Williamson, researchers eying students’
perceptions of chemistry visualizations


Dr. Kenneth Williamson III, associate professor and associate head in the Department of Construction Science at Texas A&M, is co-principal investigator with his wife, Dr. Vickie M. Bentley-Williamson, senior lecturer in chemistry at Texas A&M, who is principal investigator, in a National Science Foundation-funded study to determine how individual differences among students might influence the effectiveness of visualizations for learning perceptually difficult concepts.

They’re working with researchers from Northwestern University, Tufts University, and the University of New Brunswick on the three-year, $684,005 project, “Students’ Attempts at Understanding the Unobservable:  A Multi-Method Approach to Visualization Analysis and Design.”

“Faculty create videos and animations and use software that try to demonstrate concepts to students,” said Williamson, a Windsor Endowed Professor. “We make an assumption that what we’ve done is really enhancing their learning, and it’s not necessarily true. In this study, were going to see if students are really learning what we want them to learn, and what we can do to these animations to get students to look at the right places.”

In a series of experiments involving undergraduates at the four institutions, investigators will compare high-performing and low-performing students’ moment-by-moment processing and comprehension of animated models, with an emphasis on chemistry visualizations.

“Things occur at the particulate level of chemistry you can’t really observe, but the concepts and contents have to be understood,” Williamson said. It’s an issue that has emerged as central to effective teaching and student learning in chemistry.

Researchers will use tracking technology to record the movement of students’ eyes across multiple visualizations, to see where they’re turning their attention to and if they’re looking at things that are important, he continued.

“Is it that high performers are looking differently than low performers? Are low performers’ eyes just going nuts on the screen, not knowing what they’re looking at, or does the animation and visualization target their perspective where they’re quickly attuned to what they’re supposed to be learning?” are some of the questions, Williamson said the research team is looking to answer.

Researchers will also be collecting data prior to the visual investigation, using cognitive tests such as the Tobin & Capie Test of Logical Thinking, which evaluates five reasoning abilities that have relevance to the teaching of science and physics.

Williamson, who has extensive experience with online instrumentation, data collection and web servers, will write instrument code, design database architecture, and manage the project’s Internet server.

Familiar with the implementation of web-based evaluations and data management through his own research, he will coordinate the project’s online data collection, data-based design, and construct codes for on-line test administration.

Williamson earned a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma in 1994 in educational psychology and joined the Aggie faculty in 1997.


- Posted: Oct. 5, 2009 -

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Kenneth Williamson III

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