Trends in Chemistry Education

Apparently it took me a little while to recover from a week long trip to Kauai so let’s get back on board with a look at some current trends in high school/post-secondary chemistry education. These are by no means the most important or the only trends, just a few that are particularly interesting to me right now: context-based chemistry and inquiry-based learning.

Key issues with how chemistry has traditionally been taught include: (1) an overload of content in courses due to the rapidly emerging body of scientific knowledge, (2) curricula being taught as a series of isolated facts that do not facilitate the formation of  meaningful connections between facts, (3) lack of transfer of problem-solving skills, (4) lack of relevance to students’ lives, and (5) inadequate emphasis on the skills necessary to advance in further studies of chemistry or inadequate emphasis on scientific literacy for those who will not be continuing in the field of chemistry (Gilbert, 2011). The idea of setting chemistry within particular contexts and structuring courses as modules to enhance student engagement and learning developed in the 1980s and has become increasingly popular.

Context-based chemistry “provide[s] meaning to the learning of chemistry; [students] should experience their learning as relevant to some aspect of their lives and be able to construct coherent ‘mental maps’ of the subject” (Gilbert, 2006, p. 960). This is done through providing a focal event or storyline based in a particular cultural setting. Providing this context allows students to experience relevancy of chemistry to their lives and connect personal stories with the material (prompting more motivation).  Rather than overloading students with an abundance of information, concepts and facts are only introduced as needed to fully deal with a storyline or event. The goal is to develop scientific literacy and an appreciation for chemistry’s place in society, provide hands-on experience with chemical phenomenon and build a fundamental understanding of chemical concepts. Examples of fully implemented context-based chemistry teaching are the Salters Chemistry courses in the UK (Bennet & Lubben, 2006), the ChemCom and Chemistry in Context courses in the US (Schwartz, 2006), and an Israeli industrial-based chemistry curriculum (King, 2009).


Inquiry-based learning allows students to participate in a community of scientific practice in keeping with the history of how chemical knowledge has evolved and how chemistry is actually done by scientists. Ways in which inquiry-based learning has been implemented include: case studies or problem-based learning (guided inquiry), virtual labs (guided or full inquiry), student-led design of lab experiments (full inquiry), and simulation or modeling of chemical concepts (guided or full inquiry). Use of case studies in science courses has been shown to increase student engagement, motivation, and understanding and long-term retention (Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011; Strobel & van Barnevald, 2009; Walker & Leary, 2009). Case studies have also been used in combination with laboratory experiments to provide a more authentic scientific experience – providing a fictitious (but realistic) case-study with some paper-based information and requiring other information that can only be discovered through lab work to solve the problem (Frerichs, 2013).

Laboratory experiments have also been undergoing reform to better engage students by using different levels of inquiry from highly structured experiments to fully open-inquiry (students come up with a hypothesis, experimental design, investigate, revise experimental design, investigate, collect data, report) (Xu & Talanquer, 2013). Higher levels of inquiry in labs resulted in students being able to identify procedural and metacognitive learning as opposed to factual learning in their lab reports. It also resulted in students seeking less instructor guidance on procedural or low level questions. Students engaged in more exploratory discussions and proposal of ideas as opposed to simply task based questions (Xu & Talanquer, 2013). Using inquiry-based labs provides students with exposure to authentic science where they can construct personal meaning and build knowledge of chemistry phenomena (Hofstein, Shore, & Kipnis, 2004). Personally, one of the greatest learning experiences in my undergrad was an open-inquiry laboratory where we decided to analyze the menthone levels in mint chocolate samples. We had to design our own experimental procedure based on research articles, instructor feedback and available equipment. We attempted our procedure, revised it, attempted it again, and reiterated the process over an 8 week period. I was exposed to analytical procedures that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise, but I was completely engaged and invested in building my knowledge of the techniques. It was the most realistic “authentic science” I experienced to prepare me for graduate school research.


Bennet, J. & Lubben, F. (2006). Context-based chemistry: The Salters approach. International Journal of Science Education, 28 (9), 999–1015.

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E. & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332(6031), 862-864.

Frerichs, V.A. (2013). ConfChem Conference on Case-Based Studies in Chemical Education: Use of Case Study for the Introductory Chemistry Laboratory Environment. Journal of Chemical Education, 90(2), 268-270.

Gilbert, J. K., Bulte, A. W., & Pilot, A. (2011). Concept development and transfer in context-based science education. International Journal of Science Education, 33(6), 817-837. doi:10.1080/09500693.2010.493185

Gilbert, J.K. (2006). On the nature of “context” in chemical education. International Journal of Science Education, 28(9), 957–976.

Hofstein, A., Shore, R. & Kesner, M. (2004). Providing high school chemistry students with opportunities to develop learning skills in an inquiry-type laboratory: A case study. International Journal of Science Education, 26(1): 47-62.

King, D. (2009). Context-based Chemistry: Creating opportunities for fluid transitions between concepts and context. Teaching Science: The Journal Of The Australian Science Teachers Association, 55(4), 13-20.

Schwartz, A.T. (2006). Contextualized chemistry education: The American experience. International Journal of Science Education, 28(9), 977-998.

Strobel, J. & van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL more effective? A meta-synthesis of metaanalyses comparing PBL to conventional classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(1), 44-58.

Walker, A. & Leary, H. (2009). A problem based learning meta analysis: Differences across problem types, implementation types, disciplines, and assessment levels. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(1), article 3.

Xu, H. & Talanquer, V. (2013). Effect of the level of inquiry of lab experiments on general chemistry students’ written reflections. Journal of Chemical Education, 90(1), 21-28.

Xu, H. & Talanquer, V. (2013). Effect of the Level of Inquiry on Student Interactions in Chemistry Laboratories. Journal of Chemical Education, 90(1), 29-36.

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