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Using Multiple Representations to Resolve Conflict in Student Conceptual Understanding of Chemistry


Much like a practiced linguist, expert chemists utilize the power and elegance of chemical symbols to understand what is happening at the atomic level and to manipulate atoms and molecules to effect an observable change at the macroscopic level. Unfortunately, beginning chemistry is often taught in a way that emphasizes memorizing the symbolic representations of equations and reactions without much opportunity to meaningfully connect the observable macroscopic phenomena with an understanding of the chemistry taking place at the atomic level. The compartmentalized manner of chemistry instruction in most chemistry classrooms further nullifies the efficacy of the triplet relationship to connect between macroscopic observations, symbolic representations, and atomic scale views. If symbolic representations are presented as the goal of instruction, rather than as the means to gain understanding, then students will be impaired in developing a coherent understanding of chemical principles.

This dissertation describes the development and implementation of an interview study to examine how undergraduate students interpreted multiple representations of a chemical equilibrium. To establish a baseline of ideas, students first were coached to verbally generate successive representations. They were then cued to think about the chemistry occurring between atoms and ions at the molecular level. Next, an experiment involving a change in states of matter and color was performed which paralleled the symbolic representations. Through self-explanations and verbalizing of conjectures, students were encouraged to explore, interpret, and refine their understanding of the observations related to the chemical symbols presented to them. Finally, with the goal of fostering a deeper understanding of the process of equilibrium, a dynamic visualization of the molecular level was introduced as a tool for helping students connect these multiple representations.

This study revealed that one way in which students develop conceptual understanding and resolve conflicts between different representations of the same phenomena is by verbalizing their ideas as a conjecture (as a verbal explanation to advance towards a hypothesis). Thus, it is proposed that symbolic representations are most effective viewed not as an end goal but as a bridge for connecting macroscopic, visible phenomena with what is occurring at the molecular, invisible level. When the focus on merely memorizing chemical equations and symbols is removed, students can gain a coherent understanding of the meaning available when multiple representations are viewed together.

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