixed ability classes taught by different teachers.
The results showed there was no significant difference between students' performance on the easier questions in each set. Mistakes on these questions arose from poor understanding of basic operations such as multiplication and division, especially when applied to fractions/ratios, rather than misunderstanding of the mole concept.
As the difficulty increased, however, students' performance on the maths questions was better than on the chemistry questions. Scrutiny of individual students' answers showed that while a range of strategies were used in correct answers to chemistry questions, correct answers to the more difficult maths questions tended to be almost identical, implying the adoption of an algorithmic approach in these cases. This is indicative of poor understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts, potentially contributing to a deficiency in problem-solving abilities in other subjects. The article concludes with the suggestion that better communication between teachers in maths and science departments may alleviate the situation, with a less algorithmic approach to the teaching of maths a key part of the solution to the problem.
F Scott, Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 2012, 13, 330 (DOI: 10.1039/C2RP00001F)
Acid-base theories: JCL in action
Teachers have been encouraged to use cooperative learning in their teaching for many years, with a broad acceptance that teacher-led instruction has limitations in terms of student learning. According to previous research, cooperative learning benefits students in many ways, which include the development of deeper understanding and increased motivation.
In this study, Tarhan and Sesen describe using the 'jigsaw cooperative learning' (JCL) approach to teach acid-base theory to first year undergraduates at a Turkish University. The JCL approach is already employed by many schoolteachers, although they may not recognise the name. JCL involves placing students into 'home groups' with each individual responsible for a different aspect of the learning. Later, students break into 'jigsaw groups' made up of students who were all studying the same aspect of the learning, where material is discussed in depth to ensure understanding. Students then return to their home groups as experts to teach the material to their peers.
Students' prior knowledge was probed using a multiple-choice quiz, showing that there was no significant difference between experimental and control groups. The experimental group was taught using the JCL approach, while a control group received teacher-led instruction. This was followed by a concept test, the results of which showed that students taught using JCL outperformed the control group by a considerable margin. This led the authors to conclude that JCL was successful in improving students' conceptual understanding relative to traditional methods, backed-up by data showing that students in the experimental group held far fewer misconceptions.
The article provides useful ideas for educators looking to adopt a similar approach, as well as valuable insights regarding students' difficulties with different acid-base theories. However, it is also interesting to note that
not all of the students were convinced of the merits of collaborative working, showing that teachers need the right 'sales pitch' to engage learners effectively.
L Tarhan and B A Sesen.,Chem. Ed. Res. Pract., 2012, 13, 307 (DOI: 10.1039/C2RP90004A)
Glimpse the future: smartphones and QR codes in chemistry teaching
Teenagers in the UK are heavy users of mobile phones, with increasing numbers owning smartphones which are frequently used to access the internet. This presents educators with exciting opportunities to enhance the learning experience of students, even though Ofsted might prefer to ban phones from UK classrooms. Benedict and Pence report the outcomes of a project carried out in the US where smartphones were used in combination with QR codes to support the sharing of student-created content.
The introduction cites prior research indicating that most internet-using teens can be considered to be 'content creators', which is a key feature of the project. In an approach that could be replicated in any classroom, students created three types of media: instructional videos for practical procedures, videos emphasising concepts and outreach videos showing demonstrations. These were posted on YouTube and the URLs converted into QR codes which were embedded in worksheets or attached to practical equipment, and allowed quick and easy access to the videos.
In the case of videos outlining practical procedures, students worked in groups over a period of a week. Students and staff voted for their favourite video, with the most popular (and accurate) example being linked to a QR code inserted into the documentation. A similar approach was used with the creation of content to support other classroom activities and outreach work with local schools. There was excellent student engagement in the activities and evaluation showed that the overall response was positive.
In their conclusions, the authors refer to the advantages of students being able to easily and rapidly access information in a variety of ways, as well as the benefits of harnessing students' creative skills. As smartphones become ubiquitous in the future, it is suggested that new developments such as augmented reality will take things to another level, provided that teachers keep abreast of the latest advances in technology.
L Benedict and H E Pence, J. Chem. Ed., 2012, 89, 492 (DOI: 10.1021/ed2005399)