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Eleni Danili & Norman Reid
Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group)
Researchers, Teachers, Policy Makers
Over 10 pages
The inspiration for this study arises from the difficulties that many Greek students are facing in understanding chemistry concepts and the possible ways for improving the current situation. At the beginning of the publication, the authors make reference to three factors that have been identified to make chemistry understanding difficult for the students, namely the complex nature of the subject, the language barrier and the curriculum programme. Subsequently, they focus their study on the effect of certain psychological factors/cognitive characteristics on student performance in chemistry. Two specific cognitive characteristics are examined:
(i) The working memory capacity which is related with that part of the brain where “we hold information, work on it, organize it and shape it, before storing it into long-term memory for further use” and
(ii) The field dependency which is the ability of an individual to break up a perceptual field (for example a long piece of text) and “separate readily an item from its context”, or in other words the ability to detect the most important information (the “message”) and separate it from the “noise”.

At the first part of their study, the authors examined the relationship of these two psychological factors with the performance in chemistry tests. They employed a sample of 105 Greek students in their first year of upper secondary school (15-16 years old). All students took the same chemistry test, while their working memory capacity and field dependency were measured via the Digits Backwards Test and the Hidden Figure Test, respectively. Statistical analyses of the results (Pearson correlation, ANOVA) gave the following results: Both cognitive characteristics show statistically significant correlation with students’ chemistry scores. In this way, the highest the working memory capacity of the student, the better his/her performance in the chemistry test. Similarly, the more field-independent a student is, the better his/her performance in a chemistry test. In the end of this first section the authors state that “It is a matter of concern that performance in a chemistry test is so strongly related to certain psychological parameters, control over which is outside of the individual pupil”.

In the second part of the publication, the authors explore the possibility of improving chemistry learning via a new instructional approach which aims at minimizing the demand for a high working memory, thus making chemistry more amenable for all students, irrespective of their working memory space. The chosen chemistry subject is atomic and bonding theory. Some of the features of this alternative approach are the following: a) presentation of the material in a more stepwise fashion, b) use of dialogue boxes, c) careful introduction of pictures, analogies and diagrams always seeking to bring out the “message” and reduce the “noise”, d) use of models, e) occasional change of order of presentation of the material, f) lowering the need for note-taking via well organized learning materials, g) effort to build on prior knowledge.
The aim is to encourage active learning where the students will interact with the material, draw conclusions, answer questions and complete simple calculations. In addition, group work was chosen deliberately as it can reduce the problems arising from limited working memory space.

The authors give examples of some simple models which they employed as analogies, particularly in developing the ideas of atomic structure and bonding. (Analogy of multi-storey flats for explaining how electrons surround the nuclei and use of balloons for showing the geometry of electron pairs). They also refer to an example of a change in syllabus order, namely teaching first the covalent bond and then moving to the ionic bond.
The experimental design involves the participation of 211 students in the first year of upper secondary school which were divided into two groups: control and experimental. Both groups were instructed by the same teacher. The traditional teaching approach was employed in the control group. This approach is based on the use of the prescribed textbook and the blackboard. All students were tested at the beginning in order to define their starting level of knowledge. Statistical analysis was employed in order to check whether there was any significant difference in the improvement between the two groups, and in order to check whether any difference in the (possible) improvement was due to the effect of the teacher.
It was thus shown that the average improvement in learning achieved by the experimental group was better than the average improvement achieved by the control group. In addition it was shown that this statistically significant difference in the improvement was not being caused by an interaction between the teaching material and the teachers involved. Consequently, it is argued that this impact was most likely due to the changes made to the teaching material.

Overall, this work provides experimental evidence that certain psychological factors (working memory space and extent of field dependency) are related to student performance in chemistry. In addition, it provided evidence in support of the view that by re-designing some curriculum materials and teaching strategy in line with the predictions about learning derived from an information processing model, student performance can be improved.
Finally, it is important to note that lessening the demand on working memory is not the same as making things easy. As the authors note “The chemistry to be taught was not altered; the way it was to be taught was re-structured”.
Further work needs to be carried out to explore whether this alternative teaching approach brings specific benefits to those students who possess lower working memory spaces and/or those who are more field-dependent.
This publication was chosen for two main reasons: First because it presents an alternative teaching approach applied specifically in chemistry and research work is undertaken in order to evaluate its effectiveness and compare it with the traditional approach. Second because it brings out the important role that different psychological factors and cognitive characteristics of the students can play in the process of chemistry learning. The study focuses on two specific characteristics: working memory capacity and field dependence. The publication is written in a clear manner and it provides a nice overview of the related research in the field. Most importantly, it provides the interested teacher with a clear set of guidelines related with the application of the alternative teaching approach which aims at improving chemistry learning by avoiding working memory overload. The study applies the proposed alternative instructional approach in a chemistry subject which is considered difficult for the students, namely atomic and bonding theory.
Even though the work is conducted among the Greek student population, the results reached and the proposals made in relation with curriculum re-design and adoption of new teaching strategies which take into account specific psychological characteristics of the students, could be applied (and/or tested) to other countries as well.
T.E.I. of Ionian Islands

Comments about this Publication

Your comments are welcome

Date: 2014.04.07

Posted by Sabine Jacquemin (Belgium)

Message: This publication explains how involving psychological and cognitive studies, such as the field dependency and independency theory, into chemistry learning is successful. This is shown in the analysis, the results of which are visible in the tables provided. A critical aspect is represented from the fact that learning problems may arise relating to the field-dependency and the working memory of students. The solution proposed by this publication is to compensate the issues generated by these problems from a cognitive and psychological point of view.
This publication is very relevant as it takes into consideration different aspects in order to select the correct methodologies to face students’ issues.

Date: 2014.03.14

Posted by Ciara O\' Shea (Ireland)

Message: This publication describes the success that Greek schools had in improving student performance in chemistry tests. The authors studied 2 psychological factors that affected performance namely working memory space and the extent of field dependency (ability to extract the meaning from its context). They found that performance in chemistry tests were higher where students had a greater working memory space and high levels of field independence.
The aim of the second stage of the study was to develop teaching strategies which would decreases working memory demand and also to decrease peripheral information which would act as ‘noise’ for those students who were highly field dependent. The new teaching materials were re-structured in such a way as to enable the students to use their working memory more efficiently. The new materials used a stepwise fashion of teaching new concepts, used analogies, pictures and diagrams more carefully, used models to link symbolic and representational aspects of teaching and in some cases the order of presentation changed whereby prior knowledge was built on in a more constructive fashion. The performance of students in chemistry tests improved after being exposed to these new methodologies.
This publication is very relevant as we are constantly striving to make chemistry more accessible to all students. We are constantly striving to increase student performance and this publication outlines the theory behind the learning process. With the eminent introduction of the new junior cert changes in Ireland and the increased emphasis on the student learner, this paper highlights that available working memory space is a critical factor in learning and is unique to each individual. It also highlights that the extent of field dependency has an impact on performance outcomes and that the extent of field dependency is developmental i.e. it can be improved upon. Results from this study show that students with a low working memory space but high field independence show marked improvements in performance results. Hence with changing teaching methodologies to include more group work i.e. use working memory space of all members in group rather than just individuals the performance rates increase.
The publication opens up new avenues for presenting chemical concepts. Most textbooks explain bonding theory by starting with ionic bonding then covalent bonding etc. However, the publication outlined a new way of presenting this theory. The notion of electron arrangement around the nucleus was introduced first, followed by the idea of shapes of covalently bonded molecules all with the help of models. Students naturally, saw how covalent bonds arose in H2 and O2 etc. The notion of unequal attraction of electrons to nuclei was then introduced which gently introduced electronegativity and polarity and finally the idea that electrons sharing could be so unequal that ions are formed. This process or approach clearly lessens the working memory space of students and was shown to increase performance when measured in tests on this topic compared to students who were taught the ‘old fashioned’ way.
The solutions to improving performance of chemistry students is very feasible in the Irish context and can certainly be exploited in teaching second level chemistry in Ireland.

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.