Predictors of the comprehension of visual models in chemistry and engineering sciences

Stefan Rumann, Maria Opfermann, Martin Lang und Carsten Schmuck,
University of Duisburg-Essen

Scientific Assistant:
Thomas Dickmann

The comprehension of models is seen as a crucial component for the development of conceptual knowledge in chemistry as well as in engineering. In particular, the wide range of applications of visual models in the respective textbooks raises the question of whether, and under which circumstances, such models are beneficial for learning. In this regard, theoretical models such as the Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, Van Merriënboer & Paas, 1998), the Integrated Model of Text and Picture Comprehension (Schnotz, 2005), or the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (Mayer, 2009) emphasize the importance of instructional design as well as individual learner prerequisites.

Accordingly, this project focuses on predictors of visual model comprehension in chemistry and engineering. On the one hand, this includes the visualizations themselves (e.g., iconic versus symbolic models), and on the other hand, individual prerequisites on the part of the learners, such as prior knowledge, spatial ability, logical reasoning, mathematical ability, epistemological beliefs, or metacognitive strategies. The project first aims to close an existing re-search gap by investigating which kind of visualizations can be found in the current basic literature for the university entry phase. It is assumed that for engineering, mainly abstract, symbolic visualizations (e.g., circuits, diagrams) can be found, while there are significantly fewer concrete visualizations. For chemistry textbooks, on the other hand, there are symbolic visualizations (e.g., Lewis structures, reaction equations), but a much higher amount of iconic visualizations (such as molecular models).

The different amounts of visual models of different kinds should accordingly lead to a different weighting of the individual prerequisites that serve as predictors for model comprehension in each subject. It is expected that for the comprehension of the often iconic and three-dimensional models that can be found in chemistry textbooks, spatial ability will play a crucial role, whereas for the comprehension of the symbolic visualizations in engineering textbooks, logical reasoning and mathematical ability will have a bigger impact.

Following the insights that will be gained regarding the differential benefits of different kinds of visualizations and the interaction of instructional design and learner characteristics, a major goal of the project is to build a basic theoretical foundation for the utilization of different visualizations in future instructional materials. As an outlook, the results of the project can contribute to the designing of beneficial learning materials for students with different individual prerequisites

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