Discipline-based educational research takes the principles of psychology and applies them to specific disciplines to investigate how individuals learn the concepts and skills of that particular discipline. This includes STEM fields such as chemistry, physics, and mathematics, as well as arts and humanities fields such as history. The field of chemistry education research (CER) is focused on how students understand chemistry, identifying the struggles they face when learning chemistry, and trying to improve instruction to make chemistry more accessible.
The main problem that learners of chemistry face is the intangible nature of the discipline. Chemistry focuses on the interactions of atoms and molecules too small to see with the naked eye, and as such, students have no real-world experience with these phenomena. Alex Johnstone suggests that chemistry is difficult to learn because it must be understood on three levels; the submicroscopic (or particulate) level of atoms and molecules, the macroscopic level of everyday phenomena that can actually be observed, and the symbolic level of equations and representations that we use to convey these ideas to one another. Expert chemists can seamlessly integrate these three levels, but novice students struggle to make these connections. Specifically, we frequently find students who are mathematically capable can achieve success in chemistry without ever understanding the concepts, because they are able to use algorithms and heuristics to solve problems without ever connecting their mathematical understanding to its particulate-level causes or real-world macroscopic effects. To combat this, researchers suggested incorporating particulate level diagrams into instruction to help students visualize this submicroscopic level more concretely. This has led to a boom in the use of visualizations in chemistry, including not only static images but also animations and simulations to help improve instruction and students' conceptual understanding.