Technology enhanced learning in the chemistry classroom [Paper]


ICTT Conference

Technology has the potential to assist us in our role as teachers, but the overwhelming amount of technology can make it difficult for new practitioners to know where to begin in the process of selecting fit-for-purpose technologies. In this paper, I aim to highlight some teaching scenarios where technology can have an impact. These include the following:

  1. Pre-class activities to present some information in advance of classes, and allow learners to check their understanding of this material;
  2. Wikis for facilitating group work and providing a mechanism for tracing each group member’s contribution;
  3. Worked examples to demonstrate problem solving approaches for basic problems;
  4. Podcasting and screencasting for providing supplemental revision material for all learners.

 Each example will highlight a case study from practice and further reading for those interested in more.

 [Paper Presented to International Conference on Initiatives in Chemistry Teacher Training, Limerick IT, November 2013]


1. Introduction

The incorporation of technology in our teaching is now ubiquitous but such is the amount of possibilities that it can be overwhelming for those new to the field to focus on areas of use to their teaching. In considering the incorporation of technology in teaching, a potentially useful method is to consider what it is that needs to be addressed, and how technology can be used to help in that scenario – in other words the intervention is driven by pedagogy rather than technology. This is likely to lead to resources that are embedded into the curriculum and are useful to learners, meaning that the time required to create or manage a given resource is offset by their benefit to the curriculum implementation. There are several opportunities for including technology in the chemistry teaching [1-5]. In this paper, I highlight four scenarios that can be effectively addressed by incorporating technology into the curriculum delivery.

2. Addressing Issues that arise in teaching chemistry

 2.1 Preparing students for classroom learning

Chemistry is a complex topic involving a lot of terminology, and which can be presented in different representations [6, 7]. As such, for novice learners, it can be a difficult topic to engage with as it is easy to become overwhelmed with new information and terminology that can lead to a reduced capacity for learning. This is described well by cognitive load theory, which explains that the capacity of learners to assimilate new information is limited by the working memory space. This space is used used up by the complexity of the material (intrinsic load), the difficulty of extracting the material from the learning resources (extraneous load), and the integration of new knowledge into the long term memory (germane load).The latter load is beneficial to learning, and to maximise its scope, the level of intrinsic and extraneous loads in any learning situation needs to be considered so as not to overwhelm the learner [8].

Pre-class activities can be an effective strategy in assisting learners deal with new information that they will be exposed to during the class time. While these activities can be as simple as asking students to read a section of the textbook in advance, greater opportunities exist if a technology-based solution is used. These include tracking whether the activity has been completed, including a quiz, and providing feedback and links on areas of difficulty [9].

In designing the activities, emphasis should be placed on what you want students to know coming into class, not after class. Their aim is to prepare students for the class time. A useful strategy is to consider all of the new terms each class might introduce, and how these relate to the key topic in the class. Therefore a class introducing atoms might define the atom and its constituent sub-atomic particles, and explain isotopes. Therefore students who have completed the activity will have been introduced to the key terminology and been able to check their understanding of some basic principles – for example atomic number and mass number. The class can then build on this work by describing isotopes, calculating atomic mass units, etc. In addition, examining class answers to the quiz can provide valuable information on whether any particular question or topic is providing difficulty before the class begins. By incorporating a quiz at the end of the video resource, it is possible for students to obtain instant feedback on their understanding of the key terms that they need to know.

This simple strategy has been reported at school level and at college level for introductory chemistry. In the school study, two groups of students were taught about chemical equilibrium, with the experimental group scoring higher grades in the post test [10]. The implementation of these strategies at college level led to improved grades for students who had no prior knowledge of chemistry, a fact attributed to their basis in cognitive load theory [11, 12].

The technical requirements of using pre-class activities are relatively straightforward. A podcast/screencast of the material can be prepared and shared on a local virtual learning environment (VLE) or Google Sites. Similarly, the quiz can be included on the VLE or by using Google Forms or similar. It is important to structure what students will do during this time – for example by providing a gapped handout that they can complete and bring to class to build on there. This is a useful strategy for linking the pre-class work with the in-class work.

The concept has been extended further to move more and more of the content-delivery element of the class to beforehand, freeing up more time in the class to working on problems, peer instruction, laboratory work, etc. This concept of “flipping” the classroom has become a popular phenomenon after it was described by two chemistry teachers. Several resources, tips and techniques are available at the Flipped Learning Network, which also includes a chemistry sub-site [13].

2.2 Wikis for facilitating group work

One of the great difficulties in organizing group activities for students is how to ensure fair assessment. While strategies such as peer-assessment and learning logs are useful, many educators are reluctant to use group work as it is difficult to trace what went on as the group completed their project. Wikis offer a potential technological solution to facilitating group work.

Wikis are an online document editing space that can be open to everyone or just to an invited list. The wiki can be set up so that students can edit pages using a word-processing type editor as well as add pages to create a system of inter-related topics. Therefore, they offer a means to create an online site where several people can contribute. The great benefit of wikis in terms of facilitating group work is that the wiki logs all contributions to the site, when they are added, and who added them. This is visible both to the teacher and to students, and therefore they offer a high degree of transparency to group work – it is very clear who is contributing what and when. Wikis also offer a useful means to help improve student writing and argumentation.

The technical process of wikis is very simple. Most virtual learning environments have a wiki included, and a free one for educational use is Reports of their use in education are mostly restricted to teacher training to date [14], although there have been some pilot studies on their use with students in several UK and Irish institutions [15]. This work has found that students find wikis easy to use, although some induction is required to explain how to edit others work, and how to write in students’ own words. Some initial training may be required for the teacher to become with using and managing wikis. Examples of wikis developed by school educators include a wiki where each student contributes some information about the periodic table, where students compile information on practical work, or revise particular topics for an exam.


2.3 Worked examples to show how to complete problems

A common approach in teaching chemistry, and especially any mathematical approaches in chemistry is to show a student an example and then get them to try one themselves [16]. Again, this approach can be easily automated and formalized to create a system of worked examples. Worked examples derive from cognitive load theory as they aim to show in a series of identified steps, how to approach and solve a problem. Therefore in learning how to solve the problem, the learner approaches it one step at a time. As they work through the problems, the level of assistance provided is reduced, so that in each iteration, students complete one extra step themselves until they can do the entire problem. This is called “fading” in cognitive load theory.

The incorporation of worked examples can harness this stepwise approach very effectively. This can be easily achieved technically using a VLE quiz or Google form. For example, Behmke describes the iterative approach that was taken for a range of introductory chemistry problems such as acid and base strength, dilution calculations, etc [17]. The incorporation of the fading approach benefited learners in their ability to complete the questions. Ashworth has described a useful method to generate large amounts of calculation questions using Microsoft Excel that could be useful for teachers looking to adopt this approach [18].

2.4 Podcasting and screencasting

One of the simplest and most effective ways of incorporating technology into our teaching is to create podcasts and screencasts. A podcast (audio only) and screencast (audio with video or screen capture) allows students to recover material in their own time at their own pace. There are some useful resources for how these can be created in a chemistry context [19 – 20]. These webcasts can be of two general types: either they recover what was provided in a class (substitutional) or they provide extra material or explain in further detail something that was delivered in class (supplemental) [21]. The literature appears to suggest that it is supplemental materials that have most use to students – explaining particular concepts, trying out questions, etc. Simply recovering what was done in class adds no extra benefit to students, the time is probably better spent exploring more challenging topics in more detail. Screencasting and podcasting have also proved useful in providing students with feedback [22].

Podcasts and screencasts are now easily made, and there is a variety of software to prepare them (Audacity, Jing, Camtasia).  Several examples of chemistry screencasts are at the website

3. Summary

While there is a wide range of possibilities for including technology in our teaching, those that are likely to have most benefit are ones which can be integrated with curriculum delivery. The paper summarises four approaches that can be taken, along with some examples from the literature and some practicalities for their implementation.


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