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Maria Sheehan
University of Limerick
School Directors, Researchers, Teachers
Over 10 pages
This thesis is almost five hundred pages long, but it contributes some very valuable ideas to the discussion of why chemistry is perceived as difficult, irrelevant and not valuable in its own right. The research underpinned the development of an intervention project, ITS (Increasing Thinking Skills in) Chemistry, which sought to remove some of the misconceptions which hinder student progress in chemistry studies.
Dr. Sheehan summarises the structure and place of Chemistry in the Irish Education system and includes a review of Irish Science and Chemistry curricula from primary through secondary and into tertiary education. She then outlines the research into why Chemistry is not seen as relevant but is perceived to be very difficult, and identifies a number of topics which are considered difficult before addressing the development, implementation and evaluation of teaching strategies to try to remove the obstacle of difficult topics. A comparison of findings on difficult topics in Chemistry in Ireland, England, Scotland and Nigeria is given. The identification of difficult topics by a variety of age ranges is linked to theories on cognitive development at these ages and maturity levels.
The third section of Chapter two provides much food for thought about why Chemistry is difficult - looking at difficulties caused by the intrinsic nature of Chemistry, human learning in Chemistry, information processing and working space memory, chemical misconception, cognitive development and mathematical ability.
The conclusions from the research are important and should inform teaching and learning, as well as teacher training and development. Significantly, if student teachers carry misconceptions of their own into their teaching they perpetuate a cycle of difficulty and misunderstanding. Continuous professional development opportunities for teachers can only lead to more awareness of areas of difficulty and how to circumvent them.
This is a long document but one that gives a number of pointers for ways to redress the image of Chemistry at school and college level.
One significant factor about this document is that it is informed quantitative and qualitative research which was carried out by a practicing chemistry teacher. This research corroborates other findings which indicate that misconceptions held by teachers can lead to further misconceptions by students, and lead to poor understanding of concepts that are vital to developing a true comprehension of and connection with chemistry. The web link gives access to the full thesis document but the attached pdf summarises the research at the time the researcher was awarded a Teaching Council grant.
Limerick Institute of Technology

Comments about this Publication

Your comments are welcome

Date: 2013.02.07

Posted by Viera Lisá (Slovakia)

Message: Very interesting and stimulating publication about motivation of students towards chemistry which describes this problem from the point of Irish conditions. Publication is a research doctoral report and analyses these topics: a) what are concrete areas with which students have difficulties when learning chemistry, b) what are the causes of difficulties when teaching chemistry at a high school, c) proposals of new methodic and didactic methods for removing those difficulties. When doing this research a very strict methodic of research was followed and so the report got prestige Irish national prize for its quality. From the point of approach and methodic of the research it is interesting that the research was focused maybe more on difficulties than on motivation of students. Those difficulties are perception of students and the way of their learning what is a key for teachers who can better react to those problems in a classroom. The research identifies many various topics which are difficult for Irish students, chemistry, mathematic application in chemistry, understanding of nature of hard particles, dissolving of substances, filling the space between particles of various substances and etc. Those are the problems which do not occur only in chemistry. The research points out the connection of individual topics from mathematics, biology to chemistry. In my opinion this research is very interesting and that is because it takes into account cultural and intellectual problems of development of children and processes of learning. This research is very important for teachers who often do not have information and idea about these processes and react in an appropriate way to some students. This means changing an approach when working with students who have difficulties with dealing with some topics and consider them as something that could not be done. It is an approach based on the program IDS which is created from various approaches toward teaching, eg.constructive approach which is dealing with modeling and visualization, metacognitive approach, cognitive acceleration approach through teaching informatics and etc. These approaches are important mainly at elementary schools because it helps students and provides work with various topics by cognitive approach, social interaction between students and by discussions from the point of metacognitive aspects.

Date: 2012.10.03

Posted by Barbara Mallarino (Italy)

Message: This document is important because it analyzes the motivations that lie behind the difficulties in chemistry. They are share into two categories: those due to the passage, illustrated by Piaget, from the concrete operational period to formal operational period and those due to the present of misconceptions in the mind of students. With this starting track, research has followed a precise planning: 1) identification of topics in chemistry in which students have more difficulties; 2) determination of the reasons why those topics are perceived as difficult; 3) development, implementation and evaluation of a teaching package ad hoc. The search can be easily shared by countries other than those it has been tested and it provides interesting fields of research that can be explored (such as the links between tha ability in maths and those in chemistry).
More than motivation to study this article is concerned with actual difficulties or even perceived by the students. I personally think that having a list of topics considered difficult and misconceptions that occur more frequently than others, facilitate the task of the teacher who can plan his educational work effectively.
The researcher identifies a number of specific topics in which Irish students have more difficulties (organic chemistry topics, chemistry topics that involve mathematical manipulations, topics that need a firm understanding of the particulate nature of matter to be understood) and some recurring misconceptions (when a substance dissolves it disappears, air fills the space between particles of different substances, ...).
These difficulties emphasize the learning in general and not only of chemistry, is a process in which the various disciplines involved. I think this research offers one interesting point to consider the cultural and intellectual growth of children as a single process and the difficulties that go beyond the constraints imposed by individual disciplines. Should be investigated as the construction and use appropriate scientific language influence learning.
The author also noted that these misconceptions in teachers, are sent to the students and this raises the question of the training of teachers who will work in the classroom.
The thesis shows in detail the development, implementation and evaluation of a teaching package, designated to alleviate the difficulties pupils have with some topics considered difficult. It is based on the implementation of an intervention program ITS (Increasing Thinking Skills in) Chemistry. It is based on numerous research projects (constructivist approach, dealing with misconceptions, modeling and visualization, infusion, metacognition, Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education).
I think that the proposed methodology may also be transferred to lower levels of education than that taken into account because it provides a concrete introduction of topics through the cognitive conflict, social interaction among students, discussion, metacognitive aspects. The content, however, as expected for a cycle of secondary education are for complexity to exclude from the primary school level in which I operate.

Date: 2012.09.19

Posted by Niki Rapti (Greece)

Message: This publication is relevant with the issue of student motivation to learn chemistry because it presents the publication of a Ph. D. thesis research related with the following subjects: a) finding out the specific chemistry subjects that create special difficulties to secondary school pupils as well as university students, b) the causes of the difficulties in learning chemistry in secondary school and c) novel teaching proposals for overcoming these difficulties. The research has been conducted very carefully by following rigorous methodology and it is not surprising that the thesis received a prestigious national award (Teaching Council Grant) for its quality.

The research shows the following reasons for which students do not study chemistry and which could also be relevant for their lack of motivation: a) they find it difficult, b) it does not include issues that deal with everyday life application and c) it is taught by following the traditional approach without taking into account the recent findings of educational research. According to this research, the chemistry chapters and concepts that create difficulties to the students are important prerequisites for further advancing in learning chemistry, ie the particulate nature of matter and the mole. Several abstract concepts discourage students in a very early phase of the learning process.

According to this publication, the causes for the difficulties in learning chemistry are related to the following issues: a) the level of cognitive development of the students. Teachers should be aware that a very small percentage of their students has reached the required level of formal operational reasoning, b) the level of mathematics that is required is often discouraging, especially for the students with low self-efficacy, c) students’ misconceptions which are often created by the teachers themselves or the textbooks.

The publication does not discuss the difficulties of teachers to keep update with the continuous research progresses. It points out however, that teachers should get informed about the most recent findings of educational research (how students learn, etc) and not waste their energy by getting stuck to unproductive teaching methods.

The publication does present a teaching approach that can be very attractive and seems to bring positive results in motivating students to learn chemistry. The approach is based on the program CASE (Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education). It incorporates practical examples and activities, models for visualizing processes, discussion between students. The only problem with the proposed teaching method could be the fact that gifted students could find it boring.

National Reports on successful experiences to promote lifelong learning for chemistry The national reports on chemistry successful experiences to promote lifelong learning for chemistry are now available on the related section of the project portal. The reports presents examples of successful experiences in the partner countries and the results of testing of ICT resources with science teachers.