The Challenges of Learning Chemistry

Chemistry presents some unique challenges for the learner. Taking a chemistry course (and physcis) is typically quite a different experience than any other course. It blends content/theory with application and is strongly supported by math. This represents three interdependent modes of learning which by themselves can be quite a bit to handle. Add in the very abstract and novel experience that defines chemistry and most students find the course is quite a jump from prerequisite courses. So, often the first challenge in a chemistry course is actually adjusting to the course itself.

Some Supportive Research

Difficulties in Acquiring Theoretical Concepts: A Case of High-School Chemistry by Hillar Saul and Eve Kikas

Students rely heavily upon macroscopic perceptions to understand microscopic processes. For examples, the colour of a sample is due to the colour of the atoms themselves and boiling water means the atoms themselves have boiled. Essentially, this means that atoms are simply the tiniest representation of the sample of matter. A notable extension to this error in thinking is that that atoms are simply stuck within the sample of matter; that is, they are constituent parts of it as opposed to the actual reason for the construction of the sample of matter. This represents a formidable barrier to learning chemistry properly because novel concepts really only develop as a logical extension of concrete perceptions of matter as students focus on some key feature of the concrete object which explain why students often rationalize that water and ice are different constructs of matter. Scientific concepts cannot be properly understood in this way because although perceptually related matter may share features, there is an underlying structure which is reconstituted in new and more accurate manners. This means that although water and ice may be seem quite different, they are, in fact, made from the same components which have simply been reordered. In addition to this issue, is the fact that new concepts are often taught to students via presentation of definitions, models, symbols and etc. in the absence of any real connection to that matter being defined. In a sense, students are being asked to make experiential connections to concepts that have not been fully perceived. Students then erroneously makes jumps in interpretation and subsequently understanding based on estimated perceptions and superficial connections. This can be catastrophic in chemistry because many chemical concepts lack definitive macroscopic perceptions so students are then left to falsely create these aspects based on what they believe to be other relateable concepts. This then interferes with properly learning new applications of the concept being studied, because the base understanding is now faulty. As a result, the difficulty in properly understanding chemistry lies in the inability to reconcile abstract concepts being presented to the theoretical macroscopic constructs created by the students as they attempt to make sense of the new material. This can further lead to a sense that these new chemical concepts are somehow different from other worldly concepts; that they just exist as special considerations, distinct from the real world. This means that the false underlying learning remains entrenched as it is unchallenged and misconceptions are only due to improper alignment of aspects of the concepts. When students transition from this failing stage of linking scientific concepts to everyday entities and understanding, the next hurdle arises as these immature learns attempt to construct pseudo-concepts relying on terms and understanding presented by more mature learners; that is, they are simply copying the learning of others. This superficial understanding is a move to improvement, but can be problematic as well for two reasons. First, immature learners typically do not understand the concepts in the same manner as the more mature learners; that is, although they are both making the same statements, the metacognition associated by each learner can actually be quite divergent. This means the same construct is being described but not understood. Secondly, this pseudo-learning is very deceptive when presented for evaluation making it quite challenging to diagnose learning and correct misconceptions. As a result, students can become quite stuck in this illusory stage of learning which in the end can be more destructive that it would appear since the issues remain hidden and improperly applied to further learning. To make matters worse, students over-rely on rote memorization to fake their way through understanding and if this memorization is based on faulty perceptions, algorithmic learning eventually has devastating impacts. Finally, one last significant issue is reasoning ability which actually has been show to have the largest impact on chemistry learning. Reasoning ability is comprised of verbal, logic and spatial abilities. Reasoning ability can only develop slowly over time and is strongly correlated with age and maturity, which means it cannot be forced or purposefully acquired. Of course, there is another factor affecting chemistry learning which is motivation to learn and develop; however, this is not new to any subject in school, but given all the other issues surrounding learning in chemistry, motivation remains a critical issue.

So what is the solution? Chemistry learning must focus on conceptual conceptual knowledge as opposed to factual knowledge. Conceptual understanding requires full comprehension of a concept and its applications in new and unfamiliar situations and metacognitive approaches (such as critical analysis of responses, error analysis and concept reconstruction/creativity). Teaching should focus on nurturing reasoning ability using corrective measures to strengthen verbal, logic and spatial abilities in a constructive environment that supports making real connections amongst topics. This takes considerable courage, patience, care, support and time.

Read a Real Application of This Learning Struggle

The Mole Misunderstood by Karen Moss and Amisha Pabar