The Role of Constructivism in Teaching and Learning Chemistry


Constructivism is one of theory of learning which well developed in the recent year and becomes most significant and dominant perspective in science education (Taber, 2006). According to Bodner (1986), constructivist model focus on constructing the knowledge in the learners’ mind. Every student has different experiences, therefore teacher has to be aware that knowledge is constructed differently in the learners’ mind. Students have their own preexisting knowledge based on their experiences that is constructed in their mind (Taber, 2006). Most studies show the advantages of using this theory of knowledge in the learning process regarding to recognize students’ alternative conceptions.

Furthermore, research on the students’ alternative conceptions in chemistry has been developed to improve teaching and learning chemistry. The investigations show that the chemistry educators become realize that the importance of students’ alternative conceptions within the process of understanding the concepts in chemistry. According to Krishnan and Howe (1994), students’ difficulties to understand the concepts in science is because the teachers have lack of knowledge on students’ prior understanding of the concepts in the classroom. Moreover, according to Mulford & Robinson (2002), alternate conceptions play important role in learning chemistry than simply producing inadequate explanations to questions. Therefore, as chemistry educators, it is important to understand the role of students’ alternative conceptions in learning chemistry.

Moreover, since our department is part of pedagogical university in Indonesia who educate the chemistry teachers, it is important to emphasize the students’ alternative conceptions and constructivism view of learning for our pre-service teachers. Therefore, in this paper, I will discuss students’ alternative conceptions, the constructivist theory of learning, and also reflect on my own experiences on learning and teaching chemistry. I hope this paper will provide the powerful ideas to improve teaching and learning chemistry in our institution.

The Constructivism View

Constructivism view of learning is developed based on Kelly’s work (1950s) on personal construct and Ausubel (1960s) on learning based on what the learner knows (Benner, 2003 as cited in Parkinson, 2004). Furthermore, the earlier psychologist who focus on children’s thinking process is Jean Piaget. According to Piaget (1970), knowledge is constructed in learners’ mind through their interaction with the environment. “Piaget believes that there was a biological inevitability to how children developed” (Marsh, 2000). Furthermore, according to Bodner (1986), there are three concepts of Piaget’s work which related to constructivist theory of knowledge which are assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. Therefore, Piaget’s work had some insight (Marsh, 2000) which are (1) children think differently related to their stage of development, (2) learning requires active involvement between children and environment, (3) Children construct their own cognitive structures. Therefore, Piaget’s work is important in the constructivist theory of learning.

Constructivist is different from the traditional view of learning in sense of the view of the real world. “The traditional view of knowledge is based on the common-sense belief that a real world exists regardless of whether we take interest in it or even notice it” (Bodner, 1986). The traditional knowledge implies that the knowledge is reality that will be replied in learners’ mind. Furthermore, traditional education view focused on “instructional goals such as recalling facts, generalization, defining concepts and performing procedures” (Almala, 2005). Therefore, this view ignores the difference of preexisting knowledge of individual. On the other hand, constructivist view learning as the product of interaction between existing understanding and new knowledge (Parkinson, 2004). Furthermore, according to Tyter (2002a), there are three types of constructivism which are personal constructivism, radical constructivism and social constructivism. Personal constructivism focuses on the prior knowledge of individual which can be constructed by individual. On the other hand, radical constructivism focuses on students’ knowledge based on their experiences which recognize students’ freedom to have their own ideas. Social constructivism focuses on individual construct the knowledge throughout the social process. However, in general, constructivist “emphasize reasoning, critical thinking, social negotiation, self regulation and mindful reflection” (Almala, 2005, p.9). Furthermore, constructivists view learning as an active process in which the learners actively construct knowledge as they try to comprehend their reality world. According to Driver and Bell (1986) as cited in Parkinson (2004, p.90), there six characteristics of constructivist theory of learning:

(1) learning is not only depend on the learning environment, but also the knowledge of the learners,

(2) learning involves the construction of meaning,

(3) the construction of meaning is a continuous and active process,

(4) meaning, once constructed, are evaluated and can be accepted or rejected,

(5) learners have the final responsibility for their learning,

(6) students construct the meaning between the experience with the physical world through natural language.

According to these six principles which are related to the Piaget’s work, teacher could use this information to apply the teaching strategies using the constructivist theory of learning. Constructivism learning succeed to lead the new and meaningful learning for the students. However, constructivism lacks a theory of agency which “overemphasizes the role of social structures and norms at the expense of the agents who help create and change them in the first place” (Finnemore, 1996, p.1). Moreover, constructivism remains a method more than anything else does. The central challenge is theory development. To accomplish this task, constructivists must integrate their insights and assumptions with middle-range theory (Finnemore, 1996).

The constructivist as theory of learning is very useful to apply in the classroom. One important aspect that can be developed through constructivist approach is learners use active process to develop their own meaning and knowledge (Jonassen, Mayes, and McAleese,1993) . As a result, learning process will be the meaningful experiences for the students. However, according to Prawat (1992) as cited in Treagust, Duit, & Fraser, 1996), there are four beliefs which are chalengges and debates on constructivism , which are: 1) learner and content are separated, 2) tendency to equate activity with learning, 3)limited research evidence, 4)curriculum is fixed. Moreover, in my opinion, there are several limitations of using constructivist theory. Firstly, it is time consuming, because it needs more time to use the strategies which can monitor the construction of each student’s knowledge. Secondly, some students could have difficulty to take responsibility for their own learning. For example, if the learners do not take responsibility for learning such as self management, they will find this approach is difficult. Thirdly, teachers need aware to assess every student as different and unique individual. Therefore, it is important for teachers to be motivated and creative to apply this approach in the classroom. Moreover, applying constructivist in the classroom also encourage the teachers to shift their paradigm from replicable the knowledge into the construction of individual knowledge.

Students’ Alternative Conceptions in Chemistry

According to Tytler (2002a), there are significant research studies in science which focus on students’ alternative conceptions which could influence the learning process in their mind. As a result, it becomes challenges for the teachers to recognize and guide these students’ alternative conceptions. Moreover, it is common perceptions that the teachers face the difficulties to explain the concepts in chemistry. Students could reject, accept, or assimilate the concepts or ideas which are given by the teacher, because they already have their own concepts which recognize as “prior knowledge”. These prior knowledge could be strongly hold by students and it is difficult to be changed ( Treagust, Duit, Fraser, 1996). According to Tytler (2002a), there are many terms that are used regarding to alternative conceptions, such as misconceptions, intuitive ideas, interpretive frameworks, children’s science, etc. Based on research study on “An Inventory for Alternate Conceptions among First-Semester General Chemistry Students”, Mulford and Robinson (2002) used the diagnostic instrument which develop by Treagust (1988) (as cited in Mulford and Robinson, 2002). They found that one of students’ alternate conceptions in chemistry on the conservation of mass, molecules, and atoms during a chemical reaction is “the total number of molecules is also conserved in a chemical reaction” (p.741). Moreover the other examples of students’ alternative conceptions in chemical bonding based on octet rule are:” 1) Atom “need” filled shell, 2) A covalent bond holds atom together the bond is sharing electrons, 3) molecul forms from isolated atoms” (Robinson, 1993, p.1073). These examples are only few students’ alternative conceptions which influence the students to understand the chemistry concepts. Teachers could use the information of students’ alternative conceptions to choose the best teaching strategies to guide these conceptions. As a result, students could engage with chemistry concepts through their existing ideas. Therefore, it is important for teacher to recognize students’ conceptions before introducing the new topics in chemistry.

The Role of Constructivism on Teaching and Learning Chemistry

The constructivist theory of learning has important implication on the teaching-learning process in the classroom. It is common that most science education focus on the scientific learning of the learners rather than the growth of learners’ knowledge as holistic individual (Taber, 2006). Using the constructivist theory of learning encourages the students to reflect their own knowledge which is important in the learning process (Bodner, 1986). The meaningful learning environment can be created if the students can relate their preexisting knowledge with the concepts that they are received (Novak & Gowin as cited in Bodner, 1986). This paper will discuss two roles of constructivism in chemistry education, which are:

1) Improving Teaching and Learning in Chemistry

In the classroom, teacher has to be aware that students held their perceptions on every topics and it can be influence or uninfluenced by teaching (Osborne, 1983). Constructivism requires significant a shift paradigms for teachers, parents, and students. For example, teachers would spend less time on lecturing, drilling the students on basic concepts, and rote learning (Andrew, 2007). Teachers can use the information of the students’ preexisting knowledge to create the instruction which can avoid the misunderstanding of concepts. Furthermore, according to Needham (1987) as cited in Parkinson (2004), there are five key phases to teach by constructivist view: (1) orientation, (2) elicitation of ideas, (3) reconstruction of ideas, (4) application of ideas, (5) review. In summary, teachers could use varied strategies which explore students’ experiences and stimulate them to reflect and think critically related to their experiences and the new knowledge.

Moreover, according to Tytler (2002b), there are three learning models which apply the constructivist /conceptual change approach which are 1) generative learning model by Cosgove and Osborne (1985), 2) interactive approach by Biddulph (1990), and 3) Japanese science activity structure by Linn, Lewis, Tsuchida & sanger (2000). Even though, these models are different in several ways, but the principle is the similar which is exploring and guiding students’ prior knowledge through class discussion and generate shared meaning. This table bellow is summary of these three learning models.

Table 1. Three Learning Models Guided by Constructivism/

Conceptual Change Approaches



Generative Learning Model

Interactive Approach

Japanese Science Activity Structure

Explore students’ prior knowledge

· Preliminary

· Preparation

· Connect lesson to students’ interests & prior knowledge

Establish the context

· Focus

· Exploratory activities

· Students’ questions

· Elicit student ideas and opinions

Stimulate Students’ Curiosity

· Challenge

· Plan investigation (create the predictions)

Conduct Investigation

· Application

· Students’ investigations

· Conduct Investigations

Reflect on the students’ ideas

· Reflection

· Exchange information

· Analyze information

· Reflect the prediction

· Connect to the next lesson

According to Tytler (2002b), general principles of constructivist approach are giving opportunity for students to: communicate their own ideas, extend their knowledge by the experiences, think about the experiences, try the new ideas, reflect on changes their ideas, have positive learning environment. Moreover, according to Gunstone (1995), the good science learning provides opportunities for students to integrate, extend, and monitor their learning. Both the authors pursue the principles which are found in metacognitive approaches.

Moreover based on these three learning models,I had experience on appyling metacognitive skills to help students to understand the chemistry concepts. Metacognitive skills allow students to understand their thinking process and concepts (Wellman, 1983 as cited in Pressley, Mac Kinno,& Waller, 1985). Most studies of students’ understanding stated solutions through the use of meaningful learning experiences (Rickey & Stacy, 2000; Treagust, Chittleborough, & Mamiala, 2004). Metacognition gives meaningful learning for students because “metacognition involves, among other things, taking responsibility for own’s learning process” (Anderson Nashon, 2006, p.299). “In metacognition classrooms, learners are expected to ask questions about where they went wrong and to tell the teacher when they don’t understand” (Parkinson, 2004, p.99). Therefore, metacognitive skills are important to understanding the ideas and give significant impact on problem solving in chemistry (Rickey, & Stacy, 2000). This table bellow shows the correlation metacognitive skills and those three learning models.

Table 2. Principles of Three Learning Models and Metacognitive Approach


Three Learning Models

Metacognitive approach

Explore students’ prior knowledge

Explore students’ conscious on their prior knowledge and guide them to the topic (control of learning)

Establish the context

Stimulate Students’ Curiosity

Encourage students to predict the investigation

Conduct Investigation

Select the strategies (investigation)

Reflect on the students’ ideas

Monitor the progress of learning

Correct the errors

Analyze effective strategies

Change the learning when necessary

Table 3. Experience on Applying Metacognitive Approach in Laboratory

Topic: The Qualitative Analysis of Copper


Teacher Activity


· Explore students’ conscious on their prior knowledge and guide them to the topic (control of learning)

Explore students’ prior knowledge (pre-test through interview). Asking them questions on basic concepts of the experiments

I asked the metacognitive questions before they worked on the experiment of qualitative analysis of copper:

Me : Why should we add Sodium Hydroxide in that copper solution?”

Student : “To identify copper which result Copper Hydroxide with stable blue precipitation?

Me : “Can we change it with other bases?”

Student : “Yes”

Me : “Why?”

Student : “Because all bases have hydroxide to precipitate Copper”

Me :”So, Can I use Ammonium Hydroxide to get the same stable precipitation?”

Student : “Yes, because it consist of hydroxide”

Note: I found the alternative conception, not all hydroxide can produce the stable precipitation. The excess of Ammonium Hydroxide will dilute the copper hydroxide into the complex compound.

· Predict the investigations

Encourage students to predict the investigation based on their understanding of the experiments concepts

On this stage, I asked my students to predict the result of investigation, for example:

Me : What will be happened if you add Potassium Iodide into Copper solutions?

Student : the cuprous Iodide will be formed as brown precipitation

Me : What will be happened if you add the excess Potassium Iodide?

Student : It will be diluted

Me : Why

Student : Ehm, I don’t know

Note : The student just remember the note on the practicum book, but if the questions expand into the basic concepts, most of my students could not answer it

· Select the strategies (investigation)

Guide them to select the strategies in the experiments

On this phase, I will guide them to choose the best strategy in the experiment , for example:

Me :So, If copper solution with Potassium Iodide will form the precipitation, how mix these solutions?

Student : add the Potassium Iodide into the tube which contain the copper solution

Me : run the liquid or drop it?

Student :is it different?

Me : don’t forget the theory of precipitation, it is bect way to get slow nucleation but rapid crystal growth, so you will get the pure precipitation

Students : So, it means better to drop the solution rather than to run it straight away, right?

Note: I tried to guide students to find out the best strategies to conduct the experiment

· Monitor the progress of learning

· Correct the errors

· Analyze effective strategies

· Change the learning when necessary

Observe their experiments and ask the questions to encourage them reflect on their prior knowledge and the result of experiments. Then guide them to clarify their understanding

On this phase, students worked on their experiment. Then, I asked them to reflect on their prior knowledge and their prediction on the experiment result, for example:

Me : So, What happened when you add the excess of Ammonium Hydroxide into the copper solution?

Student : Firstly, it formed the blue precipitation, but the excess of Ammonium Hydroxide diluted it into the dark blue of complex compound

Note : On this stage, I asked students to explain the concepts of complex compound related to the experiment

The metacognitive strategies help to monitoring my students’ learning process, especially their alternative understanding on chemistry concepts. Even though, the process need time and efforts from the teacher, but the learning became engaging and meaningful for the students. Moreover, according to Tytler (2002b), there are 8 components of effective science teaching and learning: 1) encourage students to express their ideas, 2) challenge students to develop meaningful understanding, 3) create correlation between science with their lives, 4) apply varied strategies to monitor students’ learning, 5) apply varied and continuous assessment, 6) represent science in different aspects,7) link classroom program with the community, and 8) apply the technology for effectiveness. These 8 components can be applied through constructivism approaches. Therefore, it is important for teachers to apply the constructivist approach to help their students involve in active learning process through meaningful learning experiences.

2. Developing the Research Areas

Since constructivism approach focus on students’ conceptual change, the research areas in chemistry in our institution could be developed. Finding the alternative students’ conceptions can be explored to help the teacher recognize the existing students’ ideas in chemistry concepts. Moreover, the varied teaching strategies also can be explored to help students understand the chemistry concepts and to guide students alternative conceptions. There is large number of research studies in chemistry focus on students’ alternative conception which informed by constructivism approaches. For example:

1. An Inventory for Alternate Conceptions among First-Semester General Chemistry Students (Mulford & Robinson, 2002). They found the several alternative students’ conceptions on atom, molecul, and chemical reactions concepts.

2. An alternative framework for chemical bonding (Robinson, 1998). He pointed out several students’ alternative conceptions on chemical bonding based on octet rule.

3. Commonsense Chemistry: A Model for Understanding Students’ Alternative Conceptions (Talanquer, V., 2006). He propose a model to investigate students alternative conceptions.

4. A Phenomenographic Study: First Year Chemical Engineering Students’ Conceptions of Energy in Dissolution Processes(Lyle & Robinson, 2002). They propose the Phenomenographic method to identify range of students’ alternative conceptions

5. Introducing dynamic equilibrium as an explanatory model (Driel, Vos, & Verloop, 1999). They work on teaching model to help students understand the concept of equilibrium.

Moreover, it is also important for encouraging our pre-service teachers to explore this field of research. Even though, in Indonesia, research studies in constructivism have been started few years ago, but it still need to be developed, because this view of learning could solve problems on students’ understanding in chemistry concepts. Moreover, according to White (1998), teachers need to explore the research studies and theory of learning which appropriate to be applied in their classroom. As a result, the research will give contribution for improving teaching and learning in chemistry and developing theory of learning.


First, in chemistry education, constructivism plays important role to improve teaching and learning in chemistry and develop the research area in chemistry education. The teaching strategies which informed by constructivism are powerful to create the meaningful learning process in chemistry. The meaningful learning process will help students to understand the chemistry concepts through the active learning process. Moreover the varied research areas can be developed through this view of learning. As a result, research studies could be applicable in the classroom.

Second, three learning models apply the constructivist /conceptual change approach: generative learning model , interactive approach and Japanese science activity structure which give opportunity to explore and guide students’ prior knowledge through class discussion and generate shared meaning. Moreover, my experience on metacognition approach is one example teaching approach under the theory of contructivism. Metacognitive skills allow students to reflect on their thinking process on understanding the concepts. As a result, students could monitor their learning progress, create the changes, and choose the strategies to get the best achievement. This approach also gives opportunities for teachers to create meaningful learning experiences for students.

Third, teachers need to be creative to apply varied teaching strategies to use the constructivist approaches. Teachers’ role is also important to deal with the challenges within this theory of learning such as learner and content are separated, 2) tendency to equate activity with learning, 3) limited research evidence, 4) curriculum is fixed, 5) time management, 6) students’ learning responsibility, and 7) unique individual. As a result, the constructivism will be powerful to be applied in teaching and learning process.


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41 thoughts on “The Role of Constructivism in Teaching and Learning Chemistry”
  1. Hello
    Your paper is helping in my paper review.
    I would like to find the reference that you use, because I am interested is some of them.
    Thank you

  2. hello yulirahmawati , your article was very good and It helped me a lot in my studies since I am studying to become a teacher. Can you please email me the references you used. Keep up your good work and take care 🙂

  3. Hi yuli, it was interesting article on constructivim learning, if u don’t mind, can I get the ref used in the article.


  4. salam.

    hi, i need your help. could you send me anything about Needham’s 5 Phase? because i want to know more about this model. thanks. []

  5. hi yuli,

    if you don’t mind, can you email me the information about the needham’s five phase as well? coz i need it for my assignment and i guess the internet doesnt help much.


  6. Hi Yuli,
    i found your article is very helping me to understand about constructivism in learning, can i get the references of your paper? thanks a lot.

  7. hi,yulirahmawati. iam a research scholar and i want to your reference list to my research work. because iasm working in this area and i want prepare a module for life science topic. please help me.

  8. Hello Yuli,
    I use Your article in my master thesis, but I can not find where are You (in what journal) published this article. I Want citat You! Your article is very good and It helped me a lot in my master thesis “Constructivist theory in learning chemistry”! I used metacognitive approach in concept of chemical bonding! Can you please email me the references you used!

    I will be grateful!

    Danijela Bjelica, teacher of chemistry in a high school
    Novi Sad, Serbia

  9. Hi yuli..

    Actually i am interested to have this full article and it references.. could u please help me to send it via email.. Since i am still studying.. in education courses.. It helps me a lot.. and I also need the information about the 5 phases of construtivist approach.. Help me please..

  10. Hello Yulirahmawati. I am taking up my Masteral Degree in Teaching Chemistry, and presently in my Thesis writing. I find your article very useful reference to my study. Can you share me the references you used? Thank you and God bless!

  11. Assalamualaikum wbt,hello yulirahmawati , your article was very good.It help me a lot in my research. Can you please email me the references you used. Any other article about how to apply any of chemistry topic using constructivist method. Thanks a lot. Keep up your good work and take care

  12. Hello!
    read your article, it is a nice research piece. I am also doing research on evaluation of teaching of chemistry at public secondary schools of pakistan. and want to cite your article. could your please send me the pdf or a sof copy of your article along with the reference cited by you.
    I thank you for your esteemed cooperation in this regard

  13. hi, i m doing a survey of different strategies on teaching, can you please send me your references plase. Thankin you in adsvance

  14. hello, im so happy with this work and im presently carring out a study using constuctivism as one of the theories. pls kindly send in your references to me .thanks

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