Investigating macroscopic, submicroscopic, and symbolic connections in a college-level general chemistry laboratory

Felicia Culver Thadison


Explanations of chemical phenomena rely on understanding the behavior of submicroscopic particles. Because this level is "invisible," it is described using symbols such as models, diagrams and equations. For this reason, students often view chemistry as a "difficult" subject. The laboratory offers a unique opportunity for the students to experience chemistry macroscopically as well as symbolically. The purpose of this investigation was to determine how chemistry lab students explained chemical phenomenon on the macroscopic, submicroscopic, and representational/symbolic level. The participants were undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory level general chemistry lab course. Students' background information (gender, the number of previous chemistry courses), scores on final exams, and final average for the course were collected. Johnstone's triangle of representation guided the design and implementation of this study. A semi-structured interview was also conducted to bring out student explanations. The questionnaires required students to draw a molecule of water, complete acid base reaction equations, represent, submicroscopically, the four stages of an acid-base titration, and provide definitions of various terms. Students were able represent the submicroscopic level of water. Students were not able to represent the submicroscopic level of the reaction between an acid and a base. Students were able to represent the macroscopic level of an acid base reaction. Students were able to symbolically represent the reaction of an acid and a base. These findings indicate that students can use all three levels of chemical representation. However, students showed an inability to connect the levels in relation to acid-base chemistry. There was no relationship between a student's ability to use the levels and his or her final score in the course.