Overview of Chemical Education Research (CER)

As identified by the NRC Report on Discipline-Based Education Research (NRC, 2012), “the goals of DBER are to:

  • understand how people learn the concepts, practices, and ways of thinking of science and engineering;
  • understand the nature and development of expertise in a discipline;
  • help identify and measure appropriate learning objectives and instructional approaches that advance students toward those objectives;
  • contribute to the knowledge base in a way that can guide the translation of DBER findings to classroom practice; and
  • identify approaches to make science and engineering education broad and inclusive.”

Chemistry education research (CER)-specific area of Discipline-based education research (DBER).

A brief history of the development of chemistry education research as a discipline can be found in the NRC report (NRC, 2012) and a white paper by George Bodner (Bodner, 2011). The first doctoral programs in chemistry departments that awarded Ph.D. degrees for CER arose in the 1990s at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Northern Colorado, and Purdue University. The first Ph.D. in CER was awarded in 1993, with the first postdoctoral appointment in 1994. The Chemistry Education Research Committee itself was established by the ACS Division of Chemical Education in 1994.

The definition of what constitutes chemistry education research was addressed in several articles in the Journal of Chemical Education. Patricia Metz (Metz, 1994) provided an overview of “What is Chemistry Education Research?” in a special issue of the journal dedicated to research in chemical education. Later that same year, the report of an ACS Division of Chemical Education Taskforce was published (Bunce et al., 1994). This Task Force on Chemical Education Research was appointed with the task of drafting a document that defined chemistry education research. A further description was published a few years later when the CER feature was added to JCE (Bunce & Robinson, 1997). Part of the mission statement for the feature provided guidelines for the content in submissions.

This feature aims to provide reliable and valid reports of chemical education research that address how students learn, the factors affecting learning, and the methods for evaluating that learning. The results reported should be understandable to practicing chemistry teachers and directly applicable to the teaching/learning process. … the research must be theory based; the questions asked should relevant to chemical educators and able to be tested through the experimental design proposed; the data collected must be verifiable; and the results must be generalizable.

The issue of what constitutes quality work in CER has been addressed more recently by Taber (Taber, 2012). Additionally, resources such as the book the Nuts and Bolts of Chemical Education Research (Bunce & Cole, 2007) are now available to provide guidance to individuals wishing to learn more about conducting research in chemistry education.

The roots of CER can be found in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) and the desire to improve classroom practice. The Journal of Chemical Educationwas established in 1924 to serve as a living textbook and a means to disseminate best practices for teaching chemistry, while the Chemical Education Research Feature did not appear until 1997. The scholarship of teaching and learning emphasizes reflective practice and the use of classroom-based evidence to inform teaching. The boundaries between SoTL and CER are blurry, but a paper by Bob Beichner (Beichner, 2009) in physics education research (PER) provides an informative description that should also serve to inform the CER community of the difference between physics education research and curriculum development or SoTL projects. Keith Taber, the current editor of Chemistry Education Research and Practice, wrote an editorial in which he describes his perspective of the breath of the field ranging from SoTL to CER (Taber, 2012). This transition from practice to CER is also reflected in the history of the Gordon Research Conference in chemical education (Towns, 2010). It began in 1994 with the title “Innovations in College Chemistry Teaching” with a focus on the perspectives and challenges of teaching undergraduate chemistry courses. Over time, the conference evolved to include more presentations on research-based approaches. The name was changed in 2002 to “Chemistry Education Research and Practice” in order to reflect the changing nature of the conference.

There have been several reviews of the work that has been done in CER, including the challenges and implications of that work (Herron & Nurrenbern, 1999; Gilbert et al., 2004; Bodner, 2011; Towns & Kraft, 2011). In their 2004 article, Gilbert et al. summarize the status of chemistry education research at that time and identify 6 types of chemistry education research. They also explore reasons for the lack of impact of CER on the practice of teaching chemistry.

Challenges related to hiring and promotion for academic positions in chemistry education research have been described in a report of the Task Force on Hiring and Promotion in Chemical Education appointed by the ACS Division of Chemical Education (Oliver-Hoyo et al., 2008). The goal of the task force was to provide guidance for departments seeking to hire faculty in the area of chemical education and for individuals wishing to establish academic careers in chemical education. One of the challenges identified in obtaining tenure in CER has been related to departmental expectations related to publications. This led to articles that describe the rate of publication in CER compared to more traditional areas of chemistry education research (Pienta, 2004; Craig et al., 2012) as well as one that discussion impact factors and perceptions of the community as to what constitutes top tier journals for publishing work in CER (Towns & Kraft, 2012).


Bodner, G. (2011). Statuscontributionsand future directions of discipline based education research: The development of research in chemical education as a field of study. Paperpresented at the Second Committee Meeting on the Status, Contributions, and FutureDirections of Discipline-Based Education Research. http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bose/DBER_Bodner_October_Paper.pdf.

Bunce, D.; Gabel, D.; Herron, J.D.; and Jones, L. “Report of the Task Force on Chemical Education Research of the American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Education,” JCE, 1994, 71(10), p 850

Bunce, D.M. and Robinson, W.R. “Research in chemical education – the third brand of our profession,” JCE, 1997, 74(9), p1076

Nuts and Bolts of Chemical Education Research (ACS Symposium Series), Editors: Diane M. Bunce and Renee S. Cole, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Craig, A.F.; Koch, D.L.; Buffington, A.; and Grove, N. “Narrowing the Gap? Revisiting Publication Rates in chemistry Education” JCE (Articles ASAP)

Gilbert, J.K.; Justi, R.; Van Driel, J.H.; de Jong, O.; and Treagust, D.F., “Securing a future for chemical education,” CERP, 2004, 5, 5-14

Herron, J.D. and Nurrenbern, S.C., “Chemical Education Research: Improving chemistry learning,” JCE, 1999, 76(10), p. 1353

Metz, P.A., “Introduction to the Symposium,” JCE, 1994, 71(3), p 180

(NRC 2012) Committee on the Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research; Board on Science Education; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council (2012). Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, The National Academies Press. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13362

Oliver-Hoyo, M.T.; Jones, J.L.; Kelter, P.B.; Bauer, C. F.; Clevenger, J.V.; Cole, R.S.; and Sawrey, B.A., “Hiring and Promotion in Chemical Education,” JCE, 2008, 85(7), 898.

Pienta, N.J. “Measuring Productivity in College-level chemistry education scholarship” JCE, 2004, 81(4), p 579-583.

Taber, K.S., “Recognizing quality in reports of chemistry education research and practice,” CERP, 2012, 13, 4-7.

Taber, K.S. “The nature and scope of chemistry education as a field,” CERP, 2012, 13, 159-160

Towns, Marcy “A Brief History of the Gordon Research Conference in Chemistry Education Research and Practice” JCE 2010, 87(11), 1133-1134.

Towns, M., and Kraft, A. (2011). Review and synthesis of research in chemical education from 2000-2010. Paper presented at the Second Committee Meeting on the Status,Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research. http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bose/DBER_Towns_October_Paper.pdf.

Towns, M.H. & Kraft, A. “The 2010 rankings of chemical education and science education journals by faculty engaged in chemical education research” JCE, 2012, 89(1), pp 16-20.