Supporting meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking through computer-assisted inquiry: A design research approach

University of Helsinki, Finland

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A nine-stage research project was conducted to create a “rich” ICT learning environment, applicable to chemistry-classroom practice, employing design research to support secondary-level chemistry students’ meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking regarding ideas of chemical reactions. The project involved the design of both physical and pedagogical aspects of the learning environment, taking into account the results of chemistry teachers’ needs assessments and previous reported research.

The theoretical part of this study addressed: (a) the nature of chemistry, (b) meaningful chemistry learning, (c) students’ understanding of chemical reactions, (d) student interest and motivation in chemistry learning, (e) students’ higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) in chemistry, (f) information and communication technology (ICT) supporting chemistry learning, including a microcomputer-based laboratory (MBL), a “rich” learning environment model, and web-based learning environments, (g) inquiry-based learning, (h) practical work and discourse, and (i) pedagogical models (strategies) of cooperative learning, the learning cycle, and concept mapping.

The design research triangulated methods of qualitative and quantitative research (a mixed methodology) to understand important features of an educational innovation. Different methods were employed during six empirical studies, including video-recordings, naturalistic observations, group interviews, concept maps, learning diaries, students’ research reports, and surveys. Students’ meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking were studied through their social discourse and actions in various stages of the six-stage learning cycle.

A total of 488 chemistry teachers from all parts of Finland and 88 students from six chemistry classes of four chemistry teachers participated. This research was guided by three main research questions: (a) What kind of learning environment can engage secondary-level students in meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking? (b) How does their learning environment influence secondary-level students’ meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking? and (c) What are students’ views of their learning environment?

Three types of data obtained through this design research approach: design methodologies about the design process of a “rich” learning environment, design frameworks about properties of the learning environment—the design solution, and domain knowledge about meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking through computer-assisted inquiry. The nine-stage design process employed (a) assessing chemistry teachers’ needs (three surveys), (b) defining learning-environment goals based on the needs assessment and theoretical problem analysis, (c) designing the learning environment supporting investigative open-ended tasks, (d) evaluating the pilot MBL environment in a chemistry classroom, (e) defining learning goals for a revised environment, based on the previous results, (f) designing the Virtual Research Platform (VRP), (g) revising pedagogical models and student tasks into a project-like strategy, (h) evaluating and revising the VRP for secondary-level students, and (i) evaluating the prototype’s influence on secondary-level chemistry students’ higher-order thinking skills and meaningful learning. In addition, a small survey explored each student’s views about the learning environment, before and after inquiry.

As a design solution, a “rich” learning environment was developed where a www-based resource, the Virtual Research Platform (VRP) provided flexible opportunities for students to use of the Internet, microcomputer-based laboratory (MBL), and visualization tools for their inquiry, thus intending to promote improved chemistry learning. The VRP included four special forums entitled research, library, discussion, and assessment. The learning environment emphasized (a) an investigative approach, using MBL laboratory investigations, (b) authentic “real-life” experiences, including authentic tasks and tools, (c) distributed and situated cognition, and (d) an encouraging and positive learning atmosphere. The developed MBL investigations served as a novel strategy to support students’ learning of ideas of chemical reactions. In addition, a special template for MBL investigations in microscale was developed, incorporating “green chemistry” principles. The implemented pedagogical models included a jigsaw model of cooperative learning and a six-stage learning cycle intended to support students’ knowledge construction through social discourse, thus enhancing their higher-order thinking skills (HOTS).

This study provided some evidence that this “rich” learning environment could engage senior secondary-level students in meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking, through their interactions in small groups regarding the phenomena. They engaged in active social discourse related to the chemical phenomena, posed many questions, and demonstrated higher-order thinking skills. Students constructed a consensus model of the phenomena through different interactions by integrating their chemistry knowledge at all three representational levels. Senior-level students analyzed the chemical phenomena using, primarily, their prior knowledge of stoichiometry, thermodynamics (energetics), and kinetics.

Indicators of how this implemented learning environment supported novice students’ meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking were also identified. The VRP supported the intended learning goals, particularly through the Research Forum, within the three-hour VRPbased inquiries. In addition, students sought additional information for their explanations from the Library and from a chemist in the Discussion Forum. In particular, this study documented the effectiveness of the features of the implemented learning environment: (a) authentic project-like tasks, (b) the MBL generated real-time graphs, (c) peer and teacher support through discourse and posing questions, (d) meta-cognitive aspects of the six-stage learning cycle, and (e) the VRP support. In particular, collaborative concept mapping of the Explanation Phase and the Reporting Phase at the close of the inquiry documented the senior students’ higher-order thinking, HOTS.

All senior-group students agreed that their investigations helped them to understand chemical reactions—the selected focus of this study. This study also showed that students could work quite autonomously within their computer-assisted inquiry. In addition, most students expressed highly favorable comments regarding the implemented VRP. In particular, about 72 % of senior-level students in the evaluation study rated the VRP as a good or even an excellent learning environment. By engaging in design research, it was possible to gain insight in how to support students’ meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking through computer-assisted inquiry. Design research methodology helped to build an understanding of how, when, and why this educational innovation works when implemented in chemistry classrooms. In addition, design research helped validate and refine theories related to meaningful chemistry learning and higher-order thinking through computer-assisted inquiry. The learning environment can be useful related to the goals, especially at the senior secondary level and in chemistry teacher education. To obtain better scientific understanding in chemistry, more focus should be placed on how to cultivate students’ higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) within the chemistry curricula.

Key words: design research, learning environment, meaningful learning, higher-order thinking, cognitive processes, chemical reaction, chemical change, green chemistry approach, computer-assisted inquiry, ICT, microcomputer-based laboratory, needs assessment, investigations, practical work (laboratory work), cooperative learning, learning cycle, laboratory activities, laboratory design, student discourse, inquiry, chemistry education, student attitudes, secondary school


Maija Aksela
Department of Chemistry
University of Helsinki
Language: English
ISBN 952-10-2708-8 (PDF)
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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