March 2022 | Tech Tips
Teaching Chemistry in a Blended Learning Classroom: When to Go Digital and What to Take Offline
By Eleanor Byers
The writing on the wall has never been clearer: technology is here to stay.
After the last couple of years, the ubiquity of technology in education has catapulted blended learning to the forefront of many schools’ priority lists. Blended learning incorporates both online learning and traditional learning models, with a balanced combination of activities conducted in the classroom. Blended learning is especially advantageous because the strengths of both models are emphasized and can overcome the weaknesses in the other. The fact that certain tasks are best completed in a digital space, while others are better suited to face-to-face learning, also makes the content more adaptable for individual students’ strengths, interests, and motivations.1
|Figure 1. The TPACK framework. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. © 2012 tpack.org.|
When I was first confronted with the idea of teaching chemistry online using only digital tools, I was skeptical at best. Today, I am happily ensconced at a school that aims to go paperless in terms of student submissions. I use a blend of online and offline resources, activities, and strategies to effectively teach chemistry to my students. In order to determine whether to use technology, it is important to think about if and how it will add value to student learning. I use the TPACK framework when weighing this choice. In TPACK, there are three types of knowledge: technological, pedagogical, and content; the purpose is for the three areas to work together seamlessly.2 This means only using technology when it will be a benefit to the content and/or pedagogical aspects of the lesson.
For instance, technological knowledge allows chemistry teachers and their students to experience situations that otherwise would not be possible, like seeing radioactivity through a simulation, or taking a virtual field trip to CERN. However, when there are interpersonal skills developed in the lesson, like communication and collaboration, the technology piece would not add value to the focus of the pedagogy. Keeping this framework in mind, below I detail three times that online resources are most advantageous, and three times that good, old-fashioned analog practices are your best bet.
|Figure 2. A screenshot from a JavaLab simulation that illustrates particulate representations of precipitation reactions. ©JavaLab.|
1. Atomic Level Representations
Helping students understand the miniscule atomic scale of chemistry is challenging, but digital resources are here to help. Because we cannot see atoms in our high school classrooms, digital tools such as simulations, animations, videos, and images open up a whole new range of possibilities for improving student understanding. Students benefit from seeing interactions on an atomic or particulate level, in addition to the macroscopic level seen in laboratories or demonstrations. When using online tools such as simulations, students need clear teacher guidance and directions to get the most out of the digital experience. In many online atomic representations, students can also manipulate the particles to more fully understand how they will interact. For instance, I like to use a Javalab simulation (see Figure 2) to introduce precipitation reactions before students see the macroscale effects in a lab.
Other topics in which these atomic-level representations are key include radioactivity, particle models of matter classification, chemical reactions, solutions, and gases. Links to some of my favorite online, atomic-level resources for each of these topics appear below.
- Matter Classification
- Chemical Reactions
2. Test Review
|Figure 3. A Quizizz review game I completed with my students. Students answer questions on their individual devices and the main classroom screen acts as a scoreboard and timer.|
Whether test reviews in your classroom look like games, group review sheets, a series of videos, or some combination, there are wonderful digital resources waiting to engage your students in the sometimes tedious task of test review. Games like Kahoot, Quizizz, or GimKit are some of my favorites, and are valuable in helping to get all students engaged by capitalizing on their competitive spirit. Students have been found to engage more with content using online tools, like games, where they can interact and receive feedback.3 Each of the games mentioned above is user-friendly for both teachers and students: teachers build the game using questions of their own creation or pulled from each game’s vast library; students log in with a game code and answer the questions. To make the game best fit your class, there are many customizable options including teams/individual, self-paced/teacher-paced, or time limit/point limit.
If you’re using a digital review sheet, I would recommend Formative, where students can receive automatic, immediate feedback on their work. Formative allows you to digitize any assignment by inserting digital questions. As with the review games, there is an extremely broad and useful library of content. One benefit of digital test review is the advent of automatically graded practice; students can take responsibility for their studying as they receive a clear indication of which topics they need to review further, based on their results.
Review videos that you curate for your students or that you create yourself are another wonderful digital resource. I like to record a video of myself going through and answering our study guide, which students then use to study at their own pace (you could even build in stop-and-ask-questions using Edpuzzle!). I record and post the videos directly through my school’s Learning Management System (LMS), but ready-made options can also be found on sites like YouTube and Khan Academy. When a test is upcoming, my students always ask if I have made a review video; they find the format to be helpful as they can hear me re-explain topics — and they can pause, jump around, and replay as needed.
|Figure 4. A screengrab from one of the review videos I create and post for my students on our LMS. I complete each question in the study guide and explain the answers in detail in the video recording.|
3. Pre-lab and Post-lab Work
Any pre-lab assignments, such as reading background information and procedures, highlighting key concepts, or even outlining a procedure and creating a data table, can be done digitally. These allow students to complete the assignments in or out of the classroom regardless of the format, such as watching a video or completing a drag-and-drop activity of the lab apparatus. Also, when accessed digitally, the pre-lab assignment is easier for both students and teachers to keep track of. Pre- and post-lab work that lends itself well to a digital format includes important technology skills like graphing and data presentation. I use both Desmos and Excel in my classroom for graphing lab data. Desmos is an online calculator tool with a feature where coordinate points can be easily plotted to illustrate data collected over time.
|Figure 5. Desmos online calculator used for plotting data points collected in a chemistry lab. Note: Image used with the permission of Desmos.|
|Figure 6. Students collect data in a digital chart during a flame test lab.|
Depending on your school’s lab equipment, digital data collection and analysis may come more easily. If you have electronic probe ware, for instance, there is seamless integration of technology into the analysis of data. As students complete post-lab analysis questions or lab reports, I believe going digital is most beneficial for them. Digitally answering questions clearly and concisely while using supporting data is an important skill that students will need throughout their lives. To ensure all students are able to share their knowledge to the best of their ability, encourage students to use helpful digital resources such as spellcheckers, translators, and speech-to-text tools when writing.
1. Hands-On Lab Work
|Figure 7. Students test chloride salts in Bunsen burners to determine the element’s identity in a flame test lab.|
Laboratory experimentation and data collection were big missing pieces for me during virtual instruction. It is always exciting for students to don their goggles, use chemicals, and measure using glassware (when a Bunsen burner is involved, it is extra exciting!). Lab provides opportunities for students to observe the chemical ideas they are learning in action. Recognizing and understanding lab equipment is key in upper-level science classes; without a core foundation of hands-on lab work, these topics are abstract and, therefore, more challenging. We could talk about and solve titration stoichiometry problems all day, but until they use a buret to slowly add acid to base (or vice versa) and see the indicator change color, students do not understand the real-life application.
Lab work is also a necessary hands-on experience that students need to become familiar with scientific practices. Learning how to use lab equipment properly and taking accurate measurements are applicable skills to many job fields and areas of study in higher education. Lab is also a time to focus on skills like cooperation, organization, communication, and problem-solving. In my opinion, the hands-on lab experience is essential for student learning. Time to explore, experiment, and inquire is crucial to developing students who can think critically, solve problems, and embody what it means to be a scientist.
2. Inquiry Activities
In an inquiry activity, students are leading the charge and exploring a new concept on their own, supported by higher-level questions. In this type of activity, there are two main reasons it is important to go offline: physical manipulation of materials and rich peer communication. In many of my inquiry activities, there are physical materials (such as cards, beads, model kits, pictures, vocabulary, etc.) that students are handling and arranging to support their modeling of the concept. An example of this is an activity where students arrange hotel guest cards to model filling orbitals with electrons. Other examples can be found in the AACT resource library, such as “Investigating Significant Figures Through Inquiry,” “Electron Configuration and Orbital Diagrams,” and “Mixture Separation Challenge.”
Working hands-on with materials assists students in their understanding of the activity and underlying concepts. I also use offline inquiry activities when introducing atomic structure and periodic trends. During inquiry, students are the creators of knowledge. Therefore, I always have students work in groups, so that there are multiple brains working through and processing the information. Since they are in groups, students must communicate with their peers to complete the inquiry successfully. This group communication allows students to practice and gain fluency in their interpersonal skills, which can be challenging in an online format.
3. Periodic Tables
|Figure 10. Printed and laminated periodic tables are helpful resources that students can annotate, write trends on, and use in conjunction with an online activity.|
Yes, I mean physical copies of the periodic table for your students to use, label, draw on, etc.! It is not enough to just have one large printed version hanging on the classroom wall. Of course, I have a digital copy of our periodic table linked in my LMS, so it is available digitally at all times and at home. But in class, I have — and strongly encourage students to use — individual laminated periodic tables. Students benefit from holding a periodic table, pointing to or circling the element, and reading a print copy. They may have an assignment open on their screen, so having the periodic table in hand means they can actually use it to help them. Being able to annotate the periodic table (with a dry erase marker in my students’ case) is important for labeling group names, blocks, valence electrons, or any other number of ways to classify, describe, and identify trends on the periodic table. Such a central resource for all chemistry students deserves to be given a place of honor, printed and used each and every class period.
I hope that teaching chemistry using technology in a blended learning environment does not seem as daunting to you as it once did to me. These lists are designed to give you a few manageable ideas of how to leverage technology to help students understand chemical concepts, but without giving up all of your tried-and-true offline activities. As is true with most of life, balance is key when teaching chemistry in a blended learning environment.
- Nababan, K.; Hastuti, B.; Indriyanti, N. Y. Blended Learning in High School Chemistry to Enhance Students’ Metacognitive Skills and Attitudes towards Chemistry. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Science, Mathematics, Environment, and Education, Surakarta, Indonesia, July 26–28, 2019; Indrivanti, N. Y.; Ramli, M.; Nurhasanah, F., Eds.; AIP Publishing: Melville, NY, 2019.
- Mishra, P., Koehler, M. J. Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A new framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record. 2006, 108 (6), 1017-1054.
- Yates, A.; Starkey, L.; Egerton, B; Flueggen, F. High school students’ experience of online learning during Covid-19: the influence of technology and pedagogy. Technology, Pedagogy and Education. 2021, 30:1, 59-73. DOI: 10.1080/1475939X.2020.1854337.
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