Alternative Conceptions in Chemistry

By Colburn, Alan | The Science Teacher, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Alternative Conceptions in Chemistry


Colburn, Alan, The Science Teacher


Chemistry has always played a vital role in the manufacture and use of practically everything we encounter on a daily basis--from the food we eat for breakfast to the toothpaste we use at night. Chemistry is also becoming increasingly important for disposal and recycling and is deeply connected to environmental issues, such as global warming and the destruction of our protective ozone.

Despite its importance, chemistry can be difficult for some students to learn. Many concepts are abstract, and students cannot always relate the ideas in this subject to their own experiences. Researchers examining learning in chemistry often reference student understanding of chemical concepts at three levels: macroscopic, microscopic, and symbolic.

Macroscopic understanding refers to what is going on in the observable world. At the macroscopic level, acids, for example, are chemicals that taste tart, turn blue litmus paper red, and dissolve various other substance classes.

The phrase microscopic understanding, to me, is something of a misnomer because I think in terms of looking through a microscope. The phrase, however, refers to an understanding of chemistry at the particulate level--molecules, ions, atoms, subatomic particles, and so on--so perhaps a better term would be submicroscopic or even nanoscopic. From this level, for example, an acid might be understood as a proton donor.

Symbolic representations, like submicroscopic understanding, represent a kind of comprehension that is an abstraction from everyday observable experience. For example, an acid might symbolically be represented as "H+." Thus, understanding the chemical concept of an acid means synthesizing and understanding it at the macroscopic, submicroscopic, and symbolic levels.

Similarly, chemical reactions can be understood as the kinds of substances that do or do not tend to spontaneously react (macroscopic understanding), as the way in which atoms that make up molecules rearrange during reactions (submicroscopic understanding), or as balanced equations (symbolic representations).

Clearly, these different ways of understanding overlap. Researchers would likely say that a true understanding of chemistry requires students (and teachers) to understand what is going on at all three levels. However, because submicroscopic and symbolic representations are abstract and removed from everyday life, they are also ripe for misconception formation, despite teachers' desires otherwise. Students commonly take abstract models and interpret them literally (or macroscopically). …

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