Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Science Education, Mallinson Institute


This study examines college student understanding of key concepts that will support future organic chemistry success as determined by university instructors. During four one-hour individual interviews the sixteen subjects attempted to solve general chemistry problems. A think-aloud protocol was used along with a whiteboard where the students could draw and illustrate their ideas. The protocols for the interviews were adapted from the Covalent Structure and Bonding two-tiered multiple choice diagnostic instrument (Peterson, Treagust, & Garnett, 1989) and augmented by the Geometry and Polarity of Moleculessingle-tiered multiple choice instrument (Furió & Calatayud, 1996). The interviews were videotaped, transcribed, and coded for analysis to determine the subjects' understanding of the key ideas. The subjects displayed many misconceptions that were summarized into nine assertions about studentconceptualization of chemistry. (1) Many students misunderstand the location and nature of intermolecular forces. (2) Some think electronegativity differences among atoms in a molecule are sufficient to make the molecule polar, regardless of spatial arrangement. (3) Most know that higher phase change temperatures imply stronger intermolecular attractions, but many do not understand the difference between covalent molecular and covalent network substances. (4) Many have difficulty deciding whether a molecule is polar or non-polar, often confusing bilateral symmetry with spatial symmetry in all three dimensions. (5) Many cannot reliably draw correct Lewis structures due to carelessness and overuse of flawed algorithms. (6) Many are confused by howelectrons can both repel one other and facilitate bonding between atoms via orbitals---this seems oxymoronic to them. (7) Many cannot explain why the atomsof certain elements do not follow the octet rule and some believe the octet rule alone can determine the shape of a molecule. (8) Most do know that electronegativity and polarity are not adequate to determine the shape of a molecule---but some apply the VSEPR theory in incorrect ways. (9) Students do not reason significantly differently when working with various representations of molecules such as ball-and-stick models, molecular formulas, and Lewis structures.

The study illuminated specific parts of the general chemistry curriculum that are particularly troublesome for students but necessary for their further achievement in chemistry. This information is important; it gives the discipline of chemistry education target areas to focus on for general chemistrypedagogical improvement efforts.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access