Context-based Chemistry: Benefits and Challenges

Traditional approaches to chemistry education generally focus on communicating conceptual knowledge, problem-solving, and understanding abstract concepts. These concentrations are crucial aspects of chemistry learning, but they tend to leave topics disconnected from meaningful applications. Context-based chemistry, on the other hand, is a method of situating chemistry learning in real-world scenarios. In a context-based approach, chemistry concepts are grounded in purposeful applications that encourage students to continue in chemistry learning.1

Context-based chemistry comes in familiar forms like project-based science (PBS), problem-based learning (PBL), and science-technology-society (STS). Although each approach is slightly different, meaningful learning is always at the core. Each method situates chemistry topics inside of realistic scenarios. In this way, students see how the chemistry they are learning serves to understand and solve problems in the world around them.1

In context-based chemistry, topics are introduced on a "need-to-know" basis; concepts are only presented as needed to solve a problem or examine the real-world application. Traditional chemistry education models, on the other hand, tend to explore topics in sequence. The ladder metaphor (climbers) represents a more conventional approach to chemistry learning where students "climb" their way through related topics (figure 1). The traditional method's problem is that many students don't see how topics connect with one another or with real-world applications. The "clumpers" model (context-based), on the other hand, connects many different topics in a web surrounding a central theme.2


Benefits of Context-Based Chemistry


Context-based chemistry units tend to connect the science to students' everyday lives. For example, in an Industrial Chemistry project, grade 12 high school students learned through case studies exploring topics through industrial chemistry applications.3 Case studies are good examples of context-based learning because they involve real-world and perplexing situations that force students to work collaboratively and make decisions. In general, an instructor guides the students through a problem where a variety of solutions are possible. Research suggests that students had a much higher awareness of their learning's relevance and social implications than another group of students who do not learn through case studies. 3,4


Students tend to have a more positive attitude towards chemistry in a context-based course; however, their feelings seem to depend on their instructor's influence and the quality of the course. For instance, some students expressed negative feelings towards a context-based undergraduate chemistry class, but the negativity seems to be influenced by the attitudes of their Graduate Student Instructors.5 In that same course, students expressed displeasure with errors in the curriculum material; however, their attitudes significantly improved when taught a more refined version of the course the following year. So, to encourage positive student feelings relating to context-based learning, high-quality course material and instructor training are recommended.

Deeper Understanding

Although students in some context-based chemistry courses demonstrated a greater understanding of concepts than students in traditional chemistry courses,6 most assessments show little difference in students' knowledge.5,7 Though students may not develop a deeper understanding of topics in a context-based course; their knowledge is not disadvantaged in any way. Since students' attitudes and motivation are improved compared to those in a traditional course, context-based courses are preferable even if understanding is not necessarily enhanced.1


Challenges of Context-Based Chemistry

Student Transfer of Learning

Regardless of the method of instruction, students constantly struggle to transfer their knowledge of chemical concepts to situations outside the context they were learned. Chemistry topics are abstract and difficult for novice learners to apply to unpredictable situations. Knowledge transfer and other higher-order thinking skills are likely connected to student maturity and more time studying a subject rather than the method of instruction.8


Context-based chemistry courses tend to vary depending on the instructor since topics are more variable when taught inside of a context. As a result, school districts that use standardized tests make it difficult to teach a context-based course because individual instructors may not emphasize essential concepts in the same way. Context-based chemistry seems to work best when teachers are free to choose their forms of assessment; however, this will result in little congruence among courses at different schools or with other instructors.9

Context-based chemistry courses motivate students to continue in chemistry education, improve attitudes towards chemistry, and help relate topics to real-world situations. At the same time, context-based courses can be challenging to assess and may not help students transfer their knowledge to other conditions. Arguably though, the advantages outweigh the challenges, and at least some level of context-based instruction is worth introducing in more traditional courses. A society-based unit is a great way to introduce a real-world community issue and apply teacher-guided inquiry activities where content is taught on a need-to-know basis. If anything, student interest and motivation will improve, maybe even inspiring a new generation of chemists.



  1. King, D. (2012). New perspectives on context-based chemistry education: Using a dialectical sociocultural approach to view teaching and learning. Studies in Science Education, 48(1), 51-87.
  2. Schwartz, A. T. (2006). Contextualized chemistry education: The American experience. International Journal of Science Education, 28(9), 977-998.
  3. Hofstein, A., & Kesner, M. (2006). Industrial chemistry and school chemistry: Making chemistry studies more relevant. International Journal of Science Education, 28(9), 1017-1039.
  4. Lantz, J. M., & Walczak, M. M. (2004). Well Wishes. A Case on Septic Systems and Well Water Requiring In-Depth Analysis and Including Optional Laboratory Experiments. Journal of Chemical Education, 81(2), 218.
  5. Gutwill-Wise, J. P. (2001). The impact of active and context-based learning in introductory chemistry courses: An early evaluation of the modular approach. Journal of Chemical Education, 78(5), 684.
  6. Saleh, I. M. (2009). Science Education: Traditional versus Inquiry-Based Approach Debate. In Fostering Scientific Habits of Mind (pp. 207-234). Brill Sense.
  7. Smith, L. A., & Bitner, B. L. (1993). Comparison of Formal Operations: Students Enrolled in ChemCom versus a Traditional Chemistry Course.
  8. King, D., Bellocchi, A., & Ritchie, S. M. (2008). Making connections: Learning and teaching chemistry in context. Research in Science Education, 38(3), 365-384.
  9. Beasley, W., & Butler, J. (2002). Teacher leadership in science education reform: Learning from Australian-led best practice in the Philippines. Australian Science Teachers Journal, 48(4), 36.