Investigating Student Understanding of Chemical Kinetics

Project No.
PI Name
Marcy Towns
Purdue University

Abstract 1

Investigating Student Understanding of Chemical Kinetics

Presentation Type
Marcy Towns, Kinsey Bain, and Alena Moon - Purdue University Department of Chemistry


Understanding fundamental concepts in chemistry is intrinsically tied to understanding mathematical symbolism and operations, as well as translating between equations and physical realities. Because of this, studying how students understand and use mathematics in scientific contexts is of great importance; in this way researchers and practitioners can find ways to enhance studentsメ abilities to interpret and use mathematical expressions in conjunction with conceptual understanding, rather than blindly applying routine mathematical procedures. There is research on quantitative problem solving in science education research; however, examination of how individuals use these equations in the mathematical processing step has rarely been studied in science education fields. Chemical kinetics was chosen as the specific context for this study, as it is an anchoring concept of the undergraduate chemistry curriculum, which requires the use of mathematics to understand and solve problems.


This study explores quantitative problem solving in the context of chemical kinetics, with the aim to understand how undergraduate students understand and use equations to solve kinetics problems. The participants in this study are non-chemistry major STEM students from a second-semester general chemistry and chemistry majors in an upper-level physical chemistry course. The primary data gathered are individual semi-structured interviews using a think-aloud protocol. Written work is recorded physically on Livescribeル paper and digitally with a Livescribeル smartpen. Secondary data included classroom observations and textbook/course documents.


The theoretical framework for this study is Kellyメs theory of personal constructs, which argues that while individuals differ in their knowledge constructions, one individualメs constructs can be similar to anotherメs, due to social interaction. Blended processing will be used as a methodological framework to help describe and analyze problem solving. It is a cognitive framework for exploring and modeling human information integration, providing a way to describe and understand individualsメ knowledge constructions and their interactions. The initial data analysis will follow Pageメs four-stage process, during which screenshots of written work will be inserted into each transcript, aligning with the appropriate text. An inductive, open-coding approach will be used in the thematic analysis to discover themes that reflect aspects of participantsメ thinking and blending of chemistry and mathematics.


A pilot study was conducted, evaluating the interview protocol and aligning the two researcher interviewers. The interviews were transcribed, allowing the research team to make minor changes to probing questions and prepare for the full study. At present fifteen interviews with general chemistry students have been conducted and transcribed. Initial stages of analysis have begun, incorporating Livescribe� data into the transcripts. Subsequently, thematic analysis will be conducted, where the three weeks of classroom observations and course textbook, will be used to better understand emerging themes.

Broader Impacts

This work will provide researchers and practitioners a better understanding of how STEM students understand and use mathematics in chemical kinetics. Mathematics becomes increasingly indispensable feature of scientific communication across the disciplines, thus investigating how students blend together their understanding of chemistry and mathematics in the context of chemical kinetics holds the promise of improving and promoting student learning.

Unexpected Challenges

None to report.


None at this time as we are just beginning the project this fall.