TRAMES, 2003, 7(57/52), 2, 99–119


Difficulties in acquiring theoretical concepts: A case of high-school chemistry


Hillar Saul 1, Eve Kikas 2


1 Tallinn Pedagogical University, 2 University of Tartu


Abstract. Studies from the last decades have demonstrated that pupils have difficulties acquiring the concepts of chemistry. They suggest that pupils fail to integrate the scientific explanations of school chemistry into their initial conceptions. The aim of the present study was to investigate the high-school pupils’ understanding of selected theoretical concepts in chemistry and to compare this with non-conceptual algorithmic knowledge of the subject. Second, the relationship between some mental abilities and the acquisition of different types of chemical concepts was studied. A written multiple-choice chemistry test was administered to 247 schoolchildren from grades 9–12. Pupils’ verbal, mathematical, spatial, and logical reasoning abilities were also assessed. Algorithmic and factual knowledge of chemistry proved to be substantially better than conceptual knowledge. In most cases only 12th grade pupils performed significantly better than pupils in lower grades, no significant differences were evident between other grades. It is possible that the possession of algorithmic knowledge is sufficient to get pupils through high-school chemistry curriculum. This study also showed that, of the four mental abilities measured, logical reasoning and verbal abilities had the highest correlations to the knowledge of theoretical concepts. Possible reasons for the difficulty of acquiring chemistry concepts were discussed.


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