Talking Teaching: Visualizing Chemistry Online

Hello, I'm Charlotte. I'm an Instructional Designer for Lt at ADInstruments. Every month our team of Instructional Designers meets for “Talking Teaching” – sessions where we share and discuss interesting articles, methods, and pedagogies.

This month, we discussed the difficulties of learning chemistry, and how the pedagogical design of a course can increase students’ technical prowess, self-regulation skills, and their sense of ownership of taught material. In this blog, I’d like to discuss research into a learning design that supports students to create mental models of chemical events at the molecular level, and can be found in Chemistry Education Research and Practice.

The articles we’d like to share with you this month are:

Research into practice: visualization of the molecular world using animations explores how animations of events at the molecular level can improve the representations that students create of these events, as well as student confidence and the vividness of their mental imagery. The paper also proposes a 7-step “learning design” for teaching chemistry that may be able to be applied to other fields.
Bryce’s blog on Digital Literacy in Course Design. Read it to learn all about how students responded to implementing a digital learning framework over four consecutive online courses, and which areas of learning to emphasize when building an online course. 

Mind-boggling models: learning chemistry can be complex!

Eilks & Byers (2010), in their paper outlining innovative approaches for chemistry education, posited that the “uniqueness” of chemistry was integral to reforming how the subject was taught. As chemistry students are required to visualize information at the macro (reactions in the lab), sub-micro (molecular), and symbolic (equation) levels (Johnstone, 1991), there is ample opportunity for students to become confused and develop misconceptions about chemical processes. Historically, teaching has often been dominated by the macro and symbolic levels. Students find it difficult to link these two levels, as creating mental models of the invisible, molecular level is not emphasized in the classroom.

Tasker & Dalton (2006) used Johnstone’s idea of “levels” in chemistry as a starting point to explore the use of molecular animations in undergraduate chemistry education. Students who were shown these animations, and had the opportunity to draw molecular representations, displayed significantly more “key features” (for example, orientation of molecules in relation to ions and in relation to each other) in their drawings at the end of the semester. Students were also significantly more confident in their representations and reported more vivid mental imagery after being shown the animations.

VisChem Learning Design

Tasker & Dalton then combined their animations with an audiovisual information-processing model to create the constructivist VisChem Learning Design, used with chemistry students. A learning design is a series of activities that leads students toward accomplishing learning objectives. The VisChem Learning Design comprises 7 steps:

  1. Observing a phenomenon.
  2. Describing and drawing a molecular-level representation of the phenomenon.
  3. Discussing this representation with peers.
  4. Viewing an animation.
  5. Comparing the animation with the prior representation and making any necessary corrections.
  6. Relating the molecular model to other levels (laboratory/macro and symbolic).
  7. Applying understanding to a new scenario.

You can watch a video of the design here. The authors found that student characteristics (prior knowledge, disembedding ability (ability to perceive visual detail), and use of deep vs. surface learning) all affected the development and sophistication of the mental models afforded by the animation. VisChem has continued to develop and a grant of $1.9 million was awarded for a project involving its use as recently as September 2019.

Join the discussion

Do you teach chemistry? How do you help students create mental models and move between the macro, sub-micro, and symbolic levels? If you teach other subjects, can you see any aspects of the VisChem Learning Design that you could apply to these?

We'd like to invite you to join our online community to engage in discussions on important topics like these and many others related to life science teaching practices and pedagogy. The community connects and reflects a passionate group of life science educators from all over the world. Our hope is that the community is a way for educators to work together, get feedback from each other, and build stronger, more meaningful relationships in real-time - whether these are across campus, or across the globe.

It’s easy to join - if you are already an Lt user simply click here to get started. (And if you aren't, contact us and we'll be happy to help you get started.)

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