Complexity in Thinking: Constructivism within Chemistry Learning

Diving into Chemistry Education Research (CER)

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Research within chemistry education is incredibly important to the progression of teaching methods within the subject. Chemistry is a very complex topic; almost as complex as the students eager to learn it! Topics within chemistry build on one another, which allows for the development of possible misconceptions. With this in mind, it is crucial to find the source of these misconceptions.

Fun fact: this is literally what I research!

Dr. Stacey Lowery Bretz, my research advisor, published a paper along side of Dr. Cynthia J. Luxford in the Journal of Chemistry Education Research and Practice. Moving beyond definitions: what student-generated models reveal about their understanding of covalent bonding and ionic bonding provides great insight on how constructivism takes place within chemistry learning.

Hold up: what does constructivism have to do with CER?

First, let’s define constructivism.

Constructivism: What is It, and how does it relate to CER?

Constructivism in education is defined as, “a paradigm or worldview posits that learning is an active, constructive process. The learner is an information constructor. People actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality. New information is linked to to prior knowledge, thus mental representations are subjective” (

Constructivism takes part in the:

  • Progressive learning within a subject
  • Personal organization of topics within a subject
  • Development of preferred learning styles
  • Expansion of the extent to which a subject is fully understood
  • Development of possible misconceptions

The basis of lots of chemistry education research is the development of misconceptions. From the definition above, it can be concluded that constructivism within students allows for the development of ideas that might not be aligned with what has been taught.

Remember: students’ brains are more independent than teachers might like to think!

An Overview of Bretz & Luxford 2013

The research conducted by Dr. Stacey Lowery Bretz and Dr. Cynthia J. Luxford focused mainly on:

  • Students’ understanding of the concepts behind ionic and covalent bonding
  • Students’ ability to use physical bonding representations accurately
  • Students’ ability to connect definitions with concepts
  • Students’ ability to transfer knowledge of concepts to physical representations
  • Student based misconceptions within chemical bonding

Students were asked to build models representing what they knew about ionic and covalent bonding. Several students were unable to provide correct definitions, and therefore were unable to provide correct or accurate bonding models. 

This is expected, right? Well, the biggest finding is a bit more surprising. Most students were able to provide mostly correct definitions, but were unable to provide correct or accurate physical bonding models. 

Tying Bretz & Luxford 2013 to Constructivism

Students build on their past knowledge in chemistry. This is a key portion of constructivism. Any slight misunderstanding within chemical bonding will lead to further misunderstandings and misconceptions, which was confirmed by the findings of Bretz & Luxford.

Students make connections about the things they have imbedded within their minds in completely different ways. Connections from definition to representation may be different for every student, as was seen within the results.

It is possible that the students who had participated in the study merely memorized those definitions, but didn’t understand the actual concepts behind them. Depth of knowledge is also a key portion of constructivism.

Imbedding CER and Constructivism within the Chemistry Classroom

Within the classroom, constructivist learning allows for students to experience the topics. These experiences are the most concrete form of learning.

This video provides more insight on experiences within constructivist learning.

In my chemistry classroom, I want to use experiences to create the base knowledge of a topic for students. This method will provide the best outcome of accurate learning. That way, they can build on those experiences and keep their depth of knowledge broad, yet organized.

Example lessons and experiences:

  • Begin the lesson on chemical bonding with physical models. This allows for students to play with models, and discover what each piece of the model means. They could use different mediums, such as play-doh and toothpicks, plastic model kits, or even magnets. Being able to physical represent and manipulate their developing ideas would be incredibly beneficial.
  • Allow for students to create their own definitions of covalent and ionic bonds using the accurate models provided to them.
  • Create a lab in which students look at solubility of different covalent and ionic compounds. Have students record observations on what was more soluble, and what wasn’t soluble. Then, allow for students to conceptualize which bond type may be stronger using their newly learned definitions and model representations.

These experiences surely would have helped the students who participated in the Bretz & Luxford 2013 study. They would have a better base of knowledge, and, as result, less stemming misconceptions!

Continue your journey into CER, constructivism, and chemical bonding. Read the paper for yourself!

Luxford, C. J.; Bretz, S. L. Chemistry Education Research and Practice 2013, 14(2), 214–222.


  1. Kate,
    Wow, this post blew me away with its super amazing stylish presentation and its thoroughness. I guess one thing that could be expounded upon would be defining CER for a ready who may not be in our class. I love the connections between all these topics a whole, I thought it was very constructive-esque of you and I love getting a small summative of all the things we’ve talked about in class! GREAT blog.

    • Wyatt, thanks for the feedback! Good point about CER outside of our classroom. I would define Chemistry Education Research as the research done to improve teaching methods within the chemistry field. While each study may not directly be related to teacher performance, all data falls back on teaching methods. The goal of any study is to further understand what topics are difficult for students, and why. The results should be looked at in the classroom context. As a teacher, CER research should be kept up with in order to look for ways to constantly improve the success rates within your classroom. I think every science teacher should stay informed in the education research done within their topic!

  2. Hello Kate!
    I picked yours to read especially because I have found that I like chemistry. Like you said, it is a very tough subject and I did not like it in high school. Now that I have taken so many classes and see its importance, I appreciate it a lot more. I liked reading your study, it was very interesting. I could see how playdoh models could help students better. It would also help if they create their own definitions of bonding, like you said. My article that I looked at offered a way to combat the problem of a never-ending amount of vocabulary words in a subject. My article, which was from the American Biology Teacher Journal, suggested the use of dialogues, where students each get a certain list of vocab words to create dialogues about and to share to the class. I think this is effective and is along the lines of what you said. Adding new knowledge to what is already there is incredibly helpful for students. Although sometimes, like you said, there are misconceptions and these schemas need to be re-worked completely, using the old information to create the new information. Excellent post and awesome video. I hope to become more engaging and less of a motor mouth as this year progresses. I am still learning the importance of this in teaching. Thanks for your post!

    Delaina 🙂

    • Thanks a bunch, Delaina! I appreciate all of your positive feedback, as well as your connections to biology! With teaching methods in mind, our subjects aren’t so different after all. The same vocabulary issues pose themselves within chemistry–and every science subject out there. About your “motor mouth” comment, I think I have to disagree! While there are times that you need to let the students discuss, our job as a teacher is to facilitate productive conversations about our subjects with the students. The fact that you have so much to say about your subject is a great thing, and shouldn’t be suppressed! As long as you know when to let your students jump in, you’re doing just fine! It is so important for teachers to be passionate about their subjects, as well as the want for students to learn and succeed. 🙂

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