Developing Three-Dimensional Assessment Tasks To Better Identify Student Understanding

As a scientist we ask questions, plan and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data, develop and use models, etc. Through these scientific practices we are able to explain phenomena and develop a deep understanding of the world around us. Similarly, it is believed that we should help students learn through this process to develop a robust understanding of the discipline. That is, what information do we really want our students to know (core ideas), how do we want them to show us their understanding (scientific practices), and how does that information relate across the different science disciplines (crosscutting concepts). Together these threads are referred to as three-dimensional learning. It is helpful to think of assessments in this framework as well. We have published papers on how assessments tasks can be modified to align with three-dimensional learning by using the Three-Dimensional Learning Assessment Protocol (3D-LAP)  (See Publications for these studies).

Investigating Student Understanding of Core Ideas

Atomic/Molecular Structure & Property, for example: As chemists the ability to predict a substance’s chemical and physical properties from its chemical structure is essential. Unfortunately students have much difficulty being able to connect structure-property relationships, which research has suggested is not surprising when considering the amount of information that must be synthesized: 1. a valid Lewis structure must be constructed, 2. the bond angles, geometry, and shape must be considered to determine the 3D shape of the molecule, 3. the electron density distribution within the molecule and ultimately the polarity of the molecule, 4. how the molecule would interact with other molecules (i.e. intermolecular forces), and 5. predict chemical and physical properties. Over the years we have investigated both the difficulties students have with this process and why these difficulties occur. We believe that students must have an explicit understanding of why each of these steps are important and how they come together to be used for the ultimate goal of predicting properties. If students learn these steps as just that, fragmented pieces of knowledge, students will have difficulties recalling this information for future application (See Publications for these studies).

Investigating How Students Connect Their Chemistry Understanding To Other Disciplines

As part of this research interest there are two main project: 1. investigating how students reason about everyday phenomena and 2. how students use their chemistry knowledge for their biology courses. For the first project, we are interested in how students bring together their everyday knowledge with their chemistry, biology, and physics knowledge to explain everyday phenomena (e.g. when you touch a hot pan your finger forms a blister, hard boil an egg, or someone sneezes in a room and you get sick). From examining both how students reason about these phenomena and the knowledge they are using to answer these questions, we hope to better understand how students begin to explain everyday phenomena (Publications being submitted). The other project is just beginning this year after receiving NSF funding to develop introductory biology assessment questions focused on chemistry core ideas. Stay tuned to find out more in the upcoming year about progress on this project.

Studying the Impact of Curricula Transformations

As part of this research interest, we have investigated both the impact of a single curriculum with regards to the impact on student understanding as well as how various courses can be transformed through disciplinary discussions. Within a single curriculum we have investigated throughout the years on the impact of a novel general chemistry curriculum that is focused on four chemistry core ideas (bonding and electrostatic interactions, atomic/molecular structure and properties, energy at various levels, and change and stability in chemical systems). This two-semester course was developed based on the evidence of how students learn and through the use of considering the best way to present material so that information continually builds, is explicitly connected, and seen as relevant. (See Publications for these studies). In addition, we have also worked with faculty within chemistry, biology, and physics departments to talk about what they want students to learn, how they would know if students are learning the material, and how their material relates to other disciplines (i.e. three-dimensional learning). (Publications being submitted). This project is being expanded this year after receiving NSF funding to continue this work. Stay tuned in the upcoming years to see how this project further progresses.