Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Ronald Good


This exploratory study investigated 11th grade high school chemistry students' understandings of the science concepts of chemical symbol, formula, equation, reaction, reactant, and product. It also investigated students' ideas about the meaning of plus sign, reaction sign, subscript, and coefficient. In addition, it attempted to assess the impact of students' prior mathematical knowledge on their understanding of these fundamental concepts. A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods were employed in a two-stage approach involving a preliminary study and a main study over one academic school year (1990-1991). The cooperating high school chemistry teacher was an active participant consultant throughout the research process. Three open-ended essay questions were used in conducting the preliminary study in two chemistry classes. The findings of this first stage were used to sharpen the focus of the main study. Clinical interviews were used in conducting the main study on the teacher-selected sample which represented three achievement levels. Three activities that were presented to the students involved chemical substances, chemical apparatus, three actual chemical reactions which were represented on cards, and a follow-up interview. Content analysis and preestablished criteria as well as two group of experts were used in the data analysis process for the purpose of validity and reliability. The findings indicated that about one-third of the interviewed students held common prescientific conceptions and the remainder of the students (two-thirds) held unique concepts. The identified prescientific conceptions were common and prevalent among the students regardless of achievement level, sex, interest, age, and prior knowledge. Moreover, these prescientific conceptions seemed to have different causes/sources, characteristics, and prevalence. Based on these findings, recommendations are made and implications are suggested for high school chemistry teachers, curriculum developers and chemistry education researchers.