New study identifies problems with diagrams commonly used by chemistry teachers

Diagrams commonly used to teach chemistry concepts sometimes do more harm than good in students’ learning experiences, according to a new study from UW–Madison’s Martina Rau. 

The study, published in Journal of Chemical Education, found that undergraduate students often misinterpreted the meaning of arrows used in chemistry diagrams to convey information about things like the structure of atoms.

The students’ misunderstanding is particularly problematic, the study points out, because instructors often assume students understand the diagrams and don’t offer additional explanation in their lessons. 

“The different arrows have different meanings and this meaning is not explained — textbooks don’t explain their meaning in a caption of the figure, and most instructors do not explain them either,” said Rau, an associate professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, in a video blog about the study. “It’s important for us to understand how students interpret these diagrams, because this will enable us to address misconceptions before they solidify and cause issues when students learn more advanced chemistry concepts.”

Rau co-authored the study with Matthew Dorris, a UW-Madison PhD student in food science who has also worked as a chemistry educator. She says collaborating with a STEM expert helped ensure the work will benefit science teachers in the classroom. 

“You need people with different viewpoints to understand student learning, which is a very complex issue,” Rau said in a video reflection on the interdisciplinary collaboration.

Rau is an expert in visual learning and recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study misinformation in graphs

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