All Students Can Learn Chemistry

Teaching Students of Different Abilities—Differentiation

All students should learn the core ideas and concepts in chemistry. That way, they will develop an understanding of the material world around them while learning to question what’s happening in their surroundings.

Teachers should have high expectations for every student, at every level, from physical science to Advanced Placement Chemistry.

To meet the needs of all students, chemistry teachers should present information in multiple ways, using alternatives to engage everyone including those with varying physical and cognitive abilities as well as limited English language proficiency. Students should be given options for demonstrating their understanding; Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can be a resource for possible approaches. Teachers may also benefit from consulting the publication Teaching Chemistry to Students with Disabilities (PDF).

Technology can also be a tool to assist with varying lessons, as demonstrated by the Center for Applied Special Technology.

To provide learning opportunities using multiple means, teachers can share information visually and orally, or use symbols and words. Chemistry teachers have a distinct advantage because of the demonstrable nature of the subject; if a student doesn’t buy into a phenomenon, a demonstration or investigation can satisfy the student’s curiosity. All students benefit when teachers simultaneously display and name the apparatus to use, the chemical being discussed, the safety practice to follow, or a problem-solving strategy to implement.

Chemistry teachers can make chemistry personally and culturally relevant to a diverse student population by using regional or international examples. For example, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was featured on national news starting in 2014. Teachers can use that news story to emphasize how chemistry affects communities in real life and examine how chemistry impacted that community.

Many students will seek opportunities beyond a first-year chemistry course while in high school. To meet the needs of these students, science departments should consider offering Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) chemistry courses. These third-party organizations (the College Board and IB) offer extensive syllabi for advanced high school chemistry, and they also provide opportunities for professional development for teachers (see the Professional Development section for other opportunities).

Teachers can help students pursue their chemistry interest by connecting them with summer research opportunities, which are offered by many universities and government research labs. ACS ChemClubs is another program that can enrich learners. (See other options in the Extracurricular section.)

Above all, teachers of chemistry should offer students of all abilities and interests an avenue to expand their knowledge, experience, and appreciation of chemistry.

Students who use sign language may have idioms that can make a concept more memorable, and students with limited mobility may need a more efficient way of conducting a lab procedure.

English Language Learners (ELLs)

Common English words such as believe, claim, or consider can be problematic for nonnative speakers. However, some vocabulary in chemistry has Latin origins, so students who speak Spanish or other Latin-based languages may easily relate to these terms. ELLs may also struggle with prepositions, idiomatic expressions, and words having multiple meanings (e.g., mole, set, model, or right).

Students or teachers may produce visual representations of important words to ensure all students properly comprehend the concept. Breaking down words may be a helpful way to make vocabulary more meaningful to all students, not just ELLs.

When learning chemical symbols, students can be challenged to determine which country was named for silver (Argentina, from the Latin argentum). Breaking down words is a useful tool: Exothermic – diagram the word showing exo = out, therm = heat

Model-based assessment frequently provides equal access to demonstrating content knowledge. The creative diagramming aspect of the model means that ELL students, and others, can demonstrate their understanding without worrying about vocabulary, and it simultaneously allows students to demonstrate a true conceptual understanding, not just memorization of vocabulary.

Chemistry for All Students

Teachers need to understand and build on the cultural resources (knowledge, interests, and experiences) that students bring to the practice of scientific argumentation. This can increase their engagement and inclusion, especially for students from nondominant communities.

Selecting culturally relevant phenomena helps engage all learners. To support the diverse cultural and economic backgrounds of students, culturally strong lessons are instrumental in the classroom. Consider adopting the 12 key elements[x] in effective teaching for ethnic and language minority students.

Help Students See Themselves in Science

Chemists and chemistry professionals are as diverse as the elements on the periodic table. ACS has a statement on diversity that speaks to how accepting a diverse community is beneficial, and it includes resources ACS offers to promote and support a diverse community. In the classroom, teaching that the chemistry field is open to all people might include showcasing leaders and highlighting biographies of individuals who contributed to and are currently pioneering the field of chemistry. In addition to the ones mentioned in the ACS diversity statement, other resources that teachers can rely on to support and promote diversity include:

By no means is this an exhaustive list, but these resources may be good starting points that instructors can reference.  

ACS Guidelines and Recommendations
for Teaching Middle and High School Chemistry

An essential resource for middle and high school physical science and chemistry teachers, curriculum developers, principals, and other school administrators who support teachers in those roles.

Learn about the nature of instruction, the core ideas to teach, the physical instructional environment, safety, sustainability, and the professional responsibilities of teachers.