ChemSims: Designing effective simulation-based pre-class activities to support chemistry learning

Debbie Herrington
Professor and Chair
Grand Valley State University

The ChemSims project addresses two important needs: supporting students who enter college introductory chemistry classes with a wide variety of background knowledge and experience, and responding to the call for research on the important elements of effective pre-class activities for flipped-instruction. For this project we focused on core general chemistry concepts that are typically challenging for many students, required a good particle-level mental model for deep understanding, and for which we could find online simulations that provided scientifically accurate particle-level visuals. These topics included solubility, gas behavior, atomic interactions (bonding and IMFs), equilibrium, kinetics, and acids. Developing activities that students complete outside of the classroom prior to any formal instruction on a topic was considered key as this would allow students to spend more or less time as needed working with simulation to begin to develop their particle level mental models. The overarching research questions guiding this study included: (1) what differences existed for students using the simulation on their own as compared with those watching an instructor narrated screencast of the simulation to complete the assignment and answer the follow-up questions; and (2) what challenges did student encounter in developing particle level explanation of core chemistry concepts? Using backwards design for the initial activity development ensured the alignment of activities with core learning outcomes and assessment measures. Matched pre and post-activity questions as well as embedded assignment questions in conjunctions with an iterative test, revise, and retest evaluation model allowed for refinement of scaffolding to better focus students on the salient aspects of the simulations and assessment questions to better elicit student understanding of the core concepts. This poster will summarize what we learned regarding: (1) the affordances and challenges regarding the direct use of simulations as comparted to instructor narrated screencasts to engage students with the important aspects of the simulation; (2) important aspects for the creation of effectively scaffolded activities; and (3) designing assessment prompts to best elicit student understanding of core concepts. These findings represent the summative results from a four-year study, collecting data from thousands of students, across two institutions, several different instructors, and six different core chemistry concepts. Further, these findings have broader impacts in that they provide guidance for effective use of simulations in online learning environments as well as address the call for research on the important elements of effective pre-class activities for flipped-instruction.


Ryan Sweeder, Lyman Briggs, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI