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Using Eye Movement Modeling Examples as an Instructional Tool in Organic Chemistry

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG)

Project duration: September 2017 to August 2020


Dealing with domain-specific, complex representations is a central challenge for students in many disciplines. In organic chemistry, it is chemical formulas and reaction mechanisms that are of central importance for understanding the content, but cause great difficulties for many students. Successful handling of representations requires the ability to derive the appropriate domain-specific concepts from the representation. In order to support students in linking representations with domain-specific concepts, instructional materials were specifically developed within the project and their effectiveness was extensively investigated. On the one hand, the approach of eye movement modeling examples (EMME) was used. These are recordings of eye movements of experts during the processing of problem solving tasks, in this case tasks in the context of reaction mechanisms. These eye movements are intended to efficiently focus the learners' attention on the thematically relevant features of the representation as well as to mimic the dynamic and adaptive reasoning process of an expert. Second, the use of color-coded functional groups within the structural formulas, as found in common organic chemistry textbooks, was chosen as a second highlighting technique.

The developed instructional materials were used in a series of three sub-studies based on a mixed-methods design, which included two randomized control group studies, in-depth interviews, and eye-tracking. In a first study it could be shown that the eye-tracking behavior as well as the problem-solving approach of persons with different expertise (beginners and advanced students as well as lecturers) differs noticeably from each other when working on case comparison tasks in organic chemistry. The comparison of the experts among themselves also revealed that this group is less homogeneous in their visual gaze behavior than the student groups, which complicates the selection of a gaze model for the creation of EMME. Based on these findings, instructional materials were developed in the form of tutorial videos that provided targeted representations and explanations in the context of nucleophilic substitution reactions for students. The basis was a didactically scripted and structured explanation that included both domain-specific and strategic components of task processing. This explanation was supplemented in three variants by different highlighting (none, static highlighting of functional groups, or dynamic highlighting in the sense of an EMME) in order to direct the students' attention to the relevant parts of the illustrated task.

The results showed that students who watched the videos with dynamic highlighting gave more elaborated answers in direct reproduction tasks. Learning gains from pretest to posttest showed significant learning gains, but did not differ depending on the highlighting format implemented. However, based on further analysis, it appeared that low prior knowledge can be compensated to some extent by both static and dynamic highlighting. The effect of the videos is also found in the results of the differentiated qualitative content analysis of the interview data, where explanatory elements of the videos are increasingly found in the students' explanations. The findings of the eye-tracking also underline the conclusion that dynamic highlighting helps students to better focus their attention on the relevant features of the representations. At the same time, it shows that this reduces the perceived cognitive load.

Overall, the project results suggest that tutorial videos can be a possible approach to support students in dealing with complex subject representations. Structuring the content explanation and using highlighting techniques increase the accessibility of this learning resource for students. However, the direct use of EMME based on authentic task processing by experts seems to have limitations when dealing with complex tasks.


Central publications from the project:

Asmussen, G., Rodemer, M., Eckhard, J. & Bernholt, S. (in press). From free association to goal-directed problem-solving. Network analysis of students’ use of chemical concepts in mechanistic reasoning. In N. Graulich & G. V. Shultz (Eds.), Student Reasoning in Organic Chemistry. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Bernholt, S., Eckhard, J., Rodemer, M., Langner, A., Asmussen, G. & Graulich, N. (in press.). Designing tutorial videos to support students’ learning of reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry. In Y. J. Dori, C. Ngai & G. A. Szteinberg (Eds.), Digital Learning and Teaching in Chemistry. An International and Inclusive Approach. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Eckhard, J., Rodemer, M., Bernholt, S. & Graulich, N. (2022). What Do University Students Truly Learn When Watching Tutorial Videos in Organic Chemistry? An Exploratory Study Focusing on Mechanistic Reasoning. Journal of Chemical Education, 99 (6), 2231–2244.

Eckhard, J., Rodemer, M., Langner, A., Bernholt, S. & Graulich, N. (2022). Let's frame it differently – analysis of instructors’ mechanistic explanations. Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 23 (1), 78–99.

Graulich, N., Rodemer, M., Eckhard, J. & Bernholt, S. (in Druck). Gibt es ideale Blickmodelle zur Förderung der Lernenden beim Lösen organisch-chemischer Aufgaben? [Are there ideal gaze models to support learners in solving organic chemistry tasks?] In P. Klein, M. Schindler, N. Graulich & J. Kuhn (Hrsg.), Eye-Tracking als Methode in der Mathematik- und Naturwissenschaftsdidaktik. Forschung und Praxis. Berlin: Springer Spektrum.

Rodemer, M., Eckhard, J., Graulich, N. & Bernholt, S. (2021). Connecting explanations to representations. Benefits of highlighting techniques in tutorial videos on students’ learning in organic chemistry. International Journal of Science Education, 43 (17), 2707–2728.

Rodemer, M., Eckhard, J., Graulich, N. & Bernholt, S. (2020). Decoding Case Comparisons in Organic Chemistry. Eye-Tracking Students’ Visual Behavior. Journal of Chemical Education, 97 (10), 3530–3539.

Rodemer, M., Lindner, M. A., Eckhard, J., Graulich, N. & Bernholt, S. (2022). Dynamic signals in instructional videos support students to navigate through complex representations. An eye‐tracking study. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 36 (4), 852–863.


Project team

Dr. Sascha Bernholt, Didaktik der Chemie

Julia Eckhard, Justus-Liebig-University Gießen

Prof. Dr. Nicole Graulich, Justus-Liebig-University Gießen

Dr. Marc Rodemer, University Duisburg-Essen