I was incredily lucky to be awarded an RSC CERG teacher-researcher fellowship recently. I will be exploring further an area of chemical education that I find particularly interesting: how we can support students to understand tricky concepts.

The thing I’m most excited about is that I gain two mentors, both of whom I respect enormously: Dr Suzanne Fergus and Dr Barry Ryan. I have spoken to them both over the past week or so, and they’ve helped me to shape and formulate my ideas.

The main theme of our conversations have been:

  • don’t try and do everything (narrow your focus, and walk before you run)
  • consider ethics from the start (not with hindsight!)

I’m paraphrasing slightly, but actually not that much!

So I’m using this site to blog my notes and thoughts as I go. It’s unlikely to be high-brow… but I’ll try and remain coherent and comprehensible as I jot my thoughts down over the next year or so.

Tricky concepts and Johnstone’s triangle

I am interested in why people find some concepts trickier to understand than others, and how teachers can support their students to develop their understanding of them, so I have been intrigued by the idea of Threshold Concepts for a while now. I’ve written about them a few times, for example in Nature Reviews (Chemistry), Education in Chemistry,  and TES. And I’ve spoken about them for the CERG Showcase series.

This research and evaluation helped me respond to the needs of my pupils and made me think about how I explain certain ideas (as I outlined in this Wellcome video) but it also lead me to reflect on the nature and characteristics of Threshold Concepts themselves.

At first, I was interested to see if simple repetition of the key concepts in a topic would help students to learn them, because I was unsure where the boundary between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’ lay. I am now quite sure that simple repetition, while important, is not enough. I believe that students need to be supported to deepen their understanding and to make links that aren’t immediately apparent to a novice.

Threshold Concepts are, by definition, transformative and irreversible, but my observation at a classroom level was that concepts were often ‘forgotten’, or that pupils could learn enough to answer assessment questions correctly without fully understanding the underlying concepts. If Threshold Concepts are “portals to new or transformed understanding”, then they should enable students to make connections between apparently unlinked ideas.

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But truly transformative concepts appear to be rare, and my experience is that students often miss the links that should be revealed by them.  This might be because students need to move fluently between the submicroscopic, macroscopic and symbolic levels (represented using Johnstone’s triangle) to make these links. This is something that teachers (as experts) are able to do, but students (as novices) must learn.

I’m interested in how we, as teachers, can help students to do this more easily. I want to see if modelling my thinking using Johnstone’s triangle when teaching key ideas in the Structure and Bonding module will help my students to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts, and to make links with other areas of Chemistry more easily. I’d like to use an approach based on Gregory Thomas’s ‘triangulation’ method to teach the list of tricky concepts I previously identified.

confidence difference table

Ultimately, I’d like to test students’ ability to link (seemingly unrelated) ideas, and I’d like to see if, by scaffolding connections between the three-levels, they are more able to do this. I think this builds on the work I’ve done already: I’d now like to find a practical, replicable way to help students develop their metacognitive skills and conceptual understanding.

The question

The question that I proposed was: What impact does the explicit teaching of Johnstone’s triangle during the Structure and Bonding module have on Y12 understanding and application of key concepts to implicitly linked ideas?

What… the whole of Structure and Bonding, Niki? And what exactly are these implicitly linked ideas then?

My problem is that I want to investigate everything. I want to question all the ideas students have in every topic I teach. Suzanne and Barry were very good at hauling me out of rabbit holes, reining me in when needed, and helping me to narrow my focus into something that was achievable and would give me some meaningful data.

So for the moment, I’m going to stick to my well-loved area of ions and ionic compounds, and study these in more depth.

It’s just a worksheet, right?

I want to see if a simple worksheet will support students, and help them to structure their conceptual understanding, ultimately making links between apparently distinct ideas that they might not have made otherwise.

I don’t want to make any grand assertions right now. Ultimately, it’s just a worksheet! But I’m hoping it will aid metacognition, and ultimately help students organise their conceptual knowledge and build schema, so that they’re able to more easily make links that experts make.

So this is as far as I’ve got with designing the worksheet:

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What do I actually want to find out?

  • Is it useable? Practical? Do students like it? Find it helpful?
  • Does it help to structure, scaffold and organise ideas and concpetual understanding?
  • Does it help students to make links between apparently distinct phenomena?
  • Does it aid conceptual understanding?

I’m still formulating ideas, but my research will involve some surveys, interviews and tests. I have some ideas around demonstrations to capture students’ ideas and understanding, and about some ‘think aloud’ stuff. But I’m still working on all this.


Teachers are always trialling things and evaluating the impact of what they do. It’s what we do. We have data coming out of our ears, and we are trusted to use it judiciously and ethically (and legally) to help improve outcomes for our students.

You start to approach (and even cross) a slightly fuzzy line when you use this data and evaluation to inform ‘research’ and to share what you’ve learned with others.

Until now, I haven’t done anything that I wouldn’t have done anyway, in the course of my  everyday teaching. But I still haven’t felt comfortable publishing data in any kind of journal, even though it was completely anonymous.

However, I’d like to share what I learn during this research project with others. So one of the first jobs on my to-do list is to consider the ethics of everything I’m intending to do, inform students of what I’m doing, and get consent/ assent from them and their parents.

In addition, some of what I do won’t be business-as-usual, in the same way that it’s been until now. For example, I’d like to interview students, and the power balance has to be considered carefully. I also need to work out the logistics! Am I going to do some kind of think aloud exercise? If so, how?


  • Formulate 10 quick questions to help diagnose misconceptions, confidence and (mis)understanding in my group and (hopefully) in parallel groups at the outset, and throughout the study.
  • Design triangulation worksheet that can be used easily, and applied across topics.
  • Consider ethics of study, and design information sheet for students/ parents.
  • Ask for consent/ assent from parents/ students.
  • Decide on format of ‘linking-ideas’ interviews: demos? Photos? Videos?
  • Think about survey questions for worksheet.

….and keep away from rabbit holes….