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Aspects of Chemistry Course Design & Implementation

Students' Attitudes, Background & Expectations:

What is the prior knowledge and past experience of the students? How do their attitudes, beliefs and expectations affect their learning?

Most large universities offer introductory chemistry courses that have high student enrollment, in which the majority of students are clearly not chemistry majors - courses such as general chemistry and chemistry for non-science majors. Faculty are well aware that students come into a course with background preparation and knowledge that can be quite varied. The relevant formal background for introductory general chemistry is typically high school mathematics, chemistry and physics. Research into factors contributing to success in general chemistry courses has shown that improved student erformance is correlated in varying degrees with higher reasoning ability, better math skills and logical-thinking ability [1], previous chemistry background, better attitudes about the course, as well as higher placement exam scores. The introduction to the article by Hahn and Polik [2] also cites the past work on general chemistry, and extends that research to physical chemistry. In physical chemistry, logical thinking ability [3] as well as previously successful courses in math, physics and chemistry, were shown to be predictors of success; these conclusions are also supported in studies by Derrick and Derrick [4]. Chemistry education research has shown that students' study skills and motivation also influence success [3].

Most of the students in these general/introductory classes are in their first year of university, making the transition from high school. To many of these students, chemistry does not appear to be relevant to the real world; the concepts and rules seem difficult; problems are supposedly solved by blindly following algorithms; there is too much factual material; labs are recipe-like and don't seem to connect with the course, etc. . Often students' previous experiences reinforce naive notions about what learning entails, so that strategies involving memorization without comprehension and reproducing algorithms are nevertheless expected to be "successful" (i.e. yielding high grades). These attitudes have been found to be deeply-entrenched and very resistant to change, especially if such past learning methods seemed to work "well enough". Research by House [5] has shown students' initial attitudes to be significant predictors of performance in introductory college chemistry, amongst those students with the requisite mathematics skills. Effects on learning because of various types of "chemistry anxiety" (chemophobia) have been reported by Eddy [6].

Also relevant when analyzing the initial state of students entering a chemistry class are the preconceptions that students hold. Students typically enter a class with these physically incorrect and/or inconsistent alternative conceptions about the workings of the world around them. A large body of literature has shown that students come with pre-existing mental models of "chemistry", which are then deformed to accommodate the new knowledge they acquire in class. The article by Taber [7] reviews such literature and discusses the implications for the university setting, whereas Bodner [8] gives an introduction for chemists to the results from cognitive studies. Nevertheless, after a conventional lecture-based chemistry course, a significant number of these ideas persist and may indeed coexist alongside the correct chemical principles that the students supposedly learnt in the course. For details on these misconceptions, see the Course Content section, below.

References on Students' Attitudes, Background & Expectations:

  1. The use of the GALT (Group Assessment of Logical Thinking) as a predictor of academic success in college chemistry, D.M. Bunce, K.D. Hutchinson, J. Chem. Educ. 70, 183, 1993. Available here.
  2. Factors Influencing Success in Physical Chemistry , K.E. Hahn, W.F. Polik, J. Chem. Educ. 81, 567, 2004. Available here.
  3. An Investigation of the Factors Influencing Student Performance in Physical Chemistry, G. Nicoll, J.S. Francisco, J. Chem. Educ. 78, 99, 2001. Available here.
  4. Predictors of Success in Physical Chemistry , M.E. Derrick, F.W. Derrick, J. Chem. Educ. 79, 1013, 2002. Available here.
  5. Noncognitive Predictors of Achievement in Introductory College Chemistry, J.D. House, Research in Higher Education, 36 (4), 473, Aug. 1995. Available here.
  6. Chemophobia in the College Classroom: Extent, Sources, and Student Characteristics, Roberta M. Eddy, J. Chem. Educ. 77 (4) 2000. Available here.
  7. Chemistry lessons for universities?: a review of constructivist ideas, Keith S. Taber, U. Chem. Ed. 4 (2), 2000. Available here.
  8. Constructivism: A theory of knowledge , G.M. Bodner, J. Chem. Educ. 63, 873, 1986. Available here.