Visualizing the Molecular World – Design, Evaluation, and Use of Animations

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Abstract

The research literature clearly indicates that many student misconceptions in chemistry stem from an inability to visualize structures and processes at the molecular level. A selection of these misconceptions was targeted in the VisChem project by producing a suite of molecular-level animations. The animations were produced with care to balance the often-competing demands of scientific accuracy, technical constraints, and clarity of communication.

The effectiveness of a selection of these animations was evaluated when used in a conventional lecture context to assist students to build useful mental models of structures and processes at the molecular level. This research revealed that, if used appropriately, students perceived most of the intended ‘key features’ and incorporated them in their mental models. There was evidence that students could transfer their ideas to similar situations, but no evidence of transfer to new topics. This indicated that these key features were not ‘internalised’.

With this background we then embedded the animations as learning objects in learning activities, within a constructivist learning design. The VisChem Learning Design was developed to 1) motivate students to focus attention on the key features of their own prior mental model to explain test-tube level observations, 2) produce cognitive dissonance if their model fails, 3) actively look for new features in VisChem animations to reconcile any dissonance, and 4) then apply their refined model to new chemical topics.