P1004: “Chemistry is all math!” — a frustrated chemistry student
Evidence from my action-research study, the Chem-Math Project, suggests that the “math” that students (and instructors) inappropriately equate with chemistry is formal (abstract or symbolic) mathematics, beginning with prealgebra. The early mathematics used in chemistry consists of an array of elementary skills that must be reviewed and practiced and then combined with ratio/proportional reasoning. These two strands should be treated separately at first. Studies in mathematics education suggest that formal mathematics confuses a certain cohort of students who then come to fear “math.” If early arithmetic skills have not been thoroughly drilled and learned, such as the nature of fractions, this will also instill insecurity. The practice of moving all students through their mathematics courses at the same rate, regardless of acquired competence and understanding, means that some students are already intimidated by anything involving calculations before they arrive at chemistry. I contend that mastery learning of these early mathematics skills is necessary. Students passed through their early mathematics courses with grades of “C” will likely make mistakes and unnecessarily equate their subsequent confusion with “chemistry,” rather than with the mathematics skills where their problems actually lie. Instructors must provide drill and practice with these necessary skills to ensure their students can use them, and then move on to practice chemistry exercises, followed by authentic problem-solving using their acquired skills. The use of ratio-proportionality would most effectively be addressed as the central core of chemistry calculations as a separate thrust.