Chemistry: Content, Context and Choices. Towards students’ higher order problem solving in upper secondary school

Umeå university, Sweden

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Chemistry is often claimed to be difficult, irrelevant, and uninteresting to school students. Even students who enjoy doing science often have problems seeing themselves as being scientists. This thesis explores and challenges the negative perception of chemistry by investigating upper secondary students’ views on the subject. Based on students’ ideas for improving chemistry education to make the subject more interesting and meaningful, new learning approaches rooted in context-based learning (CBL) are presented. CBL approaches are applied in several countries to enhance interest, de- emphasise rote learning, and improve students’ higher order thinking.

Students’ views on upper secondary school chemistry classes in combination with their problem-solving strategies and application of chemistry content knowledge when solving context-based chemistry tasks were investigated using a mixed methods approach. Questionnaire responses, written solutions to chemistry problems, classroom observations, and think-aloud interviews with upper secondary students at the Natural Science Programme and with experts working on context-based chemistry tasks were analysed to obtain a general overview and explore specific issues in detail.

Several students were identified who had positive feelings about chemistry, found it interesting, and chose to continue with it beyond the compulsory level, mainly with the aim of future university studies or simply because they enjoyed it. Their suggestions for improving school chemistry by connecting it to everyday life prompted an exploration of CBL approaches. Studies on the cognitive learning outcomes arising from the students’ work on context- based tasks revealed that school chemistry heavily emphasises the recall of memorised facts. However, there is evidence of higher order thinking when students’ problem-solving processes are scaffolded using hints based on the Model of Hierarchical Complexity in Chemistry (MHC-C). In addition, the contextualisation of problems is identified as something that supports learning rather than distracting students.

To conclude, the students in this thesis are interested in chemistry and enjoy chemistry education, and their motives for choosing to study chemistry at the post-compulsory level are related to their aspirations; students’ identity formation is important for their choices. Because students are accustomed to recalling facts and solving chemistry problems that have “one single correct answer”, they find more open problems that demand higher order thinking (e.g. knowledge transfer) unfamiliar and complex, suggesting that such processes should be practiced more often in school chemistry.

Thesis defended 6th February 2015 at Umeå university, Sweden (opponent prof. Judith Bennett)


Broman, K. (2015). Chemistry: Content, Context and Choices. Towards students' higher order problem solving in upper secondary school. (Doctoral), Umeå university, Umeå university. Full thesis published:

Contains five published papers

Paper 1

Broman, K., Ekborg, M., & Johnels, D. (2011). Chemistry in crisis? Perspectives on teaching and learning chemistry in Swedish upper secondary schools. Nordic Studies in Science Education, 7(1), 43-60

Paper 2

Broman, K., & Simon, S. (2014). Upper secondary school students’ choice and their ideas on how to improve chemistry education. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. doi: 10.1007/s10763-014- 9550-0

Paper 3

Broman, K., Bernholt, S., & Parchmann, I. (2015). Analysing task design and students’ responses to context-based problems through different analytical frameworks. Research in Science & Technological Education. doi: 10.1080/02635143.2014.989495

Paper 4

Parchmann, I., Broman, K., Busker, M., & Rudnik, J. (2015). Context-Based Learning at School and University Level. In: J. Garcia-Martinez, & E. Serrano-Torregrosa (Eds.). Chemistry Education: Best Practices, Innovative Strategies and New Technologies (Chapter 10, pp. 259-278). Weinheim: Wiley-VCH.

Paper 5

Broman, K., & Parchmann, I. (2014). Students’ application of chemical concepts when solving chemistry problems in different contexts. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 15(4): 516-529.


Karolina Broman

Department of Science and Mathematics Education

Umeå university

901 87 Umeå


Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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