The Chemical Thinking Learning Progression project

Venn diagram outlining Chemical Thinking Learning Progression Framework

The Chemical Thinking Learning Progression (CTLP) project began in 2012, as an outgrowth of two projects. The Boston Science Partnership (2004-2013) was a Math Science Partnership involving Boston Public Schools, UMass Boston, and other institutions in Boston, focused on increasing student success in science pre-K through undergraduate education in Boston and studying the outcomes of these efforts. The Chemical Thinking curriculum project at the University of Arizona is a curriculum designed to introduce college students to chemistry as a powerful way of thinking with multiple applications in critical areas, including human health, environmental protection, and sustainable development. The CTLP project focuses on research to build an initial learning progression of chemical thinking. This involves drawing on the perspectives of experts in multiple contexts, rigorous analysis of existing research on students’ ideas in relevant areas, and empirical validation through classroom formative assessments developed in collaboration with chemistry teachers in Boston Public Schools. This work has two goals: (1) to develop a framework that can be used to compare and contrast more and less sophisticated ways of thinking about key foundational ideas for the understanding of chemistry, and (2) to derive hypotheses about intermediate levels, and which of these are productive ‘stepping stones’ in the understanding of the practice and implications of chemistry. These goals are important steps in providing the basis for later development of ways to guide usage of chemistry curricula, instructional approaches, and formative assessments that can bring to fruition the knowledge integration advocated by the new frameworks and standards.

Assessing for Change in Chemical Thinking, which began in 2016, is the second phase of this project. In this phase, we are increasing our emphasis on teachers’ formative assessment approaches in chemistry, with the goals of: (1) building a grassroots, teacher-led professional development model for middle and high school chemistry teachers, and (2) studying teachers’ use of chemistry formative assessments and classroom discourse during these activities. The research tools that we developed during the first phase were all designed so that they could be used as classroom formative assessments. These are now available to be used by teachers as open-ended formative assessments to reveal students’ chemical thinking. As we continue to develop and test more of these tools, they will be added to this collection.

The Chemical Thinking Learning Progression (CTLP) project studies how students develop an understanding of chemistry from middle school through undergraduate completion. Learning progressions are cognitive models that describe pathways of how the learning of ideas and abilities develop over time. The Chemical Thinking Learning Progression focuses on three main types of practices in chemistry: sense-making through investigating the properties and behaviors of chemical systems, problem-solving through designing substances or processes to address modern problems, and evaluating the social, economic and environmental costs and benefits of chemical products and activities. The overall project has three emphases: (a) study students’ learning progress along domain-general and chemistry-specific progress variables that include conceptual sophistication and modes of reasoning, (b) develop resources, tools, and professional development for teachers of chemistry to foster students’ chemical thinking, and (c) study how chemistry teachers’ assessment reasoning changes and what chemistry teachers’ emphasize as formative assessment is used as a lever for change.

Six chemical thinking threads comprise the learning progression, each focused on fundamental questions in chemistry:

  • What is this material made of? (the question of chemical identity)
  • How do a material's properties relate to its composition and structure? (the question of Structure-Property relationships)
  • Why does a material undergo changes? (the question of chemical causality)
  • How do these changes happen? (the question of chemical mechanism)
  • How can those changes be controlled? (the question of chemical control)
  • What are the consequences of those changes? (the question of Benefits-Costs-Risks)