Chemistry Education Research (CER): Where we came from, where are we now, and where can we go?

by Debbie Herrington (Grand Valley State University) and Ryan Sweeder (Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University)

As undergraduate students majoring in chemistry, one of us in the US and the other in Canada, we were familiar with the Journal of Chemical Education, but had never heard of Chemistry Education Research (CER). Had either of us known it was possible to do graduate work in CER, we may have made some different graduate school choices. Maybe you are in a similar situation; just hearing about this thing called CER. Or maybe you are about to begin graduate work in CER but wanting to know more about the field in general. In this post we aim to provide a concise summary of the development and current state of the CER field as well as what we view as the future challenges and opportunities for the field. Having individually come to CER through notably different pathways, we hope our perspective gives you a sense of CER as a discipline and encourages you to jump in and participate in the work and important conversations needed to build the CER community and move it forward. 

Where we came from

A strong interest in improving the teaching and learning of chemistry has been a focus in the US for almost a century with the establishment of the Division of Chemical Education (1921), the Journal of Chemical Education (1923), and the ACS Exams Institute (1930). Yet the field of Chemistry Education Research (CER), did not start to truly emerge until much more recently. Prior to the 1960s, there were few systematic studies of the teaching and learning of chemistry. A great, recent review of CER by Cooper and Stowe (2018) in Chemical Reviews describes the development of CER from the early stages, where effective chemistry teaching was identified using instructor instinct and experience (personal empiricism), to the systematic studies of teaching and learning based on learning theories and supported by evidence that help define the field today. Early chemistry education researchers primarily were full professors looking to improve the teaching and learning of chemistry by applying evidence-based approaches analogous to those used in traditional chemistry research. Without formal training in CER, these early researchers drew upon the theories and methods from fields such as education, cognitive science, social psychology, and the other early practitioners in what would become the discipline-based education research (DBER) fields. This established CER as a truly cross-disciplinary field, exploring the unique aspects of the teaching and learning of chemistry. The DBER report, published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, highlights the important contributions of other fields to CER as well as describes the relationship between DBER and research areas such as the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), cognitive science, educational psychology and education evaluation. Although there are areas of considerable overlap, what primarily distinguishes CER from these other disciplines is the specific focus on the nature and depth of the chemistry content. 

The development of the CER field has generated many important insights into and implications for the teaching and learning of chemistry. For example, Johnstone’s famous triangle has helped to articulate a core challenge to novice learners of chemistry and has resulted in instructional practices that explicitly address the connection between macroscopic properties, particle behavior, and symbolic representations. Further, the push to try to assess and identify the accuracy and depth of students’ understanding of a range of chemistry topics led to the development of concept inventories and a focus on conceptual questions rather than straight algorithmic questions. More recently, researchers have investigated how to most effectively use technology to help students develop a deep conceptual understanding and visualize phenomena and processes that can not directly be observed.

 Where are we now?

The field of CER has become a generally recognized sub-discipline of chemistry with dedicated conferences and peer-reviewed journals. In the United States and many other countries, CER symposia are regularly scheduled at national meetings and CER faculty are employed in university chemistry departments. It also is recognized within the chemistry community by its inclusion in broad disciplinary journal such as the Canadian Journal of Chemistry. Further, from the awarding of the first CER Ph.D. in the US in 1993, there are now over 25 CER Ph.D. programs across the US as well as programs in many other countries around the world. Moreover, within the last decade CER post-doctoral opportunities have become much more prevalent, bringing CER inline with other chemistry sub-disciplines. 

The major research questions that are now being asked in the CER field have also changed. Researchers are moving beyond what students know to focus on factors that impact the learning process. These include affective, situational, or environmental factors as well as exploring the benefits and limitations of different pedagogical approaches for the diversity of students and populations. With these new research foci have come new methods; A 2014 ACS Symposium Series publication, Tools of Chemistry Education Research (edited by Cole and Bunce) describes in detail the use of several quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis methods. Where early quantitative analysis generally involved descriptive and simpler inferential statistics (e.g., t-test and ANOVA), the use of more sophisticated statistical models and methods has supported the investigation of a wider range of questions. Similarly, although the theory of constructivism still underlies much qualitative researcher in CER, researchers are also now using a variety of other theoretical perspectives to investigate this more diverse range of research questions. A 2007 publication, Theoretical Frameworks for Research in Chemistry/Science Education (edited by Orgill and Bodner) highlights several of these. 

 Where can we go?

As the field of CER has grown, the knowledge it has generated has started to influence how chemistry is taught. We can see this in the incorporation of particulate level diagrams in textbooks, the development of ACS conceptual exams, high quality visualizations such as the VisChem animations and PhET simulations, and the increased focus on the use of active learning strategies. Yet visiting a few college general chemistry classes will readily demonstrate that this impact is still limited. As the DBER Report concluded, “DBER and related research have not yet prompted widespread changes in teaching practice among science and engineering faculty. Different strategies are needed to more effectively translate findings from DBER into practice.” This reminds us that a major underlying goal for the CER community, improving the teaching and learning of chemistry, is still awaiting significant progress. In addition to identifying effective pedagogies and curricula, we must conduct studies to ensure that these methods work in a wide variety of settings and for an increasingly diverse student population. Further, as this broad goal cannot be accomplished by “preaching to the choir,” we must better understand how and why individuals decide to change how they teach and identify ways to effectively disseminate and communicate the key findings of chemistry education research outside of the CER community. 

Simultaneously, a second challenge exists for the CER community; how do we better incorporate individuals into the community of practice? CER has a history of being an inclusive community supporting its members through mentoring. Indeed, if we want to broaden the impact of our research, we need to be inclusive and supportive of those outside the CER community in using the findings of our work. However, we must also be careful to maintain the integrity and standards of quality research and research methods. Initially, when the field of CER was young there were many challenges facing faculty in gaining support and acceptance for their work in CER. At the same time, given the smaller literature base, fewer standard of practice, and a relatively wide-open field of possible questions to investigate, the barriers for researchers to enter into CER was lower. These early CER researchers helped to develop the methods and practices that have become the norms in the discipline over the last 60 years. As the methodologies in CER have become more sophisticated it has rightly become more difficult to transition from traditional chemistry research into CER. Assuming that anyone with a Ph.D. in chemistry can simply step from bench research into the field of CER by reading a few articles, devalues the efforts to develop the CER field as well as the years spent by many during their CER Ph.D. and post-doctoral experiences learning and practicing the methods of the discipline. At the same time, it is important to find ways to meaningfully engage these individuals in the community, to more readily allow studies to be multi-institutional and include a more diverse set of participants, which will ensure that outcomes are relevant to the broader teaching and learning of chemistry. One potential mechanism for an existing faculty member wanting to make the transition to CER could be a CER sabbatical which engages them in the norms and practices of the discipline.

Having come this far, it is clear that the CER field still has challenges. Moving forward, if our goal is to broadly improve the teaching and learning of chemistry, the community must address a variety of questions. What are the major findings of CER that are most critical for us as a community to disseminate and where and how do we effectively disseminate these? What are the most important questions regarding the teaching and learning of chemistry that the CER community should focus on? How do we, as a community, clearly articulate the standards and norms of our discipline so that people are not constantly trying to reinvent the wheel or exploring unfruitful research agendas? An upcoming opportunity to start tackling some of these questions is the 2020 BCCE Symposium “Supporting the growth and impact of the chemistry education research community”. We hope you will be there to join us and provide your input on some of these important questions.