What is this Substance? What Makes it Different? Mapping Progression in Students' Assumptions about Chemical Identity

Courtney Ngai, Hannah Sevian, Vicente Talanquer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Given the diversity of materials in our surroundings, one should expect scientifically literate citizens to have a basic understanding of the core ideas and practices used to analyze chemical substances. In this article, we use the term 'chemical identity' to encapsulate the assumptions, knowledge, and practices upon which chemical analysis relies. We conceive chemical identity as a core crosscutting disciplinary concept which can bring coherence and relevance to chemistry curricula at all educational levels, primary through tertiary. Although chemical identity is not a concept explicitly addressed by traditional chemistry curricula, its understanding can be expected to evolve as students are asked to recognize different types of substances and explore their properties. The goal of this contribution is to characterize students' assumptions about factors that determine chemical identity and to map how core assumptions change with training in the discipline. Our work is based on the review and critical analysis of existing research findings on students' alternative conceptions in chemistry education, and historical and philosophical analyses of chemistry. From this perspective, our analysis contributes to the growing body of research in the area of learning progressions. In particular, it reveals areas in which our understanding of students' ideas about chemical identity is quite robust, but also highlights the existence of major knowledge gaps that should be filled in to better foster student understanding. We provide suggestions in this area and discuss implications for the teaching of chemistry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2438-2461
Number of pages24
JournalInternational Journal of Science Education
Issue number14
StatePublished - Sep 2014


  • Chemistry Education
  • Learning Progressions
  • Students' Conceptions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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