The Multidisciplinary Science of Chemistry Education

To teach chemistry, it is helpful to know two sciences:

  • Molecular behavior (chemistry) and
  • How the brain learns (cognitive science).

Nearly all of us teaching chemistry have dozens of academic chemistry credits — and few credits in the cognitive science that, being science, could help us design more effective instruction.  But there’s a good reason for that.

Until about 2000, not much about how the brain solves problems was known with scientific certainty.  Between 2000 and 2010, as research was assisted by new technologies, views on the implications of cognitive research were debated among cognitive scientists.1

Since 2010, on a substantial number of findings of cognitive research with implications for chemistry instruction, nearly all cognitive experts have been in agreement.  When significant findings are uncontested for ten years, they are generally recognized to have become consensus science.

A key finding of this new consensus:  When solving the types of problems we assign in pre-graduate school chemistry, the student brain has severe difficulty when trying to solve by “understanding based on concepts,” but has strength in recalling procedures that have successfully solved past problems.  As University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham summarizes, cognitive studies nearly always find “understanding is remembering in disguise.”2

For many of us, this finding is both unexpected and disappointing.  Nonetheless, in seeking to help the student brain learn, it is likely we agree:  It is best to be guided by the consensus of science on how the brain learns.

The goal of this blog is to help instructors to both learn the findings of the new cognitive science and apply them to improve instruction.

An Invitation

In discussions of the implications for instruction of consensus cognitive science, alternative and opposing viewpoints are welcome in the Comments.   When those viewpoints are lengthy, readers will be invited to post as guest authors.

Feedback is welcome!   Email   ChemReviewTeam ( at ) ChemReview.Net .


1.  Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure?  Tobias, S.; Duffy, T. M., Eds.; Routledge: New York, 2009.

2.  Willingham, D. T. Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Wiley: New York, 2009.

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2 Responses

  1. Eric Gates May 13, 2014 / 6:03 pm

    Thank you for this very promising looking resource. I look forward to the discussion.

  2. patrick grimes February 9, 2017 / 5:14 am

    Thanks for your timely work on the role automaticity can play in students….i am working with a NSF grant that includes the study of math fluency and auotmaticity with elementary school aged children….i’d enjoy the opportunity to correspond with you to share more about our work and learn more
    about yours…

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