Chemistry Education: Issues and Trends

Melanie Cooper

There is growing recognition that effective education depends upon an appreciation of how students learn, how they are motivated, and how they are assessed. This understanding has led to a growth in the number of Chemistry Education Research (CER) programs and their increased acceptance in chemistry departments – a situation analogous to that in physics. Over 30 graduate (Ph.D. MS. M.Ed.) programs in chemistry education within chemistry departments now exist. Of these, however, less than half offer a Ph.D. and only seven have more than one faculty CER researcher. Nevertheless, there appears to be an increasing recognition (as indicated by the numbers of available faculty positions) that the presence of CER within a department is a positive development.

That said, the growth of chemistry-based education research has not been without issues, often specifically related to the question, “what is it that CER faculty can and should do?” How should they be judged, in the context of other faculty seeking tenure and promotion, and indeed should CER faculty even be on the tenure-track. In response, a number of documents have been produced that offer guidelines about CER scholarship. In particular, the ACS Division of Chemistry Education commissioned a white paper on the hiring, evaluation, and promotion of chemistry-based chemical education researchers1, and also developed a report that explicitly defines what constitutes CER scholarship2. The ACS Statement on Scholarship3 provides explicit guidance on what constitutes scholarship in the chemical sciences, including scholarship in CER. Equally important are resources designed to provide information to non-CER faculty both to inform them about the goals of CER and to assist them in incorporating research based teaching methods into their instruction4, 5.

While there are many reasons for a chemistry department to hire a CER specialist, all too often a major (implicit) rationale is that they will be responsible for everything related to chemistry education. Examples of such activities include: coordination of large general chemistry programs, laboratory development and oversight, curriculum development, teacher preparation, and outreach to both schools and the public at large. These are tasks that would not be expected of a “standard” chemistry researcher and they make the already difficult task of running a viable CER program difficult. If CER is important, then it should be treated as a valid research enterprise, on the same level as research into organic or physical chemistry. If not, the faculty member’s departmental credibility and research viability will be negatively impacted.

Current trends in CER: It is not possible to do justice to all of the efforts in CER in this short piece. Given that there are many commonalities between CER and PER I will highlight trends that may be unique to chemistry.

Assessment: A great deal of time and attention have been devoted to the improvement of teaching and learning in the sciences; unfortunately, these efforts do not appear to have lead to significant increases in student understanding, interest, or motivation. The idea that effective reform is driven only through objective outcomes assessment, should be self-evident; but unfortunately many scientists’ beliefs about education are largely anecdotal and self-serving. A major focus of CER is to provide objective outcomes assessments; recent examples include instruments to measure metacognitive activity6, student expectations7, self-concept8 and attitudes 9. Ongoing projects are aimed at developing instruments to measure problem solving skills10 and conceptual understanding.

Compared to other disciplines, the ACS Examinations Institute provides a unique source of assessment data; it produces nationally normed examinations for a large number of chemistry sub-disciplines. While most of these exams are developed by practitioners, rather than chemistry education researchers, these tests do represent what is generally deemed to be the accepted body of knowledge and appropriate level of performance in the discipline. These examinations can provide evidence that a course reform has not “dumbed down” the curriculum (a common complaint from “traditional” faculty and some students). On the other hand, because these assessments are quite traditional; they often concentrate on memory and algorithmic – rather than conceptual and transferable – understanding and skills. There are a growing number of “conceptual” exams available, however, and the Examinations Institute is developing new programs to provide researchers and instructors with access to data and resources. The goal is to enable instructors to track individual student content knowledge over their undergraduate career and to examine student performance based on the cognitive complexity of the questions.

Systematic reform: A number of NSF-funded initiative have attempted systematic reform in chemistry over the years. Several of these programs have had some impact on the way chemistry is taught. “Peer Led Team Learning” (PLTL)11, incorporates out-of-class student teams facilitated by peer (undergraduate) leaders working with scaffolded materials. PLTL has become widely accepted in part because it does not require the instructor to dramatically change the structure of their course. In contrast, “Process Oriented Guided Inquiry” (POGIL), is designed to replace the lecture approach. Based on research on learning, POGIL12 uses a three-phase learning cycle approach, exploration – concept invention – application, facilitated by student groups using worksheets. The effectiveness of both POGIL and PLTL strategies have yet to be measured extensively, although such assessment has been initiated.13

Data Driven Reform: The culmination of research into how people actually learn (cognition, pedagogy), what they need to learn (content, context), in what order concepts and skill are best introduced (learning progressions), what barriers to understanding exist (naive and instruction induced misconceptions), and how formative and summative assessments can be used to solidify understanding, collectively will eventually lead to new, more effective curricula. Chemistry - “the central science” - plays a vital role in the development of future technologies, ranging from energy capture and transformation, to the development of new materials and pharmaceuticals, and the protection of the environment. Moreover, a robust understanding of chemistry is central to the increasing molecular focus of the life sciences. Our own effort in this area, “Chemistry, Life the Universe and Everything”, is an NSF-funded, research-based general chemistry course curriculum designed to develop chemical concepts in the context of the emergence and evolution of life.14

In summary, chemistry department-based CER is growing as a recognized field. We are getting to the point where there are important opportunities for fruitful dialog between CER and PER, particularly since many chemical principles rest on physical concepts and physics increasingly demands a robust understanding of chemical principles.


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(2) Bunce, D.; Gabel, D.; Herron, J. D.; Jones, L. J. Chem. Educ. 1994, 71, 850.
(3) ACS 2008. Statement on Scholarship, Dec 31, 2008)
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(11) Gosser, D. K.,Jr.; Roth, V. J. Chem. Educ. 1998, 75, 185.
(12) Eberlein, T.; Kampmeier, J.; Minderhout, V.; Moog, R. S.; Platt, T.; Varma-Nelson, P.; White, H. B. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 2008, 36, 262.
(13) Lewis, S. E.; Lewis, J. E. J. Chem. Educ. 2005, 82, 135-139.

Melanie M. Cooper ( is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Clemson University. Her research area is chemistry education. She is a former chair of the ACS Division of Chemical Education. She thanks Michael W. Klymkowsky for helpful discussions in the preparation of this report.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.