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Collaborative Research: Optimizing learning from chemistry simulations: Comparing attention allocation and learning outcomes for assignments with and without instructor screencasts: 1705365

Principal Investigator: Deborah Herrington
CoPrincipal Investigator(s): Jessica VandenPlas
Organization: Grand Valley State University

Many college students struggle with learning chemistry, in part due to the inherent difficulty of visualizing and developing mental models of molecular level particle interactions that they cannot directly observe. To help students connect these molecular level particle behaviors with what they can observe at the macroscopic level, educators have developed computer-based simulations. Simulations of chemical systems allow students to observe scientific models of what happens at the molecular level when they change different variables. Such simulations are increasingly being incorporated into high school and college courses as they have been shown to positively impact students’ conceptual understanding of chemistry. However, the research also indicates that students may misinterpret certain aspects of simulations and thus develop some incorrect ideas. This is a particularly important consideration with the increased popularity of online, blended, and flipped courses that use simulations to aid student learning outside of the classroom. A possible way to address this issue is to incorporate screencasts that consist of videos in which an instructor demonstrates how to use the simulations, focusing students on key features of the simulation environments and helping them interpret aspects of the simulations. By comparing students’ understanding of key chemistry concepts before and after they complete such simulation-based assignments, as well as the ways in which students use different online resources, the project team will identify effective ways for students to use chemistry simulations outside of the classroom. The instructional materials developed by the project team – including guided assignments and screencasts to be used with chemistry simulations – will also be made freely available online.

The primary objectives of this Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE:EHR) Exploration & Design project are to (1) develop a set of simulation-based assignments and associated screencasts using research-based design practices; (2) assess and compare student attention allocation and learning gains from the online resources via the different active learning methods (guided use of simulations and instructor-led screencasts); and (3) disseminate the materials and methods developed to chemistry instructors. To accomplish these goals, scaffolded assignments will be developed, to be used with pre-existing chemistry simulations, to focus students on attaining key learning goals common to many general chemistry courses. These assignments will be used as the basis for developing associated screencasts. An iterative design process will be used to develop high quality, validated materials. The project team will then compare student use of simulations with and without the instructor-led screencasts. In both conditions, students will work independently outside of class time to complete simulation-based assignments. In one condition (no screencast), students will complete an assignment in which written instructions guide them in manipulating the simulation. A second group of matched students will complete the same assignment by watching a screencast and manipulating the simulation. Eye tracking studies will be employed to better understand how students interact with the simulations and screencasts, how students use the resources to address questions in the assignments, and how students allocate their attention while completing the assignments. Student learning will be assessed through analyses of pre-/post-test gains; answers to open-ended questions; and near transfer tasks that will involve drawing molecular-level representations, producing graphs, or interpreting data. Research findings, and associated instructional materials developed, are expected to inform chemistry instructors regarding how to optimize student learning from simulations of molecular-level phenomena.

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