Improving the Problems of Writing Chemical Symbols, Formulae and Chemical Equations an Action Research
*Department of Chemistry, Nekemte College of Teacher Education, Ethiopia
Submission: September 25, 2018; Published: November 13, 2018
*Corresponding author: Dula DE, Department of Chemistry, Nekemte College of Teacher Education, Post Box No. 88, Nekemte, Ethiopia
How to cite this article: Dula DE. Improving the Problems of Writing Chemical Symbols, Formulae and Chemical Equations an Action Research. Ann Rev Resear. 2018; 4(3): 555636. DOI: 10.19080/ARR.2018.04.555636
Objective: The researchers interested to assess and improve the general understanding of Generalist Focus Year II students in Nekemte College of Teacher education on chemical symbols, chemical formulae and chemical equations which are the fundamental elements of chemistry for anyone to begin learning this subject.
Methods: The study was both qualitative and quantitative type of research, because both numerical and non-numerical data were collected during the study through questionnaire, classroom observation, pre- and post- attitude tests and written tests. As type and source of data, the study used only primary. We used all the population as samples (totally 98 students in both sections) purposely. For the implementation of the action research, we first prepared action plan, applied the interventions, analyzed the changes and reported the results.
Results: Based on our null hypothesis, from both attitude tests (questionnaire) and written tests (for both pre-and post-) there is progressive change observed after interventions. From the base line data questionnaire of 15 items, almost 79.5 % of the respondents disagreed for items 1-11 (except item 5) which are assessing the students background on chemical symbols, chemical formulae and chemical equations and very high interest was raised from the students on items 12-15 (highest agreement for both item 12 & 13 by 93.88 % response) which were asking students’ interest to learn the basic elements of chemistry languages. After interventions, both post-tests showed correlatively progressive figure in addition to the observations conducted during all interventions. For the attitude test analysis almost, the reverse responses were recorded with agreement response (in average 71.93 %) and for the written test result analysis at p (0.05) the t-statistic is greater than t-critical in all the three cases i.e. chemical symbols, chemical formulae and chemical equations.
Keywords: Chemical Formulae; Chemical Equations; Chemical Symbols; Focus; Generalist; Qualitative Analysis and Quantitative Analysis
From our experience of teaching in the Nekemte College of Teachers Education (NCTE) since the introduction of linear and stream case in Educational colleges of Ethiopia, we have found that most of our students lack confidence in writing chemical symbols and Formulae. This problem was aggravating especially with the 2nd and 3rd year generalist students. It was what we have been confronted from student with different activities like class work, individual and group activities, and tests on different courses such as BNSc.101, BNSc. 102 and general chemistry (Chem. 201) in recent cases. When such difficulties occur in chemistry courses, it is difficult to measure whether the objectives of courses attained or not. In addition we have assessed that most of our students hesitate to choose Integrated and Generalist streams after completing bridge courses.
Studies of [1,2] argued that success in studying Chemistry depends upon the familiarity of students with a few basic ideas, conventions, and methods upon which later studies are built. When a student has achieved mastery of them, further studies can be pursued with greater confidence. One of the studies  further adds that without mastery of these concepts, it is difficult for students to find higher levels of study in Chemistry. Specially, the use of chemical symbols, Formulae, writing chemical equations, calculations involving moles (solids, gases, and solutions) etc. are areas where students of chemistry beginners face most challenges. Action research, according to  defines as “a systematic collection of data in order to answer a research question for the purpose of improvement”. For Lo Castro (1995) is “one form of classroom centered research which is seen as being small scale and situational focused on a particular problem, to try to understand and perhaps solve some concrete problem in an individual teacher’s classroom” .
Thus, action research solves the problem and brings improvement to the student nationwide. It gives the area to the teacher in solving the problem faced by the students. There are three methods of doing action research, quantitative, qualitative and mix method. This paper focuses on a mixed method where results are quantified and analyzed accordingly. Research has become primary elements in education system around the world. With the developmental stages in the country, research would help to face adverse competition. It will moreover help to understand the need of the society and will help accordingly to
bring development. With stage changes must happen. Different
disciplines of sciences Biology, Chemistry and Physics are of
importance now a day. Coming to chemistry, student across the
country finds it a difficult subject to learn. They even go to the
extent of losing interest to study. Thus, our action research will
motivate and inculcate interest in Chemistry, especially balancing
chemical equation where student finds it difficult.
According to Johnstone  “Chemistry is a difficult subject
for students. The difficulties may lie in the capabilities of human
learning as well as in the intrinsic nature of the subject.” Chiu
 believes that “Chemistry is a world filled with interesting
phenomena, appealing experimental activities, and fruitful
knowledge for understanding the natural and manufactured
world. However, it is complex.” As a result of the difficult and
complex nature of chemistry and also the fact that it is one of
the most conceptually difficult subjects on the school and higher
institution curricula, it is of major importance that anyone
teaching chemistry is aware of the areas of difficulty in the subject.
The concepts and principles in chemistry range from concrete
to abstract. Many students of chemistry find certain concepts
difficult to comprehend. The root of many of these difficulties that
students have in learning chemistry is traceable to inadequate
understanding of the underlying concepts of the atomic model,
and how these are used to explain macroscopic properties and
laws of chemistry .
Difficulties in the learning of chemistry can be precipitated
by a lack of chemistry language skills.  found that students
experienced greater problem in interpreting symbols than words
correctly (as cited in research of . Danili & Reid  studied
the effects of working memory space and field-dependency on
the learning of chemistry by Greek students. Learning not only
of chemistry, but of all new information will fail if the working
memory space is overloaded. This could occur if students are
given too much information at once. Moreover, if students
study chemistry in a language other than their mother tongue,
difficulties experienced in chemical language could be linguistic,
contextual or cultural in nature.
The understanding of valency, appreciation of concepts of
polyatomic ions and molecules and ultimately the production of
correct chemical formulae will depend on student’s knowledge of
bonding. Unfortunately, concepts in chemical bonding are highly
abstract and it appears that only the most able students will be
in a position to apply their knowledge of bonding effectively to
scaffold the writing of chemical formulae .
Chemical equations can be defined as symbolic and
quantitative representations of the changes that occur in the
process of chemical reactions, based on the principle that matter
is neither created nor destroyed during chemical reactions. For
example, the chemical equation: shows that A and B are the
reactants while C and D are the products. The subscripts x, y, p and
q are the stoichiometric coefficients which represent the relative
amount of substance of the reactants and products. The singleheaded
arrow indicates the direction of the reaction and shows
that the reaction is an irreversible one. The arrow means “gives”,
“yields” or “forms” and the plus (+) sign means “and”.
However, studies have shown that the ability to write
chemical equations correctly is not a simple one [11,13]. It is
one that requires a functional understanding of the requisite
subordinate concepts of atoms and atomicity, molecules and
molecular formula, atomic structure and bonding, valency,
use of brackets, radicals, subscripts and coefficient and molar
ratio . Studies conducted by Savoy  & Hines  have
reported that chemistry students often have great difficulties in
both acquiring and using the skills required to balance chemical
equations. A similar study conducted by Johnstone, et al.  in
Scotland revealed that students in senior high schools are rarely
confident about writing chemical equations and then carrying out
calculations based on them. A study by Anamuah-Mensah & Apafo
 likewise revealed that students in Ghanaian senior high
schools have difficulties in learning certain chemical concepts,
including chemical combination. Approximately two-thirds of
the students who took part in the study indicated that the topic
chemical combination was either difficult to grasp or never
grasped. Findings from research conducted by Lazonby, et al.
; Bello  have shown that students’ persistent difficulties in
solving stoichiometric problems are partly associated with their
inability to represent chemical equations correctly.
Chief Examiners’ (CE) reports available through the West
African Examinations Council (WAEC) confirm that senior high
school students experience difficulty when writing chemical
equations. The 1994 CE report showed that most candidates
were unable to write balanced chemical equations for the Senior
Secondary School Certificate Examination (SSSCE) chemistry
paper. The 1995 CE report followed suit and reiterated that
many candidates demonstrated problems when writing chemical
equations. In 1999, the CE report indicated that students were
unable to write equations for reactions between Bronsted-Lowry
bases and concentrated HCl. In 2001, the CE reported that the
writing of ionic equations was poorly handled by candidates .
The 2004 chemistry theory paper required candidates to write a
balanced chemical equation for the production of oxygen when
KClO is heated and then calculate the volume of the dry oxygen
gas evolved . The examiners’ CE report for the above question
noted that candidates had problems writing the equation correctly
and hence could not get the correct mole ratio .
Based on the above, it is clear that over the years, students
have experienced serious problems when writing chemical
equations even though this is a basic requirement in chemistry.
Without the proper writing of the chemical equation, students
cannot subsequently solve or analyze equations.
Marais & Jordaan  recommended that students’
understanding of symbols should be tested by including meaning
items in content related tests and students should be discouraged
from regarding chemical symbols as merely short-hand notations.
Providing with a glossary of symbols and assigning group or
individual exercises to supply correct symbolic notation is another
technique . Chunking or grouping pieces of information is
important to reduce the demands on the amount of information
to be held in the working memory. It will be affected by students’
prior knowledge, experience and skills in a particular subject.
Since chunking is highly individualized, students should be given
the opportunity to develop their own chunking techniques .
The second language science students require the opportunity to
practice science in the presence of more capable peers and they
need to be introduced overtly to the language requirements of the
particular discipline .
According to Bradley & Steenberg  the difficulty of lack of
chemistry language skill can be solved by maximizing exposure
to chemical language. Teachers should not assume that students
are familiar with chemical terms; rather they should introduce
the terms carefully. The symbols of common elements should be
memorized thoroughly, and as well the less common ones might
also need to be memorizing as they come to attention (Clark,
1982). Chemical formula writing worksheet solutions is another.
It is a tabulate form consisting of boxes. We have to write chemical
Formulae for the compounds in each box. The names are found by
finding the intersection between the cations and anions written
in the boxes. We can also write formulae using valencies. To write
chemical formula using valencies, we need to know how to use the
zero-sum rule; “for neutral chemical formulae containing ions, the
sum of positive valencies plus negative valencies of the atoms in a
compound must equal to zero”.
Student should be familiar with the language of chemistry
so that they can easily balance chemical equation. Knowing
symbols, knowing the difference between ions, atoms, molecules
and compound will invariably play important role. And not only
knowing formula of compound but also the teacher should help
students to think why chemical equation is balanced; will also
help to easily balance the chemical equation. According to Beek
& Louters , Marais & Jordaan  and Danili & Reid  also
states “Difficulties in the learning of chemistry can be precipitated
by a lack of chemistry language skills”. They provide following
recommendation to maximize students learning:
a. Students exposure to chemical language should be maximized.
b. Teachers should not assume that students are familiar
with chemical terms and terms should be introduced carefully.
Marais & Jordaan  found that students experienced greater
problems in interpreting symbols than words correctly. Based on
their findings, they recommended that:
a. Students understanding of symbols should be tested by
including meaning items in content related tests,
b. Students should be discouraged from regarding chemical
symbols as merely short-hand notations which could be adapted
to suit the individual user,
c. Students should be provided with a glossary of symbols,
d. Students should be given group or individual exercises
to supply correct symbolic notation .
According to Johnstone and Kellett there is no doubt that
motivation to learn is an important factor controlling the success
of learning and teachers face problems when their students do
not all have the motivation to seek to understand . Motivating
students in learning chemistry play key role when teaching
students balancing chemical equation. Whenever they get their
equation correctly balanced one should reinforce them and
they overtly motivated for future learning. Through motivation
students participate more and more and this makes the teacher
to be highly interested to work hard at the same time to help
The target population of the study as aforementioned, are
all Generalist Focus of Year-II regular and evening students of
Nekemte CTE in semester two and 2017 academic year. There
are two sections (one Regular-IIA and one Evening-IIA) in which
totally 98 students were enrolled and attending their education.
The study was both qualitative and quantitative type of
research, because both numerical and non-numerical data were
collected during the study. As type and source of data, the study
used only primary.
The researchers employed questionnaire as a primary tool for
gathering data. The questionnaire contains both open-ended and
close-ended questions. This is because it is the most appropriate
tool to obtain qualitative as well as quantitative information
relative to the other methods. Besides, questionnaire is easy for
the researcher to manage the construction of the questions and
analysis of the responses. Moreover, it
Minimizes respondents’ difficulties of anonymity and reduces
effect of biased conclusion and misinterpretation of the data.
The other instrument used was classroom observation. The
researchers decided to use this instrument to obtain data about
the actual classroom situation during instructions. This was
expected to enable the researchers collect information regarding
the participation of students, the way the teacher implements the
active learning methods and other related classroom conditions.
Pre- and post-tests were carefully prepared by the team and
conducted to assess performance of students in all the targeted
items in the research i.e. chemical symbols, chemical formulae and
The findings of the study were put into three categories in
relation to our specific research questions that we found from
the data collected (i.e. checking accuracy of students in writing
chemical symbols, formulas and equations; barriers in writing
these basic elements and the ways of teaching that enhance
students’ learning of chemistry). Therefore, the data collection
tools used were to answer the specific research questions as much
The data gathered from the respondents were organized
and analyzed by the use of tables and percentages. This was
conducted in such a way that the data were tabulated in tables and
graphically indicated to illustrate more quantitatively described
for the test results which were interpreted by using T-test method
for the pre-test and post-test data. Responses gathered from
targeted students in the Attitude tests were tabulated one by one
for each item where necessary and converted in to percentages
which enabled the researcher to describe in relation to the data
collected through observation. Moreover, the responses that are
collected by the open-ended questions collected from students
specially, Attitude test questions, were organized and analyzed
in accordance with the responses gathered through close-ended
questions and classroom observations.
The researchers were implemented the proposed action
strategies by interventions to improve student’s performance
through designing student-centered approach that help easily to
avoid errors in writing the basic elements of Chemistry Language
thereby developing confidence in how easily learn chemistry
concepts. The interventions were implemented after the pretest
result analysis including other data results. Generally, the
interventions implemented step-by-step are indicated in the table
below (Table 1).
Note: Methods implemented to practice writing chemical symbols and chemical formulae were in accordance with Jordaan (2000); Bradley and Steenberg (2006); Danieli and Reid (2004); Rollnick (2000); Clark (1982); Johnstone & Kellett (1980). * Methods implemented to practice writing chemical equations were additionally used as Beek and Louters (1991).
Students were made to tick against their degree of acceptance
against each item. After collecting the baseline data we counted
the total number of students in each item against [SD-strongly
agree (4), A-Agree (3), DA- Disagree (2) and SD-Strongly disagree
(1)]. Then we have taken the percentage of each item and analyzed
it (Table 2 & Figure 1). From both Table 2 and graph 1 above more
than 79.5 % of the respondents (on average) disagreed indicating
lack of knowledge and understanding of the basic elements
of chemistry languages i.e. chemical symbols, formulae and
chemical equations except in item 5 (which is relatively odd when
compared to others, only 27.56 % of respondents showed their
disagreement). The disagreement responses were figuratively
high (more than 79 %) out of 10 (1-11) items asking their level
of knowledge assessment, the highest response of disagreement
were observed in item 11 (91.84 %) and items 9, 7, 3 and 1 (83.67
%, 82.65 %, 79.59 % and 79.59 % respectively) showing that the
students were very poor background in having knowledge and
skill in concepts of radicals, writing chemical formulae and about
balancing chemical equations which is the worst of all. The reason
that about 70 students showed agreement in item 5 is that they seem to know and have better understanding of the symbols of
the common most 20 elements of the periodic table. This is also
supported by chemistry that of all the items forwarded to the
respondents, item 5 seems the common and easiest one.
Key: - SA-Strongly Agree; A-Agree; NR-No Response; DA-Disagree; SDA-Strongly Disagree; TNR-Total Number of Respondents for each
When we come to their interest pre-test assessment to learn
about the basic elements of chemistry languages, responses were
recorded in items 12 and 13 (almost 93.88 % for both) with
highest agreement but least interest in item 15 (83.68 %) when
compared to the rest three items. This might indicate that in one
case the difficulty level of balancing chemical equations and on the
other hand, it needs various methods and investment of time to
get students’ understanding at all levels (Table 2) (Figure 1).
After intervention the researchers started collecting post
data’s. We used the same tools to collect data for the Questionnaire.
Different strategies were used considering the learning difficulties
of the students when implementing the interventions according to
the designed strategies of interventions. After our interventions
we analyzed the following data’s based on questionnaire. The
responses made by the students in each items (questionnaire)
were compared in (Table 3) (Figure 2). During pre-data collection
only less respondents have accepted (agreed) that they know the
concepts stated in each the items 1 through 11 (except item 5)
of the questionnaire. In post data collection almost the reverse
responses were recorded (in average 71.93 %). respondents for
items 1 through 7 have accepted that they can explain and apply
the knowledge they acquired by interventions as stated in each
items). Highest respondents in item 5 (85 respondents or 86.73
%) and lowest respondents in item 9 (52 respondents or 53.06
%) indicating that the difficulty level and investment time for
different level of students’ learning which is similarly interpreted for the low in number of respondents on agreement in items
11 through 8 (57 and 59 respondents or 58.17 % and 60.21 %
respectively). After implementation of intervention strategies, we
could see commendable improvement about understanding the
concept stated in each item of questionnaire which were clearly
indicated in (Figure 2).
Student’s exposure to the language of chemistry was
maximized through concept teaching. The chemical terms used
were explained in detail by applying various methodologies.
Differences between atoms, molecules and compound were made
clear. The only way student could learn Symbol and formula of
different compound was through rote learning, memorization but
background based concept analysis. Thus the above strategies
have given area to learn and improvement was seen at the same
time in our students after our interventions.
The researchers’ analysis is that the significance difference
between the mean scores in case of chemical symbol, chemical
formulae and chemical equations based on our null hypothesis in
all three cases is μ1= μ2 and the alternative hypothesis is μ1 < μ2.
At p (0.05) the t-statistic (3.35) is greater than t-critical (1.99); as
a result, the null hypothesis is rejected for the chemical symbols
i.e. there is significance difference between the post and pretest
result. Students who participated in the tutoring program,
scored statistically significantly higher (p<0.05) on the post-test
than on the pre-test in chemical symbols questions. Similarly, at
p (0.05) the t-statistic (3.6) is greater than t-critical (1.99); as a
result, the null hypothesis is rejected for the chemical formulae
i.e. there is significance difference between the post and pre-test
result. Students who participated in the tutoring program, scored
statistically significantly higher (p<0.05) on the post-test than on
the pre-test in chemical formulae questions (Table 4).
And also at p (0.05) the t-statistic (4.99) is greater than t-critical
(1.99); as a result, the null hypothesis is rejected for the chemical
equation as well i.e. there is significance difference between the
post and pre-test result. Students who participated in the tutoring
program, scored statistically significantly higher (p<0.05) on the
post-test than on the pre-test in chemical equations questions.
Both the base data and pre-data (observation) was collected
only after our interventions. First class work questions were
forwarded in the class during interventions and checking and
correcting their errors were conducted. Most of the students
were successful on matching the chemical symbols and their
word written on flip chart. However, there was still difficulties on
balancing chemical equations for most students. But convincing
improvements were observed through repeated practice
and correcting for few students. In case of writing chemical
formulae, average students shown interesting improvements
after interventions specially, for monoatomic ions. Then through
another intervention, the concepts were clear for most students
on how to write chemical formulae including for polyatomic ions.
After our overall interventions and student’s continuous practices,
there were admirable improvements in maintaining the retention
of the concepts of basic elements of chemistry languages. These
improvements were brought about by the researcher’s most
strategic interventions. When students do their work correctly
on time they were reinforced and motivated at the same time.
Sirhan  in his article pronounce the key to successful learning
of the students are through motivations. When reinforced and
motivated, students do their work on time and do it correctly [25-
Assessment through all of our tools (questionnaire, tests
and observation) indicated us that almost all of the students lack
good background on basic concepts of chemistry, especially, in
case of our target (the basic elements of chemistry languages). As
evidences shown us, our action research was successful. There
were improvements in terms of writing chemical symbols (high
achievement), writing chemical formulae (more than average) and
balancing chemical equation (average to low). The success was due
to the quality of intervention strategies implemented that were
put forward by different authors. Following were the strategies;
understanding the language of chemistry, motivation, steps and
different method in doing so Getting student exposed to language
of chemistry was the best way to enhance student understanding.
When student were taught with different chemical languages, like
differences between ions, atoms, molecules, symbol and formula
of the compound, student learn with ease. Motivation on other
hand brings students interest and participation into teaching and
learning process. Steps and methods helped student accurately
to write chemical formulae and balance chemical equations.
Additionally, action research helped us boom our professional
qualities. Moreover this gives us area to learn ourselves and bring
forth best improvement in our teaching. Research participants
are benefitted as researchers put forward best learnt strategies
in process of answering research issues. Thus, action research is
very helpful especially to benefit oneself and community at large.
a. Ensure that students’ exposure to chemical language
should be maximized.
b. Teachers should not assume that students are familiar
with chemical terms and terms should be introduced carefully
c. In the similar way of our case i.e. recommendation
has helped to the maximum and is necessary when teaching
student the skill of balancing.
d. Moreover, when teaching, students must be provided
with a glossary of symbols of different elements and formulas
of different compounds and make them to rote learn with
normal pacing to help students at all levels.
e. Teaching students clear rules and steps and making
them follow strictly is another way to enhance learning.
f. Using video clips on how to write chemical formulae (the
rules) and balancing will also enhance student’s understanding as
we take them to different mode of teaching [28-30].
At least, the students should skim it. If they know what is
going to be covered in class, they will be in a better position to
identify their troubles and ask questions that will help them to
understand the material. It is possible to learn chemistry on their
own, but if they attempt this, they are going to need some sort of
written material as a reference.
b. Work Problems
Studying problems until you understand them is not the
same as being able to work them. If you can›t work problems, you
don›t understand chemistry. It›s that simple! Start with example
problems. When you think you understand an example, cover it
up and work it on paper yourself. Once you have mastered the
examples, try other problems. This is potentially the hardest part
of chemistry, because it requires time and effort. However, this is
the best way to truly learn chemistry.
c. Do Chemistry Daily
If you want to be good at something, you have to practice it.
This is true of music, sports, video games, science, everything! If
you review chemistry every day and work problems every day,
you›ll find a rhythm that will make it easier to retain the material
and learn new concepts. Don›t wait until the weekend to review
chemistry or allow several days to pass between study sessions.
Don›t assume class time is sufficient, because it isn›t. Make time to
practice chemistry outside of class.
Finally, it is obvious that students are introduced to formal
science and science concepts after they joined Colleges. Hence, it
would be easy for them to learn things starting from what they
know previously. This is preferred especially in the case where
names of elements and compounds with vast properties are
chunked to one or more symbols of letters which remain mystery
knowing properties underlying. In this case students associating
the concepts to ideas in their own language could be helpful