A picture is worth a thousand words: Investigating first year chemistry students' ability to visually express their understanding of chemistry concepts

Hayden Dickson, Christopher D Thompson, Paddy O'Toole

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Within a large first year chemistry cohort we identified that students were routinely expressing their understanding of chemical processes invariably at the macro and symbolic levels of representation, but rarely at the 'submicro' level. This observation is consistent with a wealth of previous literature on this topic, identifying students' inherent difficulties in imagining atomic-scale processes appropriately, and their ability to interconnect their imagined reality to macro-scale, observable chemistry. This paper aims to describe how a classroom intervention was used to explore student misconceptions at the macro and submicro level of chemical processes. Specifically, a method was sought for measuring the level of understanding in a large first year chemistry cohort. The investigation involved a review of the relevant chemistry education literature, student interviews, and the collection of over three hundred student-generated drawings that were produced solely from the imagination of the participants. The outcome of this work includes the generation of criteria sets enabling the measurement of student understanding, which align with common misconceptions identified for a series of specific tasks. However another key finding is that such tasks should not be conducted in the absence of class discussion, since what students convey through drawing chemical scenarios does not usually depict a complete picture of what the student truly understands, as we identified through student interviews. Nevertheless, the implication of this work is that student-generated drawings play an important role is both diagnosing, and helping students overcome common misconceptions associated with atomic-scale processes in chemistry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12-23
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • chemistry
  • representation
  • student drawings
  • diagrams
  • alternative conceptions
  • misconceptions
  • dynamic visual interview

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