The Role of Physical, Social and Mental Space in Chemistry Students' Learning

By Sandström, Niclas; Sjöblom, Kirsi et al. | European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, The, November 2013 | Go to article overview

The Role of Physical, Social and Mental Space in Chemistry Students' Learning


Sandström, Niclas, Sjöblom, Kirsi, Mälkki, Kaisu, Lonka, Kirsti, European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, The


1. Introduction

Learning environment' many times refers to the social, psychological and pedagogical contexts in which learning occurs (e.g. Mitchell 1996; Lindblom-Ylänne & Lonka 1999; Kember & Leung 2009). However, physical learning environment and its relation to pedagogy and learning are often neglected (Woolner et al 2007; Woolner et al 2010; Lansdale et al 2011).

It has been shown that the environment and the tools provided by it may be seen as affordances that essentially enhance one' s competence or takes one to the state of inability, thus hindering or complementing, i.e. blending with, one' s own mental abilities (see Paavola, Hakkarainen & Lonka 2004; Norman 1993; McLaughlin & Faulkner 2012). They may also become fixed interpretations according to their conventional functions, failing to see new potentials or new ways of seeing them (Hakkarainen et al 2004, p. 23). Although these kinds of theoretical models that consider the role of physical environment as a part of a complex and multidimensional learning process have been presented, empirical research on this is nevertheless scarce.

Besides the physical environment and the affordances thereof, the learning or working environment or activity systems involve also the dimension of conceptual artifacts (Latour & Woolgar 1979; Hakkarainen et al 2004). Also pedagogical practices may be harmful or productive with regards to learning. Study activity takes place in a dynamic interplay between the learner and the learning environment. This may cause either constructive or destructive frictions (Lindblom-Ylänne & Lonka, 1999; Vermunt & Verloop, 1999): guidance should be regulated in relation to the student' s competence in order to avoid either excessive pampering and passivisation of the students or to avoid leaving them without necessary scaffolding with regard to the process of learning.

This study originates from an initiative to redesign a Finnish university chemistry laboratory in a way that it would be better aligned with the current pedagogical understanding, in order to foster learning and the development of expertise. Besides the learning aspects, there exists an economical concern (Kamarazaly, Mbachu & Phipps 2013) about the high expenses of different university facilities, which can well be extended to chemistry laboratory facilities. Teaching and research laboratories in the natural sciences are the most expensive learning spaces at the universities. There is a continuous need to maintain and upgrade sophisticated and up-to-date laboratory facilities. In addition, the utilization rates are disproportionately low. With regard to these issues, the flexibility of the spaces becomes crucial.

In this study, our main focus is on the laboratory of organic chemistry which is a highly complex learning environment. Students need to learn to apply abstract multilevel knowledge, also known among chemistry educators as the chemistry triplet (Taber 2013), on practical and tactile tasks of a trained chemist expert, already as a novice student (see e.g. Taber 2013; Johnstone 2000). Expert knowledge is tacit in nature, it is embedded in experiences and action (Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995).

1. Problem Statement

Although there exists various strata of research concerning the learning environment, it usually refers to the social, psychological and pedagogical contexts in which learning occurs. However, physical learning environment and its relation to pedagogy and learning is often neglected.

3. Research Questions

In our study we wanted to deepen our understanding on how students perceive their physical learning environment and which factors either facilitate or pose a challenge to learning. More specifically, our research question was: what is the relationship between student perceptions of physical space, social space and mental space regarding learning?

4. Purpose of the Study

This study originates from an initiative to redesign and renovate the chemistry laboratory environments of a major Finnish university. …

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