One of the best workshops I have ever been to was the Chemical Concept Inventory one. I suspect the workshop leaders may simultaneously agree and disagree with that but it was wonderful to sit in a workshop where actual progress was made. I love the idea of a chemical concept inventory, a means of benchmarking where students start and end a course, but the ones on show at ViCE were not right for my purpose. Firstly, they tested a wide variety of concepts and it would be difficult to determine whether the students had misconceptions or whether they simply misunderstood the question. Secondly, the concepts in use would be better placed in secondary education rather than higher education. That may be a feature of the English/UK system. There were only a couple of questions where I really felt that a change in the students understanding would be worth measuring throughout our first year course, or possible to attribute to the content in our first year course. Finally, the inventories we looked at were not (as far as I understand) aimed at UK students. That potentially explains the confusion I felt on reading some of the questions, and trying to workout what the question wanted me to do/know/explain. The wording was very different to what I would use and to what I am familiar with as a product of the UK education system. I don’t think my students would be able to figure out the question in many cases and that limits the use. Yes, the questions could be reworded, but the whole piece of work around validation and reliability would have to be re-done, and the reworded results would likely not be comparable with the original results.
So what would be useful?
I find that our students struggle with chemical calculations, particularly stoichiometry and yield calculations. Many can perform the calculations but without a really good understanding of the process and reason behind them. For many, simple changes in terminology such as interchanging molarity and concentration causes quite a bit of confusion. It would be really useful to identify which aspects students have most trouble with and be able to direct them towards appropriate resources. It isn’t enough to do one example calculation of each kind – really understanding these processes takes a lot of practice.
Another area of confusion is bonding, particularly when concepts learned in secondary education are further developed through molecular orbital theory. The notion of ionic character in covalent bonds is usually a tipping point. That being said, the basics need a little work with many students identifying hydrogen bonding as the main type of bonding in water. That may sound like a trick question to some, but it does speak to their ability to break a question down and consider the basics of the system. As we teach molecular orbital theory and intermolecular forces, a bonding concept inventory could be very useful in assessing how students cope with changing rationale in this area.
My overwhelming impression from this workshop is that one or two really good instruments for evaluating student knowledge and skills relating to one or two really critical concepts would be very useful. I appreciate that there is a large quantity of work involved in developing such things and have cowered from such potential research projects in the past. Still, the Force Concept Inventory is well used and developed in Physics, maybe it’s time for some in Chemistry.