First Advisor

Jack Barbera

Term of Graduation

January 2023

Date of Publication


Document Type





Chemistry Education, Cognitive Engagement

Physical Description

1 online resource ( pages)


As educators, our goal is to help our students be successful, but in order to accomplish this, we need to understand what factors contribute to student success. One factor, small-group active learning, has been correlated to improved academic outcomes; however, the magnitude of this improvement can vary across different courses, different types of group work, and even across courses that use the same group work structure. Therefore, it is important to understand what aspects of group work contribute to its effectiveness. The work presented in this dissertation investigated one specific aspect: students’ cognitive engagement. This was done by analyzing the discourse that occurred between students during group work. Analysis of the engagement of the group as a whole in General Chemistry suggested some misalignment between how students were expected to engage with activity worksheets and how they actually engaged. Thematic analysis was then used to identify sources of the observed misalignment. The results suggested three themes: 1) model use, where students did not use the models provided in the activity or used them in an incomplete manner; 2) unfamiliar vocabulary, where students engaged at higher modes to understand new scientific terms; and 3) molecular representations, where students struggled to move between different representations of molecules. Engagement of each individual student within the groups was also analyzed. Results showed trends in engagement related to group size, when the activities were administered during the term, and the type of question being asked during an activity. Students showed higher modes of engagement when groups were small or when students in larger groups worked together in smaller subsets. They also showed higher modes of engagement as well as less variation in engagement during the second half of the term. In addition, questions which required students to perform calculations had higher modes of engagement than questions that were more conceptual in nature. Analysis of student group conversations also provided insight into how the activity structure can affect student learning. Using cognitive load theory and the principles of scaffolding, activity worksheets in a Physical Chemistry class were redesigned to break down complex concepts into simpler questions and thereby reduce cognitive overload. Analysis of group conversations and both student and instructor interviews indicated that the redesigned worksheets with scaffolded questions were successful in reducing student struggle and improving student understanding.


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Available for download on Saturday, February 01, 2025