Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Science Education


In this study, I investigated how successful and unsuccessful students solve stoichiometry problems. I focus on three research questions: (1) To what extent do the difficulties in solving stoichiometry problems stem from poor understanding of pieces (domain-specific knowledge) versus students' inability to link those pieces together (conceptual knowledge)? (2) What are the differences between successful and unsuccessful students in knowledge, ability, and practice? (3) Is there a connection between students' (a) cognitive development levels, (b) formal (proportional) reasoning abilities, (c) working memory capacities, (d) conceptual understanding of particle nature of matter, (e) understanding of the mole concept, and their problem-solving achievement in stoichiometry?

In this study, nine successful students and eight unsuccessful students participated. Both successful and unsuccessful students were selected among the students taking a general chemistry course at a mid-western university. The students taking this class were all science, non-chemistry majors.

Characteristics of successful and unsuccessful students were determined through tests, audio and videotapes analyses, and subjects' written works. The Berlin Particle Concept Inventory, the Mole Concept Achievement Test, the Test of Logical Thinking, the Digits Backward Test, and the Longeot Test were used to measure students' conceptual understanding of particle nature of matter and mole concept, formal (proportional) reasoning ability, working memory capacity, and cognitive development, respectively. Think-aloud problem-solving protocols were also used to better explore the differences between successful and unsuccessful students' knowledge structures and behaviors during problem solving.

Although successful students did not show significantly better performance on doing pieces (domain-specific knowledge) and solving exercises than unsuccessful counterparts did, they appeared to be more successful in linking the pieces (conceptual knowledge) and solving complex problems than the unsuccessful student did. Successful students also appeared to be different in how they approach problems, what strategies they use, and in making fewer algorithmic mistakes when compared to unsuccessful students. Successful students, however, did not seem to be statistically significantly different from the unsuccessful students in terms of quantitatively tested cognitive abilities except formal (proportional) reasoning ability and in the understanding of mole concept.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access