Probing for Students’ Understanding in Chemistry: Using Multiple Approaches (Part One)


Students’ understanding becomes the main concern for teaching and learning in science. The problems of learning achievement in science influence the researchers and practitioners to consider multiple approaches to investigate students’ understanding. In addition, according to Treagust and Chandrasegaran (2007), currently science curriculum concerns on the multiple aspects on students’ understanding of scientific concepts and phenomena. However, even though research studies on students’ understanding of science concept have been widely developed, but studies which focus on teaching strategies to promote students’ understanding need to be explored (Keogh and Naylor, 1999). Therefore, different approaches to probe students’ understanding have been exploring not only to solve the problem of learning achievement, but also to engage students into scientific concepts and meaningful learning experience.

Furthermore, implementations of different approaches of students’ understanding in chemistry need to be developed since many students consider chemistry as difficult subject and find difficulties to understand the chemistry concepts. However, majority teachers do not effectively diagnose students’ learning problems and to measure the effectiveness of their classroom instruction. In addition, most teachers also find difficulties both to explain science concepts and investigate students’ understanding (Treagust & Chandrasegaran, 2007; Tytler, 2002b, Mann & Treagust, 1998). Therefore, it is important for help the teachers to explore different approaches of probing students’ understanding. This paper provides the review of different approaches of probing students’ understanding, especially in chemistry subject. The approaches are:1) questioning, 2) interview about events and instances, 3) concept cartoon, 4) concept map, and 5) two tier diagnostic. These different approaches have the advantages and limitations. Therefore, teachers need to consider the appropriate approaches that could be applied in their classroom.

The Importance of Probing Students’ Understanding in Chemistry

Many students presume that chemistry is difficult subject which leads to the low achievement and motivation. According to Levy Nahum, (2004), students find difficulties to understand chemical concepts which are abstract. Moreover, according to Pendley, Bretz, and Novak (1994), the common problems in learning chemistry is because students learn by rote, students don’t understand the concepts and it’s relations, and teachers fail to give instructions of key concepts. In addition, students have difficulties to integrate any new information with their cognitive structures since the existing knowledge is integrated and resistance with their experience. Therefore, multiple approaches should engage students within meaningful learning experience through their daily lived experiences.

Besides, it is also important for teachers to realise that learners could have different understanding to those be determined by teachers (Nakhleh, 1992; Tytler, 2002a). According to Lin, Lee, & Treagust, (2005), “science teachers should have understanding about their students’ learning progress and achievement to attain their expectations for student learning achievement”. In addition, probing students’ understanding could help teacher to apply appropriate strategies and promote learning and understanding (Talaquer, 2006). However, most research studies shown that teachers didn’t give much approach to probe students’ understanding which is supported by the existing assessment which is not demand students’ explanations (Treagust & Chandrasegaran, 2007). Therefore, it is important to provide the consciousness about the importance of probing students’ understanding.

However, there are critics on investigating students’ understanding such as time consuming and meaningless since the curriculum force teachers to focus on standardise assessment. According to Tytler (2002a), there are two problems on probing students’ understanding. First, it is difficult for teacher to deal with many ideas of each student. Second, it is extremely difficult to deal with the students’ alternative conceptions and change their ideas into scientific conceptions. Furthermore, students need different strategies for different aspects of their learning (Selley, 2000), because every students has different style of learning. According to Parkinson (2000), individual’s learning style is influenced by nature and nurture. As a result, it is important for teachers to choose appropriate strategies which are effective and efficient way to probe students’ understanding and hold students’ differentiations.

Multiple Approaches

There are multiple approaches to investigate students’ understanding which are discussed in this paper: 1) questioning, 2) interview about events and instances, 3) concept cartoon, 4) concept map, 5) two-tier diagnostic. Multiple approaches are provided to give opportunity for students to learn optimally within their learning style. In addition, even though each approach has their own characteristic, advantages and limitations, but it will be prevailing to be applied complementary in the classroom to probe students’ understanding, especially in chemistry subject.


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