Visualizations and representations in chemistry education

Resa Kelly *a and Sevil Akaygun *b
aChemistry Department, San José State University, San José, CA 95192, USA. E-mail:
bDepartment of Mathematics and Science Education, Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey. E-mail:

Received 11th September 2019 , Accepted 11th September 2019
Research on the use of various technologies suggests that technology can enhance students’ learning, retention of knowledge, and attitudes about science learning. However, the presence of learning technologies alone does not improve outcomes. Instead those outcomes appear to depend on how the technology is used (National Research Council, 2012, p. 137).

This statement, made seven years ago is still applicable today and embodies why it is critical that chemistry education researchers continue to explore the role of technology in teaching and learning. As Guest Co-Editors of this special themed issue of Chemistry Education Research and Practice (CERP) featuring the theme “Visualizations and Representations in Chemistry Education” we were charged with reflecting on where we are in the realm of visualization research and to speculate on what the future might bring. Of course we must preface this to state that these are our views based on our experiences and our research in the field and they are not the views of the journal. We think it might be interesting for you to hear our answers to these questions as you, in turn, consider how your views compare.

1. Where are we (today) in using visualizations and representations in teaching practice?

Sevil: This special issue is very special for me. Because, just about 20 years ago, in the year 1999, I stepped into the world of chemistry visualizations. In those days, I was working as a high school chemistry teacher and pursuing my master's degree at the same time. Regarding visualizations and representations, I came across two milestones that have impacted teaching and learning chemistry to a great extent. The first one was the study of Williamson and Abraham (1995), which impressed me so much that I kept thinking that how important to use particulate level animations in class and investigate their effects on conceptual understanding. The second fundamental work in this field is the VisChem animations developed by Roy Tasker and his team (Tasker, 2005) because as a chemistry teacher, I started to use VisChem animations in my classes. In those days, it was not very common to use animations in teaching chemistry and most of the time, I had to convince my colleagues to include them in their lessons. I think, today, we don’t have to convince anybody about the value of visualizations in learning the structures of and the processes occurring in chemical phenomena. Most of the chemistry teachers and instructors are well aware of them. For the last 10 years, as a chemistry teacher educator, I have been focusing on the importance of including visualizations and representations in my teaching methods in chemistry classes to preservice teachers and during the seminars I give to inservice chemistry teachers. However, my observations of preservice and inservice teachers showed me that if they decide to use visualizations, they utilize them as a part of their direct instruction. They usually show visualizations to their students for their acceptance and allow them to be passive consumers instead of interactive participants and critical thinkers. At this stage, I think we need to switch our attention to how visualizations and representations could be more effectively used for conceptual learning so that we could guide teachers and instructors about the methods that they could adopt for their purpose.

Resa: Recently, I spent a semester observing two chemistry professors teach the first and second semesters of General Chemistry courses at a mid-sized university located in the western United States. I did this as a self-exploration to rethink my own practice. I quickly learned that my love for embedding animation exercises into class exercises was not a shared interest. In fact, my colleagues emphasized the symbolic, mathematical, and macroscopic levels of general chemistry, just like it was described in the works of Nurrenbern and Pickering (1987); Gabel et al. (1987); Sawrey (1990); and Nakhleh (1993) in the Journal of Chemical Education. There is a great deal of emphasis on problem solving and problem modeling, but it seems like the emphasis is still on quantifiable aspects of the discipline. This leaves me with the lingering question: what is the value of the submicroscopic level? Students struggle with it. I’ve been studying student learning from visualizations for nearly 20 years and to this day I still hear students tell me – I don’t know what to think about the atomic level, no one tells us what it should look like? They tell us about models, but then they tell us that they lied to us and the models have changed, so why should we waste time learning about the atomic level? And another interesting response is that students recognize that they are not typically tested on the submicroscopic level. In spite of this, I believe that we must continue to pursue our efforts to educate students about the submicroscopic level and invite students to think critically about how we use modeling and how to become critical consumers of information and the data that they collect as they experiment. I am happy to report that many of the articles in this special edition, provide insight into why infusing our instruction with visuals is a worthwhile endeavor that empowers students.

2. Where are we today based on this special edition issue in studying visualizations and representations?

Sevil: I think today, chemistry education researchers are also well aware of the value of visualizations and representations. Because they have been studying various forms of representations, including different technologies such as virtual and augmented reality environments, videos, animations, physical models; for different purposes such as laboratory instruction, helping visually impaired students, teacher education; by adopting different methods involving students’ explanations, drawings, storyboards, animations, models, or eye-tracking to investigate their role in terms of cognitive and affective means. In that sense, the special issue is portraying a nice selection of valuable work of chemistry education researchers who work in the field of visualizations and representations.

Resa: I’ve been happy to see the influence of a greater variety of theoretical frameworks employed to frame studies and I think this is reflective of growth in our field. In addition, as technologies become more affordable, and easier to use, they become even more prevalent in our culture and in our schools. Now, whether virtual reality headgear is going to be the “it” tools of the future or a fad only time will tell and we need researchers to inform the community of their pedagogical strengths and limitations. I have been impressed by how we are considering ways to use technology to empower all learners. Visualizations are not only for sight advantaged viewers. We are seeing enhanced opportunities for tactile approaches useful to all learners and one is highlighted in this special edition.

3. What does the future hold for visualizations and representations in chemistry education?

Sevil: The “new” is always attractive; that's why researchers should be aware of a threat called, novelty effect. Considering the more than 20-years of experience in chemistry education research and practice, I think, the studies on visualizations and representations have value beyond novelty effect. I believe the future will still bring us new technologies, new methodologies and new perspectives, that we may not even forecast today, but all the efforts to be put by the researchers and practitioners will shape our understanding of how students better conceptualize chemical phenomena, and that will go beyond novelty.

Resa: I remember when I was in junior high having the part of a gypsy in a school play and my one line was this: “Oh magic crystal ball, let me see what is in store for this poor mortal, Mr Henry Holmer!” I won’t bore you with the plot details, but by the end of the play, you learn that the gypsy was not a very reputable person. Thus, rather than give you some unfounded futuristic vision statement, I will share my beliefs. I think about the use of visualizations and representations in my practice as a way to challenge students to reflect more deeply about their mental models, and I study conceptual change in my research. I keep looking for ways to inspire learning with the use of visualization tools. It feels like this is an endless journey that holds great potential for future growth in the teaching and learning of chemistry with the assistance of visualizations and representations.

Concluding remarks

With this special issue of CERP the authors report on advancements in technological representations in chemistry education and illustrate how the design and study of these tools in chemistry education have progressed. We hope you find the articles to be as interesting and informative as much as we did, and we certainly wish to thank all of our contributors, the reviewers, Editor Michael Seery and you the reader.

Happy Reading!

Resa and Sevil


  1. Gabel D. L., Samuel K. V. and Hunn D., (1987), Understanding the particulate nature of matter, J. Chem. Educ., 64, 695–697.
  2. Nakhleh M., (1993), Are our students conceptual thinkers or algorithmic problem solvers? Identifying conceptual students in general chemistry, J. Chem. Educ., 70(1), 52–55.
  3. Nurrenbern S. and Pickering M., (1987), Concept learning versus problem solving is there a difference? J. Chem. Educ., 64, 508–510.
  4. Sawrey B. J., (1990), Concept Learning versus problem solving: revisited, J. Chem. Educ., 87, 252–254.
  5. Tasker R., (2005), Using Multimedia to Visualize the Molecular World: Educational Theory into Practice, in Pienta N. J., Cooper M. M. and Greenbowe T. J. (ed.), Chemists' Guide to Effective Teaching, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 256–272.
  6. The National Research Council, (2012), Instructional Strategies, in Singer S. R. and Nielsen N. R. (ed.), Discipline-Based Education Research, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, pp.119–139.
  7. Williamson V. M. and Abraham M. R., (1995), The effects of computer animation on the particulate mental models of college chemistry students, J. Res. Sci. Teach., 32(5), 521–534.

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