By Ewald Edink, Inholland University, the Netherlands
Solving (complex) problems is becoming increasingly important and crucial for facing current and future global challenges. As such, complex problem-solving is considered one of the most important 21st century skills and highly relevant for educational settings. For scientists working in the chemistry domain, the ability to solve complex problems has been a crucial asset for many decades and plays an important role in their educational training. The ability to solve chemistry-related problems often requires a systematic approach in which sound theoretical understanding of the relevant chemical system as well as mathematical skills play an important role. Therefore, It is not surprising that many students (initially) face difficulties when learning how to solve such quantitative chemical problems. To support our students in acquiring this crucial skill, an adaptive learning method based on the Enlight Ed digital platform was developed and evaluated.
A large share of our students at the Inholland Life Sciences & Chemistry department encounter difficulties and frustrations when learning to solve (complex) chemical quantitative problems. This is most unfortunate since this is considered a crucial skill in the profession for which we train our students, i.e. B.Sc. level laboratory analists. The difficulties experienced by the students are observed in the classrooms by our teachers and become apparent when analyzing the results of fomative and summative assessments. For example, students perform considerably worse on items related to chemical calculations compared to other subjects such as properties of atoms/molecules and theoretical understanding of chemical reactions. Unfortunately, a significant number of our students fail to pass to the second year and leave the course because they have not sufficently succeeded in mastering how to solve quantitative chemical problems.
There can be many different reasons why students have problems with learning this important skill. For example, a lack of understanding of theoretical concepts, insufficient mathematical- and/or problem-solving skills or insufficient ability to process the considerable amount of data may prevent students from succesfully solving quantitative chemical assignments (Furio, Azcona, & Guisasola Jenaro, 2002). In my own classrooms, I have noted that students that get stuck in solving these types of assignments, make great progress when I can engage with them in a one-to-one conversation. During the converstaion I first try to identify where and why the student got stuck. Next, I will provide the student with hints and/or additional instructions and remind her/him of the systematic approach that is required to get to the correct solution. In the educational research literature, this approach is known as scaffolding and is a favourite didactic tool of many teachers. The aim of scaffolding is to provide temporary support so that a learner can complete a complex task that he is not yet able to complete (van de Pol, Volman, & Beishuizen, 2010).
As for most teachers, the amount of time that I have available for direct interaction with my students is limited and providing sufficient one-on-one support to all of my students in learning how to solve quantitative chemical problems is plainly not feasible. However, I have found that the digital platform of Ed Tech startup Enlight Ed can provide an interesting surrogate. One of the appealing features of the Enlight Ed platform is that the one-on-one learning experience is simulated via a chat-like interface, a method of communication that is most familiar to our students.
In order to evaluate its potential in providng support to our students in learning to solve quantitative chemical problems, a pilot study was set up. Already existing assignments were manually adjusted using the editor function of the platform affording exercises that when required can provide additional hints or instructions in an adaptive manner. Via the chat-like interface, students are guided through the exercise step-by-step following the systematic approach that is required to come to the correct solution and that has been instructed in advance. In each step, the student has to make decisions on how to proceed. When s/he does not know or is in doubt, the student can ask for a hint after which additional instructions are provided on how to proceed forward. Upon selecting an incorrect answer, feedback and additional instructions are provided so that the student can learn from his/her mistakes and will try again to make the correct decision. When s/he makes a correct decision, the student will receive positive feedback and proceed to the next step according to the aforementioned systematic approach. As well as receiving guidance on how to approach such a complex problem by following a step-by-step protocol, the immediate feedback prevents misconceptions and will increase the learner’s confidence when s/he’s making correct decisions.
Figure 1: Screenshot of an exercise in the Enlight Ed platform in which students are supported in an adaptive manner to solve a quantitative chemical problem.
To evaluate how students perceive this adaptive learning methodology in providing support in learning how to solve quantitative chemical problems, students were asked to fill in a digital evaluation form anonymously. The results obtained were most positive as a significant majority of the respondents agreed with the statements depicted in Table 1.
Table 1: A selection of the results of the student evaluation in which students could indicate to what extent they agree with a set of statements using a Likert scale (1: Fully disagree, 2: Disagree, 3:Neutral, 4: Agree, 5: Fully agree, percentages of students that agree (4) and fully agree (5) were summed up in the table below for a clearer representation)
Although setting up the adaptive assignments in the Enlight Ed platform required a considerable time-investment, it is most rewarding to see that from a student perspective this approach seems to provide proper guidance and support in learning how to solve complex quantitative chemical problems. It remains to be seen if this adaptive learning approach will also result in a better ability to solve these kind of assignments and further studies would be required to make this claim. Nevertheless, I am most enthusiastic about the Enlight Ed platform and am eager to implement more and different types of assignments in the courses that I teach. It would be also interesting to see how this approach would work for non-quantitative assignments and subjects other than chemistry.
If you feel like taking up this challenge or would like to find out more about the features of the platform, you can check out the Enlight Ed website and contact them for demos or workshops. Please also do not hesitate to contact me for any questions or additional information via firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would like to sincerely thank Kinga Lőrincz from Enlight Ed for assisting in setting up the assignments and acknowledge my much appreciated colleague Jeroen Bottema from the lectorate Teaching, Technology and Innovation for helping me with setting up the student evaluation poll.
Editor’s note: We are delighted to have Ewald as one of our speakers for the Media & Learning 2022 Conference on 2-3 June in Leuven, Belgium. He will be giving a talk entitled “Supporting students in solving complex problems using an adaptive digital platform“.
Ewald Edink, Inholland University, the Netherlands