Evidence-based Approaches to Improving Chemistry Education

Melanie Cooper


216A CEM


Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education

Research webpage

Primary Research Area

Chemical Education (CE)

Other Area(s) of Interest


(Research Description PDF)

The focus of our research is to develop evidence based approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. Our work involves a wide range of activities and methods including designing ways to assess both what students know and how they use their knowledge, developing curriculum materials, and evaluating the effects of transformation efforts both within and across disciplines.

To design effective curricula we need to know what students bring to the table both in their prior knowledge and what they are able to do with that knowledge. We also must understand how and why students develop ideas that are not scientifically sound. For example we have shown that for many students, when they consider how the molecular level structure of a substance can be used to predict macroscopic properties, their ideas are often a loosely woven tapestry of concepts, facts and skills, rather than a useful framework of ideas.

Our approach to curriculum transformation uses a design based research cycle in which we identify what students should know and be able to do, design and implement a curriculum that would meet these goals, assess student achievement and use the results of the assessments to revise the curriculum and accompanying assessment materials These assessments require students to construct (free form) structures, diagrams, and models, and to develop explanations for phenomena. Our formative assessment system, beSocratic (http://besocratic.chemistry.msu.edu), is designed to recognize and respond to student input.

Examples of this process are Chemistry, Life, the Universe and Everything (CLUE), an NSF supported general chemistry curriculum, and the current design project Organic Chemistry, Life, the Universe and Everything (OCLUE) (both developed in collaboration with Mike Klymkowsky, University of Colorado at Boulder).

Using this system we have evaluated how students in both traditional and CLUE curricula understand a range of chemical ideas and phenomena. For example we have shown that CLUE students are more likely to understand that intermolecular forces are interactions between small molecules (not within) as shown in the Sankey diagram below. We have also shown improvements in understanding structure property relationships, and understanding of acid base reactions.

Sankey diagram showing how CLUE and traditional students represent intermolecular forces as within or between molecules.


Selected Publications

Chemistry Education Research–From Personal Empiricism to Evidence, Theory, and Informed Practice, Cooper, M. M.; Stowe, R. L., Chemical Reviews 2018, DOI: acs.chemrev.8b00020 (ACS Editors’ Choice).

Energy Connections and Misconnections across Chemistry and Biology, Kohn, K. P.; Underwood, S. M.; Underwood, S. M. Cooper, M. M., CBE—Life Sci. Educ. 2018, 17 (1), ar3.

Adapting Assessment Tasks To Support Three-Dimensional Learning, Underwood, S. M.; Posey, L. A.; Herrington, D. G.; Carmel, J. H.; Cooper, M. M., J. Chem. Educ. 2018, 95 (2), 207–217. (ACS Editors' Choice).

Practicing What We Preach: Assessing “Critical Thinking” in Organic Chemistry, Stowe, R. L.; Cooper, M. M., J. Chem. Educ. 2017, 94 (12), 1852–1859.

Sketching the invisible to predict the visible: from drawing to modeling in chemistry, Cooper, M. M.; Steiff, M., Top. Cog. Sci. 2017, DOI:10.1111/tops.12285.

Core Ideas and Topics: Building Up or Drilling Down?, Cooper, M. M.; Posey, L. A.; Underwood, S. M., J Chem Educ 2017, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.6b00900: ACS Editors Choice.

Characterizing College Science Assessments: The Three-Dimensional Learning Assessment Protocol, Laverty, J. T.; Underwood, S. M.; Matz, R. L.; Posey, L. A.; Carmel, J. H.; Caballero, M. D.; Fata- Hartley, C. L.; Ebert-May, D.; Jardeleza, S. E.; Cooper, M. M., PLoS ONE 2016, 11(9), e0162333.


B.S., 1975, Univ. of Manchester, England

M.S., 1976, Univ. of Manchester, England

Ph.D., 1978, Univ. of Manchester, England

Professor, 1987-2012, Clemson University

Lappan-Phillips Chair of Science Education


2015 Best Technology Enchancement Award of Excellence
2014 Achievement in Research for the Teaching and Learning of Chemistry. ACS
2013 James Flack Norris Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Teaching of Chemistry
2013 MSU Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education