Enhancing chemistry problem-solving achievement using problem categorization



The enhancement of chemistry students' skill in problem solving through problem categorization is the focus of this study. Twenty-four students in a freshman chemistry course for health professionals are taught how to solve problems using the explicit method of problem solving (EMPS) (Bunce & Heikkinen, 1986). The EMPS is an organized approach to problem analysis which includes encoding the information given in a problem (Given, Asked For), relating this to what is already in long-term memory (Recall), and planning a solution (Overall Plan) before a mathematical solution is attempted. In addition to the EMPS training, treatment students receive three 40-minute sessions following achievement tests in which they are taught how to categorize problems. Control students use this time to review the EMPS solutions of test questions. Although problem categorization is involved in one section of the EMPS (Recall), treatment students who received specific training in problem categorization demonstrate significantly higher achievement on combination problems (those problems requiring the use of more than one chemical topic for their solution) at (p = 0.01) than their counterparts. Significantly higher achievement for treatment students is also measured on an unannounced test (p = 0.02). Analysis of interview transcripts of both treatment and control students illustrates a “Rolodex approach” to problem solving employed by all students in this study. The Rolodex approach involves organizing equations used to solve problems on mental index cards and flipping through them, matching units given when a new problem is to be solved. A second phenomenon observed during student interviews is the absence of a link in the conceptual understanding of the chemical concepts involved in a problem and the problem-solving skills employed to correctly solve problems. This study shows that explicit training in categorization skills and the EMPS can lead to higher achievement in complex problem-solving situations (combination problems and unannounced test). However, such achievement may be limited by the lack of linkages between students' conceptual understanding and improved problem-solving skill.