Teaching and Learning Forum 2002 Home Page
Teaching and Learning Forum 2002 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Constraints to the development of first year university chemistry students' mental models of chemical phenomena

Gail Chittleborough, David F. Treagust and Mauro Mocerino
Curtin University of Technology
This paper describes the teaching and learning occurring in a first year university chemistry course of a degree in Environmental Biology from the students' perspective. Observations and interviews with students revealed their background knowledge in chemistry, their level of understanding of the concepts being taught, and from this their mental models of chemical phenomena were ascertained. Students' with prior knowledge of chemistry had some vague mental models but most students had no preconceived ideas or mental models of the chemical phenomena. Chemical concepts are commonly portrayed at three different representational levels: macroscopic level, symbolic level; and sub-microscopic level. When asked about the meaning of symbolic representations, most students were able to link the symbolic representation to the macroscopic phenomena; however, only a few students believed that they had a sub-microscopic representation for the particular chemical phenomena.

This observation is consistent with the lack of discussion or reference to the students' mental model of the chemical processes during the lecture part of the course. Students developed strategies to help them learn the content in order to pass the course, which appeared to override the importance of understanding the chemical concepts. Despite this, the students did build up a chemical knowledge framework; albeit sometimes scant and compartmentalised. The links between the students' perceptions of models and chemical representations and their understanding of chemical concepts are examined. In this study, the demands of the testing and the examination scheme, although fair and reasonable, appeared to be at odds with the desired learning outcomes. Although the teaching strategies in the laboratory and the lecture did encourage meaningful learning, the primary focus on the test items directed students towards a rote learning regime and did not adequately foster the development of students' mental model of the chemical phenomena.

Contact person: Gail Chittleborough, Research Assistant, SMEC, Curtin University of Technology

Presentation format: Roundtable

Please cite as: Chittleborough, G., Treagust, D. F. and Mocerino, M. (2002). Constraints to the development of first year university chemistry students' mental models of chemical phenomena. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/abstracts/chittleborough-abs.html

[ Proceedings Contents ] [ TL Forum 2002 ] [ TL Forums Index ]
This URL: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/abstracts/chittleborough-abs.html
Created 1 Dec 2001. Last revision: 31 Jan 2002. HTML: Roger Atkinson [ rjatkinson@bigpond.com ]