Problem solving and chemical equilibrium: Successful versus unsuccessful performance



The purpose of this study was to describe the problem-solving behaviors of experts and novices engaged in solving seven chemical equilibrium problems. Thirteen novices (five high-school students, five undergraduate majors, and three nonmajors) and ten experts (six doctoral students and four faculty members) were videotaped as they individually solved standard chemical equilibrium problems. The nature of the problems was such that they required more than mere recall or algorithmic learning and yet simple enough to provide the novices a reasonable chance of solving them. Extensive analysis of the think-aloud protocols produced 27 behavioral tendencies that can be used to describe and differentiate between successful and unsuccessful problem solvers. Successful solvers' perceptions of the problem were characterized by careful analysis and reasoning of the task, use of related principles and concepts to justify their answers, frequent checks of the consistency of answers and reasons, and better quality of procedural and strategic knowledge. Unsuccessful subjects had many knowledge gaps and misconceptions about the nature of chemical equilibrium. Even faculty experts were sometimes unable to correctly apply common chemical principles during the problem-solving process. Important theoretical concepts such as molar enthalpy, heat of reaction, free energy of formation, and free energy of reaction were rarely used by novices in explaining problems.