Like many schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we run a three-year GCSE in Science course, but it is a difficult step for many students from middle school education. At the beginning of the course, students need to gain fluency in atomic structure, relating it to the periodic table, isotopes, and ions. Some students enjoy this. They detect trends and patterns quickly and show rapid development. For others, it’s a real struggle. This can have a significant impact on subsequent learning due to the lack of time in course delivery. Students who are capable of a high level of chemistry soon end up on the foundation level track.
Our usual strategy to improve the understanding of these students is through low-risk tests and guided practice. However, some students simply do not show improvement. They began to develop an attitude of “I can’t do chemistry,” which could make the next two and a half years a struggle for them and their teachers. I wanted to see if we could improve their understanding and recognition of ions, and remove rating anxiety triggers through gameplay.
Can students demonstrate the same metacognitive approaches to learning about ions and ionic bonding?
In education, terminology often evolves and changes. Game-based learning is not the same as gamification. The latter brings gameplay strategies into the lessons, for example through the use of a game-based learning platform such as Kahoot! Typically, these strategies are in place to improve engagement, while game-based learning seeks to improve conceptual learning through playing games.
When you pick up a deck of playing cards, you immediately know what to expect and start planning your strategies for winning the current game. As you play cards, you can monitor your progress, adapt your strategy and possibly take risks. These metacognitive processes are key to your success. Can students demonstrate the same metacognitive approaches to learning about ions and ionic bonding?
how to play
I have designed a set of anions and cations that students will encounter during their GCSE course. Together with other teachers at my school, we critically experimented with the group, thinking about what students would need to develop more fluency with the challenging concept of ions. We distilled this to include electron configurations, raster and cross plots, covalent line plots and symbolic representations, for example Mg2+. The idea was to present several different representations of the same type to allow students to correctly identify the ions and develop a deeper understanding of what each representation means.
Download your free deck from Origami Organelles. I would recommend a group of every four students.
Then we thought about the games that would be recognizable and simple. Students won’t have to invest a lot of working memory in the rules through easy and familiar games, giving space to think about cards and strategies.
In the end we decided:
- snap – to encourage recognition of different representations of the same species.
- Gin – to develop fluency in making ionic compounds with a balanced charge.
- Gin Naming – To improve students’ naming of compounds.
- Eliminate the Djinn – To develop strategy and metacognitive processes where no other student can operate the ‘enchanted’ vehicles.
Both of these games are quick to play. This was a major result because we wanted something that could be used at the beginning or end of a 10-15 minute lesson to help manage our time effectively.
Students were developing language fluency and models that are an integral part of chemistry
After the initial surface experiment, we were able to see how the ion distribution was developed to allow for hard play. For example, when running snap there was still little possibility of type matching, but electronic configuration matching was easy. However, the latter requires a lot of thought from the players. It would have been easy to focus only on the ions formed by Groups I, II, III, VI, and VII, but this would have ignored a key aspect of ionic compound composition that students encounter in GCSE – acids. This raised another issue, how we should represent, for example, the sulfate ion in a way that is easy to understand. We have simplified the cards for transition metals and larger types where the rule of eights does not apply.
Everyone is a winner
It was amazing seeing the students completely immersed in each of the games, and they are really excited to play. The intervention had a positive effect on students paying for the higher-level paper, with a significant improvement in their structure and relatedness assessments compared to previous cohorts, along with a more positive attitude towards chemistry. By playing these games regularly, they were developing fluency in the language and paradigms that are integral to chemistry and beginning their GCSE course, helping them engage in more theory in later lessons. Another useful thing about the deck is that we were able to use the cards under the illustrator to do the ion retrieval exercise.
Undertaking this action research project has had a huge impact on my students and myself. The investment of time to enhance students’ understanding of ions and compounds was well worth it. Some of the results are similar to the Mathematics Proficiency Curriculum, which describes that every student can learn mathematics if given enough time. Each student may be able to learn chemistry if given enough time as well, with mastery of certain concepts being key to future progress.
Thanks to the RSC Chemical Education Research Group (CERG) for supporting the project through a teacher and researcher fellowship.