CAUT Report

UniServe Science News Volume 8 November 1997


Thinking Tasks for Undergraduate Chemistry Students

Robert Bucat
Department of Chemistry The University of Western Australia

Background to the project

At the heart of the project is the recognition that chemistry is a very complex, concept-rich area of study with an extraordinary degree of interdependence amongst the concepts and between the concepts and the "facts". Far from being a subject that can be presented and learned in a linear sequence, even for professional chemists knowledge consists of partial understanding of each area of the field (variable from person to person, area to area) with changing number and strength of linkages between the areas. As our partial knowledge in one area advances, this allows illumination that leads to enrichment of our partial knowledge of other areas, as well as perhaps to an increase in the number and intensity of recognised links between areas. Which in turn .......... ad infinitum.

This view of learning chemistry recognises the enormity of the challenge facing teachers and, more particularly, the enormity of the challenge facing students. So much so that perhaps it is not surprising that many students learn to play the "game" of rote learning, regurgitation of definitions and key phrases without understanding, and blind use of algorithms to disguise their highly compartmentalised knowledge. The science education research literature abounds with evidence that for many students the traditional transmission model of instruction has severe deficiencies. Gross student misconceptions have been found to be quite common, regardless of country, level of education or content area. Furthermore, research has shown time and again that conceptions - including misconceptions - are extremely resistant to change.

Largely because of the exposed deficiencies in the transmission model of instruction, instructional designers are turning to "constructivist" views of knowing and learning, which recognise the uniqueness of each personšs knowing, and how each person comes to know. According to this perspective, knowing is the individual reality that each person constructs as a result of interpreting their experiences. This project has as its basic postulate that worthwhile learning only results from a struggle to construct meaning from our experiences, in the light of previous understandings.

Over the last two decades, science education researchers have invented a range of ingenious tasks for the purpose of probing students' understandings. Recently, attention has been drawn to the potential of such tasks as effective teaching strategies because they require students to struggle with ideas in order to create their new knowledge. These "thinking tasks" can help students to see an overview of the subject matter, to distinguish between closely related concepts, to understand better the relationships between concepts, to recognise meanings hidden by the jargon of definitions, to recognise non-examples as well as examples of a particular classification, or to understand the reasons for the steps in a laboratory procedure.

The author acknowledges that his interest in strategies that can challenge the intellect of students by requiring them to explore the subject matter in new ways was aroused by Dr Ian Mitchell in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Strategies of this type have become a central part of the philosophies of those involved in the very successful Project for the Enhancement of Effective Learning (PEEL Project), in which Ian has been a powerful force. Most of the "thinking tasks" devised in this project are based on a comprehensive list of procedures that have been used in the PEEL Project [Mitchell, J. and Mitchell, I. (1992). Some Classroom Procedures. In J.R. Baird and J.R. Northfield (eds.) Learning from the PEEL Experience. Monash University, pp. 210-268].

The project

While it is all very well to have descriptions of these useful teaching strategies, practising teachers need specific examples ready to use or to "borrow" from. The purpose of this project was to devise a pool of "thinking tasks" appropriate to the tertiary level, mostly in the areas of aqueous solution equilibria, thermodynamics, and organic chemistry. Each task can be used "as is", modified to suit, or to indicate how similar tasks can be constructed in other areas.

Money from the CAUT grant was used to employ a Research Officer. A large number of "thinking tasks" of many types have been created and compiled into a booklet. It is intended that a larger pool will be developed over the next few years and contributions are invited.

Types of task

The types of task created during the course of the project include all of the following, presented in alphabetical order:

  • Challenging the right answer
  • Completing tables
  • Concept mapping
  • Conversations
  • Decision flowcharts
  • Dirty tricks
  • Flowcharts
  • Incomplete lecture notes
  • Inserting sub-headings in text
  • Interpreting diagrams
  • Linking examples to principles
  • Matching outcomes with origins
  • Matching the reason with the instruction
  • Relational diagrams (Venn diagrams)
  • Reversing the task
  • Scrambled calculation steps
  • Scrambled instructions
  • Selecting information from grids
  • Sweller questions
  • What data is necessary?
  • Where and why is it wrong?

The product

The tasks created during this project have been gathered together and published as Thinking Tasks in Chemistry: Teaching for Understanding, compiled by Bob Bucat and Todd Shand. This comprises 52 tasks in Part 1: Equilibria in aqueous solution, 29 tasks in Part 2: Organic chemistry, 35 tasks in Part 3: Thermodynamics, and 25 tasks in Part 4: Miscellaneous. It is most important that this compilation be seen not just as a pool of tasks available for immediate use, but also as a pool of ideas that might be applicable to any topic or any concept that seems appropriate to each teacher of chemistry.

The price of the publication is AUD$30 within Australia or AUD$40 overseas airmail. It can be ordered from Bob Bucat, but cheques or mail orders should be made out to the Department of Chemistry, The University of Western Australia.

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UniServe Science News Volume 8 November 1997

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