Why Is Chemistry So Difficult? New Dissertation Illuminates the Challenges of Making Chemistry Comprehensible in Schools

By Caroline Cabot - Published 26 October 2023
[Translate to English:] Kemistudent i labb.
[Translate to English:]

The fact that many students struggle with learning chemistry in school is well-documented in research. But what is the reason behind it? Ylva Hamnell-Pamment addresses this issue in her dissertation titled "Sensemaking in Chemistry at Upper Secondary School," conducted at the Department of Educational Sciences at Lund University.

The study was carried out at four different schools with diverse student groups, and it reveals that regardless of the students' performance levels and the character of the schools, difficulties in connecting chemistry theory with practical observations in the classroom consistently reoccur. Two important conclusions are highlighted:

  • Chemistry Language: To make chemistry comprehensible for students by connecting phenomena and theory, it is essential that they understand and use the language of chemistry correctly. There is a strong correlation between students' language proficiency and their performance levels. This is particularly evident among students whose native language differs from the language of instruction at school. This group of students generally finds it more challenging to grasp chemistry in the classroom.

  • Superficial Learning: Superficial learning is an obstacle to understanding chemistry, regardless of linguistic proficiency. Merely scratching the surface is insufficient; a deeper understanding is required. Signs of superficial learning were observed in a significant number of students, even though teachers provided support in the classroom to encourage students to reflect and establish connections between theory and phenomena.

Ylva Hamnell-Pamment, who has experience teaching at both the university and high school levels, commented on the results: "I was surprised by how difficult it was for the students in the study to systematically connect chemistry theories to phenomena. A significant portion of the students in the study performed well at the A or B levels and were taught by competent teachers, but they still found it challenging. I believe we need to rethink how we teach the scientific mindset in chemistry education."

Ylva Hamnell-Pamment will defend her dissertation on Friday, October 27th, at 13:15 at LUX, in room C 121, Helgonavägen 3 in Lund. Read her dissertation here.