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Impact of a simulation on student understanding of acids and bases


Nathan Turner, South Dakota State University Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry
Tanya Gupta*, South Dakota State University Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry
Shanize Forte, D. G. Ruparel College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Sanjay Chandrasekharan, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India


Simulations have been found to be effective tools to aid student understanding and improve conceptual connections in several topics in chemistry. Most studies on the use of simulations have student participants from a single institution from a country who are taking high school chemistry or are enrolled in a college chemistry course. This study on the impact of a simulation on student understanding of acids and bases involved student participants from India and USA. Participants in this study had years of chemistry experience and had completed both general and organic chemistry courses at the college level that involved traditional lecture-based instruction and laboratory experiences. The qualitative study included a survey of student attitudes and interview of students pre- and post-simulation instruction on acids and bases. PhET simulation on acids and bases was used for simulation-based instruction. Results indicate that simulation-based instruction improves student understanding of acids and bases. This study also highlights the need for long-term sustained exposure to simulations to address student misconceptions on topics like acids and bases or other fundamental ideas that students find challenging.



An in-depth understanding of chemistry requires that students understand several fundamental concepts. It also requires students to (a) be able to see the relationships between various concepts, b) have an ability to connect one or more concepts and c) apply a coherent, constructive, relational understanding to further make sense of the ideas presented in specific subdiscipline for example inorganic or organic chemistry or in the interdisciplinary areas such as biology or biochemistry.  Among several concepts covered in the first-year college-chemistry courses, acid-base chemistry is considered to be a foundational concept (1-3). Acid base chemistry is important to understand and explain the structure and behavior of molecules. Despite the importance of acid-base chemistry, students in college chemistry courses struggle with understanding and representation of acids and bases. This paper is focused on the student-conceptions of acid-base chemistry.
There have been detailed studies in chemistry education literature on how students develop their understanding of acid base concepts. Some studies have also shown that students have identifiable misconceptions in acid base chemistry. Part of the development of these misconceptions comes from student prior experiences and inadequate instruction on the topic (4-5).

Students also struggle with understanding how to connect the microscopic, macroscopic and symbolic representations of concepts in chemistry. A major part of instruction in acid base chemistry revolves around translating microscopic concepts, such as ionization and dissociation, to macroscopic concepts. It is difficult for students to envision properties of ionization and/ dissociation in aqueous (or other) media and to apply these behaviors to make sense of the real-world examples such as the functioning of batteries and the phenomena of corrosion. Students struggle to apply and subsequently transfer their understanding to explain a concept or solve advanced conceptual problems due to gaps in their understanding. The ability to draw connections between microscopic, macroscopic and symbolic representations is limited and rote memorization and definitions do not really help for building connections among concepts (6,7).

Specially, when students have misconceptions in their mental models or representations, they are more likely to retain this misconceptions or incorrect conception concerning the content. To address this, researchers have conducted studies to understand how students develop mental models in acid base chemistry and how to improve them (8,9). Early interventions on poorly formed mental models as well as the encouragement of alternative conceptions has shown to marginally improve student’s awareness of misconceptions but have shown little improvement in removing these misconceptions (10)

Visualization tools such as simulations have shown promise in impacting student understanding in chemistry. The use of interactive simulations in chemistry has seen a rapid surge in the past few years. Simulations are digital environments that allow users to interact with models of various concepts and processes. A simulation uses a mathematical or a logical model to illustrate real world phenomenon with a goal of providing opportunity to students to understand the underlying concept or scientific model (11, 12).

Prior researchers have found simulations to be effective in helping students visualize motion of particles, and in improving problem solving and thinking skills by complementing the sensory experiences of learners. Simulations been found effective in engaging students, improving academic performance, and to an extent student’s representational competence. Simulations allows students to explore phenomena and their representations while manipulating variables. Simulations provide a certain degree of control to learners through their interactive features such as play and pause buttons, adjusting variables such as mass, volume etc. using buttons and sliders, and stop, review, and exit functions (13-21).  

For example, a study by Moore et. al. demonstrated the impact of simulation-based learning on student understanding of molecular polarity (22). The students participating in the study found that engaging in the simulation helped provide a clearer understanding of molecular polarity because of the representation of electronegativity in the simulation. By being able to engage with and manipulate variables presented in a simulated model, students are able to make some connections and translations between the microscopic and macroscopic representations of a concept or a process.

Despite all of these benefits, there are few studies in which simulations are used for the instruction of acid-base chemistry (23-25). With the success seen in other areas of literature the lack of evidence on the impact of simulations on student understanding of acids and bases specifically from students from two unrelated institutions with substantial background in chemistry was also noticed.  The study reported in this paper was conducted to address if simulations can aid student conceptual understanding and their representation of acids and bases specifically for students who have completed general and organic chemistry courses in college. Further, most studies involve students from a single institution or institutions within the same region or country (26-30). In this study student participants were from an institution in USA and India. Following research questions were addressed in this study focused on SBL of acid-base chemistry.

·      Does simulations-based learning impact student conceptual understanding of acids-and bases?

·      Do simulations impact student representations of the aqueous solutions of acids and bases?

Qualitative research methods involving surveys and qualitative interviews were used to answer the research questions. Semi-structured interviews and survey data was collected pre- and post-simulation. Data from the interviews was coded for thematic analysis and survey was analyzed to see the patterns in student understanding of acids and bases.

About study participant’s and demographics:

Demographic surveys were taken of each student to better understand their background in chemistry. Among those who participated 37% were third year students, 37% were fourth year students and 15% where graduate students. All of the students participating in the study were either pursing or had completed a degree program in natural sciences, and had also completed general and organic chemistry courses at their respective institutions.

The study participants were recruited from two completely different institutions from different countries. The participants were purposefully sampled based on a similar background and years of experience of learning chemistry. Participating students were selected from a mid-sized institution in Western India. Participants from USA were from a mid-sized upper midwestern institution. There were 10 students recruited to participate in this study from both the institutions to have equal representation from the Indian and US counterpart (total N=20). Students from the Indian institution had about 6 years of school chemistry courses (2 years of basic middle school and 4 years of high school) and further 2-3 years of college chemistry. Students from the US-based institution had at least two years of high school chemistry and 3 years of college credits in chemistry (including general, organic chemistry).

Students in the US institution were all enrolled in pre-medical preparation course and met weekly with their instructor to prepare for MCATs specifically for chemistry portion of the MCAT.  Though the student participants in this study were from completely unrelated institutions in all respects, both groups had only experienced traditional instruction in chemistry courses and had no exposure to simulation-based learning. Further, students had learned about acid-base chemistry in their high school and college years and this was important to establish a baseline for student prior knowledge during the qualitative data collected via interviews. Data collection is discussed in the following section.

Data collection and analysis:

At the beginning of the study, students’ where given a demographic survey and ASCI (31)to assess their attitudes towards the subject of chemistry (ASCI is Attitude towards the subject of chemistry inventory). The purpose of using the ASCI was to gather information about students’ general attitudes about the subject of chemistry prior to their experience with the simulation hence the ACSI survey was conducted only once for each participant.

The ASCI is a semantic differential where students position themselves on a seven-point Likert scale between two polar objectives in reference to how they feel about “chemistry” which measures their attitude for the subject. In ASCI, the adjectives and choices are placed on the same line. To avoid a bias and to help respondents to think carefully, some adjective pairs are categorized with the “positive” adjective on the left and some on the right side of the line.  Inventory adjectives are positioned at the end of each line, and the word “middle” is labelled above the number 4. Inventory instructions are brief and understandable for students to complete the survey within a few minutes.

The ASCI survey has 20 items that relate to five factors of Interest and Utility, Anxiety, and Intellectual accessibility, Fear and Emotional Satisfaction to measure student attitudes. In order to evaluate the interest and utility, the adjective pairs in survey include worthwhile-useless, worthless-beneficial, good-bad, interesting-dull, and exciting-boring. For measuring the anxiety, the adjective pairs of tense-relaxed, work-play, scary-fun, insecure-secure, and disgusting-attractive are used. The adjective pairs for intellectual accessibility are complicated-simple, confusing-clear, easy-hard, challenging-unchallenging, and comprehensive-incomprehensible. For fear of the subject safe-dangerous are used as the adjective pairs and the adjective pairs for emotional satisfaction are pleasant-unpleasant, comfortable-uncomfortable, chaotic-organized, and satisfying-frustrating. All survey results were calculated and averaged using the methodology reported in the literature on ASCI. Assessing student attitudes provided greater clarity on how students viewed the subject of chemistry based on the years of chemistry they had in high school and college.

Qualitative Interviews

After completing the ASCI, students participated in the pre-simulation interview during the first meeting. These interviews were about 30-45 minutes long during which students answered specific questions about their understanding of acids and bases. Students were also asked a set of specific questions concerning their previous experience in chemistry, their confidence with chemistry, and specific content questions on acid-base chemistry. The content questions for acid-base chemistry where narrowed to information covered in an introductory chemistry course; acid-base definition (Arrhenius, Bronsted-Lowry, Lewis), pH calculation, physical properties, and chemical properties. During the interview the students were also asked to draw their models of acids and basis and explain what would happen when an a strong and a weak acid/base is added to water.  Further, students were allowed to select their own examples of acids and bases to draw and explain their representation of a acids and bases.

After the interview the participants were introduced to the PhET simulations on acids and bases. They were provided the tutorial, following which each participant was instructed on acid-base chemistry using the simulation. The participants used simulation in a guided-manner and explored various components of the simulation during the instruction. The instruction using the simulation lasted from 2-3 hours.

The PhET simulation software used for this study on simulation-based instruction was developed by the PhET group at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The simulation allowed students to observe solutions containing either acids or bases with pH strips, pH indicators and electrodes attached to a light bulb as seen in Figure 1. PhET simulations showed substantial promise as the simulation to be used in the study because of its convenience and simplicity to integrate it during one-to-one interactions with students to instruct them on acid-base chemistry via the simulation.

Figure 1. PhET acid-base simulation


After receiving the instruction students were for invited for a second round of interviews a week later (post-simulation) and similar sets of questions focused on acid and bases were asked as were during the pre-interview. Students were also asked questions regarding their experience with the simulation for learning about acids and bases. During the post-interview students were again asked to draw their model of acids and bases in order to evaluate shifts in student understanding of the concepts.

The pre- and post-simulation interview data was transcribed, read and coded. Several codes were developed based on the initial readings of the transcripts and iterative analysis. These codes were finally reduced to 29 codes that were used during the analysis of qualitative interview data. The code definitions are provided in Appendix 1. These codes were used for coding student-responses during the pre- and post-interviews following the simulation-based instruction.

To ascertain interrater agreement, 12 anonymized transcripts that included both pre- and post-interviews from the student participants were provided to an expert researcher with the list of codes. Codes list including code definitions are presented in the Appendix 1. All student identities were removed for these transcripts. The researchers met with each other over a period of 6 weeks to discuss the qualitative coding for the 12 transcripts and also to establish the degree of agreement and consistency of the coding process. Based on the coding by the two researchers the interrater agreement was found to be 90% which is considerably strong for a qualitative study. Also, the student-drawn pre- and post-simulation models were coded and compared to textbook models of acids and bases.

Results and Discussion

In this study on the impact of the simulation-based learning on student understanding three tools were used were used for data collection: general student survey for demographic information, ASCI, and pre- and post-qualitative interviews. The ASCI survey data was analyzed in order to determine student attitude for chemistry. The scale on the horizontal axis of figure 2 is based on the scaling as described in the Bauer study for the analysis of ASCI (31).


Figure 2. Averages of student responses to ASCI

Based on student response to the survey, for interest and utility, the students favored more positive descriptions of chemistry (i.e., worthwhile, interesting, exciting) compared to other sections of the survey. This can be indicative of the students having a more positive outlook on the applications of chemistry. However, student responses for anxiety and intellectual ability favored negative or neutral descriptions of chemistry (i.e., hard, confusing, scary, disgusting, tense) compared to other sections of the survey.

Based on the ASCI responses, it appears that students generally have negative outlook on the learning process as it relates to chemistry. It is important to note that each student who participated in the study was mainly taught using traditional approaches of lecture and verification-based laboratory activities. Students had no prior exposure to using simulations for any of the topics and further each participant had years of chemistry exposure in high school and college courses. The ASCI results provide a snapshot of student participants in this study. Students have interest in chemistry, and they find it to be intellectually important. However, even after years of spending time in the classroom and laboratory in school and college, students feel anxious and have a fear of the subject.

The ASCI does not measure student confidence however the presence of fear, anxiety, and neutral to negative responses for the intellectual accessibility indicates that student do not feel connected with chemistry, and it remains intellectually abstract. It is difficult to pin-point exact cause of this apathy from this group of students. Though it is possible that students have not really experienced deep-learning that comes with constructivist teaching that could have helped them to build connections and lead to positive attitudes among students on all the factors measured by the ASCI.

The results from the analysis of student qualitative interviews are presented in Table 1 which shows code frequencies for pre-simulation and post-simulation interviews. During pre- and post-simulation interviews students were asked a series of questions related to four conceptual ideas related to acids and bases: strong and weak acid-base chemistry, acid-base reactions, equilibrium reactions, and the pH. The students’ pre- and post-simulation interview data was coded for the level of detail of their response to the acids and bases as well as the student perception on the use of the simulations.


Table 1: Code frequencies showing conceptual understanding, student confidence and view of simulation-based instruction (Shaded Green: conceptual understanding codes – general and detailed understanding; definition-based explanation; shaded orange - incorrect conceptual understanding or no response; shaded blue – personal traits - student confidence; brown-misconceptions related to science and logic-based misconceptions; light grey-simulation related)










No Response (NR)



Science-Based Misconception (SBM)



General Weak Base Content (GWB)



Personal Trait Weak Confidence (PTW)



General Strong Acid Content (GSA)



Detailed Weak Base Content (DWB)



Personal Trait Strong Confidence (PTS)



Detailed Strong Acid Content (DSA)



Incorrect Weak Base Content (IWB)



Simulation Positive (SP)



Incorrect Strong Acid Content (ISA)



General Equilibrium Content (GEC)



Simulation Negative (SN)



General Weak Acid Content (GWA)



Detailed Equilibrium Content (DEC)



Simulation Neutral (SNE)



Detailed Weak Acid Content (DWA)



Incorrect Equilibrium Content (IEC) 



Model Disconnect (MD)



Incorrect Weak Acid Content (IWA)



General pH Content (GpH)



Explanation Disconnect (ED)



General Strong Base Content (GSB)



Detailed pH Content (DpH)



Definition based explanation (DB)



Detailed Strong Base Content (DSB)



Incorrect pH Content (IpH)



Logic-Based Misconception (LBM)



Incorrect Strong Base Content (ISB)




Codes and their definitions are reported in table 2 in the appendix. It is important to note the definition of general, detailed, and incorrect content that were used to evaluate conceptual understanding of acids and bases. General content is any description a student gave that would be definition heavy, detailed content is any description a student gave where they correctly answered information as well as gave a relevant example in their response, and incorrect content is any description a student gave that inaccurately identifies or describes the content.

Based on code frequencies, the number of codes for GSA increased from 53 to 58. Likewise, there was a positive shift in the frequency of GWA and GWB, GpH and GEC. Also, the detailed content improved for strong acids, weak acids, equilibrium and pH. This shows that students not only provided a detailed response, but they also shared relevant examples along with the description of strong acid, weak acids, and acid-base equilibrium.

Based on changes in code-frequencies, the student understanding of strong and weak acids and bases, pH and acid-base equilibrium shows an improvement from pre- to post simulation instruction. Further, students displayed a positive shift in their confidence of their understanding of acids and bases, the frequencies for weak confidence as a personal trait decreased from pre-to post interview whereas strong confidence showed an increase.  It appears that students had a more positive view of simulations post-instruction for learning chemistry. As mentioned before these students had never been instructed with simulation. Based on the pre-interview responses it appears that students have a sense of what a simulation is, however whether a simulation can help them learn acids and bases becomes clear with post-instruction. The positive responses of students seem to be indicative of this shift among students regarding the usefulness of simulations for learning and visualizing a concept.

In general, looking at the code-frequencies that relate to student understanding of acids and bases, these display an improvement in student conceptual understanding. From these code frequencies it is observed that the students had some general misconception based on their foundational understanding of acids and bases for both strong and weak acids and bases.

After going through the simulation-based instruction, students were able to address some of these misconceptions in their responses during the post-simulation interview. For example, student 3 in their pre-simulation interview showed misunderstanding of weak acid and strong acid dissociation. This student would describe in their explanations that the solution would dilute the acid rather than allow it to ionize. After receiving simulation-based instruction, the student was able to observe that the ionic dissociation of the acid particles did not mean there was a decrease in acidic concentration.

During both the pre- and post-simulation interviews students were instructed to create representations based on their descriptions of the acids and bases. Students were also asked what would happen when an acid or a base interacts with water. The representation that students presented through their drawings and symbols (equations) were compared to the textbook representations of acids and bases. Reason being that the textbook models were clear, well-developed, peer-reviewed, and used as a standard reference for a concise presentation of information on acids and bases.

Changes in student models of acids and bases were positive from pre to post-simulation instruction. As figure 3 and 4 depict, student representations became closer to the representations presented in the text and also in the simulation. Students were able to articulate their understanding of acids and bases as an equation and also depict what would happen if a few molecules of an acid or a base were added to water. For example, students showed that incase of strong base there would be a complete dissociation of the base as compared to a weak base where some of the base molecules would remain undissociated and were able to explain what would happen to a light bulb connected to a battery, with two electrodes dipped in such as solution of an acid or a base.


Figure 3. Comparison of student’s pre-simulation (a) and post-simulation (b) model with textbook model for acids and bases (Acids, Bases, and Salts. In Science Textbook for Class X, National Council of Educational Research and Training: 2006, 2006; p 282.


Figure 4. Comparison of student’s pre-simulation (a) and post-simulation (b) model with textbook model for equilibrium chemistry (Equilibrium. In Textbook for Class XI: Chemistry Part I National Council of Educational Research and Training: New Delhi 2005; p 259.)


Part of the limitation of this study is the frequency in which students were able to engage with the simulation-based instruction of acids and bases. Students were purposefully sampled based on their background in general and organic chemistry courses and no prior use of simulations in chemistry. However, student exposure to the use of simulation was limited to one complete session (equivalent to a laboratory duration of 2-3 hours). Based on the results and the promise of simulations in addressing student conceptions, it seems that a more diverse and expanded demographic of students needs to be studied over a longer duration to have a lasting impact on student-understanding. In addition to qualitative interviews, quantitative data on student problem-solving will provide additional evidence on the effectiveness of simulations in student conceptual understanding and student representations of acids and bases.


The study is unique with respect to student participants and the misconceptions/ gaps in student knowledge of acids and bases which seem to transcend the geographical boundaries when students have similar prior exposure to chemistry.  However, using simulations can alleviate some of these student misconceptions and improve student conceptual understanding and representations.

A single session involving the use of the PhET acid base simulation during one-to-one instruction was helpful to draw student attention to their understanding of acids and bases and to address some misconceptions and gaps in their understanding, however much work remains to be done in this area. None of the participants in the study had a completely clear conception of the acids and bases and how these interact in aqueous solutions. However, the misconceptions that were addressed were enough to show positive trajectory for a more longitudinal study. Students who struggled with understanding acid-base chemistry on the microscopic level benefited from seeing a visualization of how the particles interacted in a solution with one another.

Student acid-base representations became more consistent with both the simulation and also textbook representations after an exposure to simulation-based learning. Students showed a clear knowledge of the content in their post-simulation interviews, however the impact varied depending on the severity of the misconceptions that a student had prior to the study. The study shows the potential of simulations in impacting student understanding of acids and bases for a select group of students who had been educated through their entire student life in different countries. Yet student struggles and misconceptions of acids and bases were much alike. Further studies are needed to add evidence to the effectiveness of long-term impact of simulations on student-conceptual understanding, specifically for students in different countries who have no exposure to simulation-based instruction.


The authors acknowledge the support of principal and vice-principal of D.G. Ruparel college and also the Homi-Bhabha Center for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research for this study.


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Table 2. Codes, definition of codes and examples





(NR) No Response-

Student did not give full or concise response to the question presented to them

I: See you've also written carbonic acid, so is there any other type of acid besides this?


S: Uhh i don't know


(PTW) Personal Trait Weak Confidence-

Student shows weak confidence in their chemistry abilities

I: I am going to start asking you questions and then I'll get back to this. so just speak a little louder.


S: I am not super smart in chemistry also


(PTS) Personal Trait Strong Confidence-

Student shows strong confidence in their chemistry abilities

S: Only chemistry there is one chapter and that's it. And I used to skip that for bio and say I'll do the remaining so it's fine. So it was compulsory for medical exam, so if I wanted to give the exam I had to study it.


(SP) Simulation Positive-

Student describes simulation as being helpful

I: So what part is clearer to you about acid or a base?


S: Meaning that now I can visualize it. Better.



(SN) Simulation Negative-

Student describes simulation as not being helpful

I: electrochemistry ok. So what's happening there? So what I am focused on, is what are you thinking about what's going on?


S: I am thinking about the chapters, which chapters are we jumping from to which chapters, we jump from chemical equilibrium, now we're come to electrochemistry. We don't have a chapter acid bases since 11th-12th standard.


(SNE) Simulation Neutral-

Student perception of simulation is unclear

I: Have you ever used a simulation before for anything in chemistry?


S: No


(MD) Model Disconnect-.

Student’s description of acid-base question does not match the model drawn. Model contains errors or not fully depicting explanation

S: Same, H2O all over the place, Na+ would be solvated, OH- would be a bit, H I think would be very small, O is very electronegative. So I think it'll look like a small bump here.

(ED) Explanation Disconnect-

Student’s model drawn does not match the description of acid-base question. Explanation contains errors though model is clear and concise.


(DB) Definition based explanation-

Students explain concept by using the literal definitions providing not detailed justification. Observations.

I: Okay. Now click on the solvent now what do you see?


S: Lots of bubbles

(LBM) Logic-Based Misconception-

Student’s give the correct answer or justification but their explanation does not match their previous explanation. (i.e. student says H2SO4 is a strong acid but then says H2SO4 would significantly decrease pH of solution because it is a weak acid making the protons easily removed)

I: what are some physical properties of an acid and a base anything that you can think of?


S: I think physical, like melting point of acid is higher as compared to base

(SBM) Science-Based Misconception-

Students give correct answer or justification but their science is not correct 

I:. . .water and sodium hydroxide, right. . . what's happening here?


S: NaOH and H2 gas is being liberated


(GSA) General Strong Acid Content-

Student gives vague, definition-heavy explanation including the strong acid concept. Describes the general characteristics of strong acids

I: Is there any particle left undissociated for the strong acid? Is there any of the HA left intact? HA or all of this is dissociated?


S: All of this is dissociated.

(DSA) Detailed Strong Acid Content-

Student gives answers along with specific examples of the content without misconceptions.

S: Yeah. acid gives us H+ ions and the strong acid will dissociate completely. And due to which we have checked the pH around 2.

(ISA) Incorrect Strong Acid Content-

Students give response relating to the topic but uses incorrect information and misconceptions.

I:. . .what do you remember about an acid or base what is an acid


S: Acid means to accept a proton and base means to donate a proton, OH- ions and H plus is acid


(GWA) General Weak Acid Content-

Student gives vague, definition-heavy explanation including the weak acid concept. Describes the general characteristics of weak acids

I: it's interacting with water, right? You're getting there. A- and Hydronium ions. But why is this still there?


S: The dissociation is not completed

(DWA) Detailed Weak Acid Content-

Student gives answers along with specific examples of the content without misconceptions.

S: Here positive charge, BF3- here since it is donating lone pair, it is a Lewis acid and it is accepting lone pair so it is Lewis Base

(IWA) Incorrect Weak Acid Content-

Students give response relating to the topic but uses incorrect information and misconceptions.

I:. . .what do you remember about an acid or base what is an acid


S: Acid means to accept a proton and base means to donate a proton, OH- ions and H plus is acid


(GSB) General Strong Base Content-

Student gives vague, definition-heavy explanation including the strong base concept. Describes the general characteristics of strong base

I: let's try strong base take this out. Okay.


S: Like uhh here it is same example. NaOH.

(DSB) Detailed Strong Base Content-

Student gives answers along with specific examples of the content without misconceptions.

S: Arrhenius, suppose HCl will dissociate to H+ Cl- and NaOH which is acid, which is base which give Na+ and OH- ions according to Bronsted. . .

(ISB) Incorrect Strong Base Content-

Students give response relating to the topic but uses incorrect information and misconceptions.

I: ok ok interesting so you know what do you remember about an acid or base what is an acid


S: Acid means to accept a proton and base means to donate a proton, OH- ions and H plus is acid


(GWB) General Weak Base Content-

Student gives vague, definition-heavy explanation including the weak base concept. Describes the general characteristics of weak base

I: okay and you know what is the difference between a strong base and a weak base


S: Strong base dissociates completely and weak base remains undissociated.

(DWB) Detailed Weak Base Content-

Student gives answers along with specific examples of the content without misconceptions.

S: And uhh weak base, uhh Ammonium Hydroxide I guess.

(IWB) Incorrect Weak Base Content-

Students give response relating to the topic but uses incorrect information and misconceptions.

I: ok ok interesting so you know what do you remember about an acid or base what is an acid


S: Acid means to accept a proton and base means to donate a proton, OH- ions and H plus is acid


(GEC) General Equilibrium Content-

Student gives vague, definition-heavy explanation including the equilibrium concept. Describes the general characteristics of equilibrium reactions

I: okay so what do you have is the equal concentration of?


S: Hydronium ion and hydroxide ion

(DEC) Detailed Equilibrium Content-

Student gives answers along with specific examples of the content without misconceptions.

S: It's a polar solvent so there are distinct plus and minus charges

(IEC) Incorrect Equilibrium Content-

Students give response relating to the topic but uses incorrect information and misconceptions.

I: Ok what would happen when you add an acid like acidic acid to water


S: [mumbles to self] COH. [MA works on diagram] So when you add acidic acid and H20 you’re going to form a hydroxide ion then um


(GpH) General pH Content-

Student gives vague, definition-heavy explanation including the pH concept. Describes the general characteristics of pH calculations

I: What did you tell me the pH of the base?


S: 7, after 7, 8-14

(DpH) Detailed pH Content-

Student gives answers along with specific examples of the content without misconceptions.

I: OH- ions. Okay determines which base has a higher pH and which doesn't?


S: Many indicators too


I: any indicator you can think of?


S: Phenolphthalein


(IpH) Incorrect pH Content-

Students give response relating to the topic but uses incorrect information and misconceptions.

I: why would the pH values of those be different?


S: Different levels of hydrogen’s and carbon’s as well [mumbles to self]




12/17/20 to 12/19/20


The pHet simulations are wonderful at connecting visual elements to the words of we use to explain chemistry. Let me suggest one tweak to what you have written that cognitive experts tell us will make the time spent on visualizations with students result in stronger and more long-lasting learning.
Your paper cites findings from the 1990’s that “rote memorization and definitions do not really help for building connections among concepts (6,7).” That’s a comment frequently asserted in chem ed publications, Cognitive experts in more recent research are emphatic that is not the case.
The scientists who study how the brain solves problems tell us that student understanding in any new topic must begin with “rote memorization” of new fundamental definitions and relationships. They tell us the brain is built of what they call “atomic” components: Knowledge is stored in neurons, each of which can hold a small element of knowledge.
Conceptual understand is the goal, but it is built by wiring each neuron to hundreds of other neurons that hold knowledge. The wires and their synapses allow each word and visual element we store in long-term memory to be defined and characterized.
Wiring between elements grows and strengthens as we solve problems in ways we perceive as successful. That’s how learning happens. But before that wiring can take place, the small elements of fundamental knowledge for the topic must each be stored in a neuron and made recallable in response to problem cues (words or images). The more cues are wired to the stored factual relationship, the better the sense of what relationships to apply to solve a problem. Adding visual context cues are how simulations improve understanding.
BUT the SLOW step in learning is initial memorization: Moving new elements into neurons and wiring them to an initial cue that makes them recallable. For the brain to work, recall must be automatic, and automaticity takes lots of retrieval practice to achieve.
If students cannot quickly recall the meaning of terms like “base conjugate,” the working memory where the brain solves problems overloads, confusion results, and new wiring does not grow.
Bottom Line? Before using a simulation or case study, supply the topic fundamentals to students in a flashcard format, quiz on them, do a few word problems to wire in the word context, then simulations to wire visual context. Those steps wire a rich conceptual framework into the brain -- according to scientists whose expertise is the study of how the brain learns.
Learning can only happen after “rote memorization” and “automatic recall” of the meaning of the "unfamiliar to students" words and symbols that science uses to explain the universe.
For a paper with detail and lots of citations, see “Cognitive Science for Chemists” at www.ChemReview.Net/CogSciForChemists.PDF .
On cognitive questions, consult cognitive scientists. J Chem Ed is often way out of date.
-- rick nelson

Tanya Gupta's picture

Good point Rick. I view "rote memorization" as "learning without understanding meaning of things that are learned, or without understanding what something means". That's what I take from these research papers.

For example students in India (at least when I was growing up) are made to memorize multiplication tables without ever understanding the meaning behind those multiplication tables (poems without knowing what the words mean, and scientific terms and definitions without understanding the meaning).

Some folks do not have the faintest idea of connections between mathematical operations and yet if you ask them to recite the multiplication tables they would parrot it all flawlessly. When I taught math to my daughter, I did not let her memorize tables or use flash cards, instead I made her stack/ unstack objects, showed connection between mathematical operations and then gave her problems to work on. Her school mainly presented her worksheets.

I agree with you that "before supplyling the topic fundamentals to students in a flashcard format one can quiz students on them and have them work a few problems to wire in the word context, then simulations to wire visual context". It can be one way to approach this. It is though important that students understand the meaning of what they learn and be able to apply it when needed. 

For example we can show pictures to early learners about chair and desk and they will know what these objects looks like and be also able to spell these out. But what if you had a chair of a different design or if they had to use something to subsitute the desk. What if they dont know what to use these for. Those who are solely relying on memory of chair and desk, will they be able to adapt their memory to a new problem. Will they know how to use these objects unless they have used it.  Will they be able to design a chair or a desk for usage and contemplae more applications of these objects. I agree that's where the scenarios and problems would help. 

Students in this study had years of chemistry behind them (and had traditional learning experiences) still we noticed a lack of understanding of acids and bases.  They could not even recall what they had memorized. What we learned from students was that the simulation helped them see what it means with respect to acid and base and the properties of acids and bases. These students have all qualified some kind of competitive exams at several points in their life and have experienced problem solving (the ones in USA were preparing for MCAT).  What they lack is understanding the concepts and being able to explain and represent their understanding.

I agree that one time effort is never enough and there are several ways to augment student learning experiences. I will definitely check out the paper you mentioned. thank you for insightful comment.

Please excuse me for any typos!

Tanya - The cog sci experts say FIRST you need to memorize the vocab, THEN solve problems with words and images. That's three steps, and all three must be done or memory does not get stored. That's why kids don't learn well if the visuals are skipped. But to learn the language of science, say the experts, like in any foreign language, an adult must FIRST memorize an initial meaning of the words and symbols. (Children learn languages differently -- and more easily -- than adults. for Darwinian reasons). The paper does have lots of references on why scientists say the vocab recall must be first, but learning a topic cannot stop there.

Tanya Gupta's picture

That's a great point. I just downloaded the paper. thank you.

SDWoodgate's picture

I have done a lot of BestChoice activities on acids and bases because our high school and university students struggle with aqueous acid-base equiilibrium concepts.  Teachers often quote that they find the maths difficult - even simple pH calculations.  Over the years and after asking students lots of questions through BestChoice and analyzing the results, I have come to the conclusion that qualitative acid-base understanding is the blockage, not the maths.  Mental pictures are part of that understanding, but given my poor results with analysis of pictures of molecules, and pictures in which atoms and molecules are counted to establish limiting reactants, I am skeptical about using these as an introduction to the subject of acids and bases.  It seems to me that they are far better being used as a post-test of "do you really understand what is happening at the particle level".  

I will just share with you some results that I have from an introductory activity on weak and strong acids and bases.  The first pages are about the relative strength of acids and bases relative to H2O, H3O+ and OH-.  The bulk of the activity focus on comparing the relative pH of the solutions in MCQ followed by justifying their answer for first, weak and strong acids and then, weak and strong bases.   The justifications had the students using the vocabulary by choosing the right words from lists to complete a couple of sentences.  These were in general done better than the MCQ.  The really interesting bit was that when comparing corresponding questions, the one on bases was done better than the one on acids - despite results of mine and others that say that student understanding of bases generally being weaker than that of acids.  I concluded that they had learned from the acid part. 

The activity is a bit long by my 2020 standards, but 7600 students started the activity, and 5900 finished it.  So it is not a bad retention rate.

Bestchoice - Demo - Weak Strong Acid Base - Page 1: Review

Tanya Gupta's picture

Great example Shiela. I agree that this is a fundmental question "do you really understand what is happening at the particle level". I would also add probing on connection between macroscopic and symbolic level for explanation so see the gaps in understanding of acids and bases. I just checked Best Choice interactive tutorials and will definitely consider these (and try) for teaching. Any suggestions on how to make the abstract ideas more concrete. Simulations and demos are good approaches, what else can be done?

SDWoodgate's picture

My attempts to probe understanding have been focused on building interactive activities that develop content systematically and generate data for analysis (it comes in while I sleep). The activities are then modified based on the data. They are mostly text-based, but images, vidoes and other interactives have been embeded where I thought that they were going to enhance learning. It is as important to know what they can do as it is to know what they cannot do.

In the long run or even the short run (before the final exam), chemistry students have to be able to interpret symbolic representations of substances in terms of the properties of those substances. They find this very difficult. The connection between pH and acidity or basicity and indicators is good (9000 users), but identification of acidic (HCl, HNO3, H2SO4) and basic substances (oxides, hydroxides, carbonates) is ok for the acids but not good for bases even though I probed to make sure that they could identify an oxide, hydroxide and carbonate. I think that the problem of identifying weak and strong acids could be solved if they were told to memorise the common strong acids (HCl, HBr, HI, HNO3 and H2SO4), and assume any other ones are weak.

On the other hand, given equations for reactions with water where they have to identify the acid and base reactants, no problem (6000 users) - even if they have to both identify the acid and base and fill in the H3O+ or OH- product as appropriate (85 - 95% first right).

Likewise, for reaction of an acid or a base with water, if you give them a sentence (The pH of an aqueous solution of hydrogen fluoride is 2) and ask them to construct the equation for the reaction on dissoving where the H2O reactant is given and they have to choose the other three reactants from a list (HF, F-, H3O+, OH-, Na+) for 9000 users the percentage first right is 85%+.

However, identifying conjugate pairs outside the context of a reaction equation (1) and writing the formula of a conjugate base given the acid and vice versa. My evidence said that they (9000 users) poor at (1) and struggle to do (2). After several goes, I figured out a set of questions to get reasonable success at the formula writing.

I have screeds of data which I am happy to share with anyone who is interested.  Below is a link (hopefully to the final conjugate pairs one)

Bestchoice - Demo - Conjugate pairs drill - Page 1: Review

Milind Khadilkar's picture

Hi Tanya and others,

It is indeed an interesting approach to determining how simulations help in learning.  However I could not bring myself to give simulation the credit for the difference noticed. Even though I am not a chemist, I have had Chemistry till FYBSc in the Indian system of education, and then again had Chemistry come in my way professionally. I don't remember being overly troubled by acids and bases during college, but that could just mean complacence. While and after reading this paper I wondered again whether I understand acids and bases, and I seem to tell myself "yes!". But I haven't been involved with chemistry education, so the above does not matter.

What matters is my deep distrust of computers (and software!) as a toolbox for education. I value it in parts, and I value it as a tool for self learning, but that is about all. This rigid, regressive, outdated attitude of mine might have reflection in what I write ahead. Sorry.

I have often had occasion to teach many isolated topics in many subjects to students who came my way, often without much knowledgge about the topic myself. (In Chemistry, the last thing I taught was why Lanthanides and Actinides are placed  the way they are in the periodic table. It was, may be, a couple of years ago)

In doing so, I find that 2-3 hours devoted by a sympathetic teacher to an isolated topic without the pressure of immediate assimilation always increases the learners' confidence in the topic and also fosters a better understanding of that topic's relations with other topics. Of course I have only my own meager anecdotal experiences here, can't claim to have any properly recorded data.

So my query would be whether the results obtained in your study could be attributed to the simulation or to the dedicated time generously devoted by you to one topic. Had there been a double blind study (if that is the right term) where the same effort was taken without the simulation on a similar set of students, the result would probably have been clearer. Of course, what is speaking is my bias.

I would like to repeat the above study in another college in Mumbai (if I know how to) if you and the college allows.


Dr. K -- Calculator use has left students with no sense of how to solve calculations in the sciences. For the reasons why science says this is the case, see this paper from a previous CCCE session:

If students cannot estimate an answer to a chem calculation within 20%, can we claim they know chemistry?
And if they cannot do the procedures to estimate an answer, they can't keep straight what buttons to press when.
See the papers in the 2017 ConfChem that advocated calculator limited chem. Including calculator-free Physical Chemistry.

Tanya Gupta's picture

Hi Milind, you make a great point about the study. thank you for the insightful comments.

As you notice this is a qualitative study. I agree that more studies are needed and this study is a step towards such extensive study (double blind) as well as studies involvding different methodological approaches. That's exactly I was hoping for in these discussions that folks will start thinking deeper about research methods to study the effectivness of technologies. As you may have noticed we used qualitative interviewing and survey as a predominant method. Based on the methods of data collection and anlysis the results of study help us see some impact of a simulation with purposefully sampled students.  There are several approaches to conduct a qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods study. Our work was more explopratory in nature.

I agree that it is good to have healthy skepticism with any teaching approach and technology. I think your distrust of technology is a bit misplaced though. students that we are dealing with are generation-Z. They find it at odds that their instructors use archaic methods of teaching. Students want change and what they get is cookie-cutter labs and instruction. These students have smart phones in their pockets but don't know what to do with those devices other then google search or watch videos for learning difficult concepts. Instead of shying away from technology, we need to use the resources that student generation connects with and needs to help them learn. Using the same size fits all approach does not seem to work in teaching subjects like chemistry (is abstract in nature). Also, using the same appoach suits all is limited. I agree that diverse approaches are needed for student engagement and learning of abstract concepts.

This is a very small study out of several different projects I work on. Students are tired of same old lecturing, reading the text and being told what a concept is and then solving problems without being able to visualize the concepts; developing the ability to connect different representational levels; and seeing any relevance or application of the concepts in their life. 

When students cannot explain in their own words the concepts they have learned for years (in a scientifcally coherent manner), it is alarming! Especially considering that these students are aspiring to be researchers, academicians, industry workers, and medical professionals. Modern education needs sympathetic teachers (important) but beyond that students also need to develop skills such as scientific and digital literacy, critical thinking, and a deep and robust conceptual understanding and power to comunicate their ideas. These skills cannot be developed using the same old methods and resources for teaching modern science. It is not about us anymore. It is about the students we teach. The question is are we connecting with the ways this current generation of students learns? Are we prepared to engage a generation that has way more challenges to deal with considering rapid changes around them. We provided evidence and arguments on these questions in our book on Technology Integeration in Chemistry Education and Research: 

Also see: Technology Integration in Chemistry Education and Research: What Did We Learn and What Can We Expect Going Forward?

The studies as presented in this paper on the impact of a simulation should be replicated. This is what we plan to do as I mention in the paper "however much work remains to be done in this area...the misconceptions that were addressed were enough to show positive trajectory for a more longitudinal study....Further studies are needed to add evidence to the effectiveness of long-term impact of simulations on student-conceptual understanding, specifically for students in different countries who have no exposure to simulation-based instruction."

Thank you once again for enriching this discussion. I believe that this is exactly what we need to advance the field of chemistry education and to foster research and innovation in learning and teaching. It was abolsute pleasure to meet with you during my visit to India.

Milind Khadilkar's picture

Thanks, Tanya, for your response. I wish I had interacted more with you and Shanize when you were working on this study in Mumbai. But yes, meeting you was a pleasure in itself.

I am not sure we know what students want. Agreed they have no patience with the old fashioned methods, but what they are really looking for is an enigma. At least to me. And it is not just the Chemistry students, but students of other disciplines as well. I have more experience with Mathematics and Computer Programming students than with students of Chemistry, but I suppose what holds for one of these subjects holds for the others too. I have never taught in a formal academic environment, so my experience is probably not valid. But somehow I feel teachers from formal academics are also not sure what stuydents want, and how they want that. As usual, i could be wrong.

Thanks again.

I appreciate Tanya’s willingness to discuss her views on debated issues in learning -- and raising the issue of whether this generation of learners is different. Chemistry educators need to discuss these questions freely and more often.
Below is the view of Paul Kirschner, one of the worlds leading cognitive scientists, from his 2020 book with Carl Hendrick: How Learning Happens.
This is from the list of beliefs they call the “Ten Deadly Sins of Education.”
(Chapter 29 with all 10 Deadly Sins can be downloaded free on the publisher website. The book is inexpensive in paper and on Kindle.

Deadly Sin Belief #3. Children are digital natives and think differently from previous generations.

We have to radically change education! We’re teaching a new type of learner with specific competencies that enable them to use ICT effectively and efficiently. This new learner is the digital native. Marc Prensky introduced this term in 2001: the idea of a generation that has never lived without digital technologies and therefore has exceptional and unique characteristics that distinguish it from all previous generations with respect to thinking and learning (Prensky, 2001). He concluded that we must design and introduce new forms of education that focus on the special gifts of these digital natives. Unfortunately, he based all of this on simple personal observations of young people and not on any research.

Wim Veen and Ben Vrakking (2006) followed suit, introducing the term homo zappiëns to describe a new generation of students who learned significantly differently from their predecessors. They claim that homos zappiëns independently and without instruction develop the metacognitive skills needed for discovery learning, networked learning, experimentation, collaborative learning, active learning, self-directed learning, and problem-based learning. Based on these claims (again acquired through personal observation and not research) a growing group of people, including politicians and administrators, believe that education should respond to this. We hear things like “Let’s Googlify education”, “Knowledge acquisition isn’t necessary”, and “We need to harness the cognitive and metacognitive skills of this technology-savvy generation!”

Don’t! There’s no evidence that young people today have any special skills (other than very fast-moving thumbs) that would allow them to learn differently. The proponents of these ideas based this purely on their own experiences and anecdotal evidence.
# # # # #
When deciding how the brain works, I hope we will listen to what experts in how the brain works have to say.
-- rick nelson

SDWoodgate's picture

I totally agree about the digital natives NOT.  They still need instruction - indeed even instructions about how to choose answers.  One of the most frequent comments that I got from users when I first started all of this (in 2002) was that "I did not know what to do." when it seemed totally obvious to me.  The real advantage that we have is the relatively easy ability to collect data and to figure out what sticks and what does not and modify accordingly.  The problems with chemical concepts that users have today are the same as they have always had.  We have lots of information about misconceptions etc.  We now need to do something to address these and measure the outcomes.

Milind Khadilkar wrote "I am not sure we know what students want. Agreed they have no patience with the old fashioned methods, but what they are really looking for is an enigma." I might add that different students want different things. Some prefer to learn from reading, accompanied by the images provided in a textbook, some prefer to learn by listening to either an audio version of the material or from an online or in-person lecture. Some learn best by supplementing one or more of the above by doing something more active, either in lab or online activities. And, of course, some learn best by combining one or more of the above.

One of my children is dyslexic, so on his way to a masters in neuropsychology, he was a lecture and listening guy. We saved a lot of money by not buying his books. One of my daughters has auditory processing issues. She mostly texted her friends in lectures, but learned well from her books. 

Because of student differences, for my text and tools, I have tried to provide a range of options: traditional text, online text, audio text, online lectures, electronic tutorials on a range of topics, online homework, and animations. You can see it all at 

Mark Bishop

Tanya Gupta wrote "These students have smart phones in their pockets but don't know what to do with those devices other then google search or watch videos for learning difficult concepts." To a degree, I think access to googled topics is great, but I worry that many students rely on this too much. The risk is that they will neglect the more consistent and coherent traditional text (whether it be printed or auditory). When I was writing my text, I thought of it as a smooth flowing story with each topic building on previous topics. I think that students miss something by jumping around using a variety of tools from different sources. 

Tanya also wrote, "When students cannot explain in their own words the concepts they have learned for years (in a scientifcally coherent manner), it is alarming!" Indeed, and I think part of the fault belongs to chemistry textbook writers. Many introductory textbooks were written as if chemistry was just series of tasks (unit analysis, nomenclature, balancing equations, etc.) and explanations of the concepts are not emphasized enough. Because I was the sort of student who always wanted to know "why" things were true, when I wrote my text, I tried to emphasize the "why's". I hope I was successful. 

Mark Bishop

SDWoodgate's picture

It is useful to reflect upon the significant difference between teaching and learning.  Teaching involves exposing students to content (lectures, video, audio).  They do not learn the content just by being exposed to it.  To get it into working memory, they have to engage with it.  One way in which learning can be fostered is through asking questions that require use of the content and having user responses generate feedback.  Through storage of the response data (including wrong answers), we can get clues about whether the methods we are using are connecting.  This is a way for the learners to teach the teachers how to teach them.  Tanya wrote "It is not about us anymore. It is about the students we teach. "   I learned much more about teaching in my fifteen years of doing this than in my face-to-face experience.  Every activity has a survey at the end (one Likert question and a blank for a comment).  In the earlier decades where I was doing face-to-face teaching, I never got such detailed and helpful feedback, both from the survey (320 000 Likert responses/6 and 120 000 are 6) and from their wrong answers.

The net net is that we need to use lots of ways of connecting with students, but as far as being informative about whether the connection is working, the power of the web is very much under-utilised.

Tanya Gupta's picture

 Likert surveys are a great way to see if the resources that we are using are effective in achieving the impacts they were designed for. There are several validated surveys avialable (example ACSI, CLASS etc) to measure affective aspects of learning. Student understanding can be measured/assessed both qualitatively and quantitatively. I  believe each of you have raised important questions and shared practical resources for teaching and learning. There is definitely a lot to learn and address going forward. It would great to conduct a few studies related to some of the resources shared by Mark and Shiela and also using frameworks shared by Rick. That would be an excellent application of these ideas. Thank you all.

Milind Khadilkar makes an interesting point, "Had there been a double blind study (if that is the right term) where the same effort was taken without the simulation on a similar set of students, the result would probably have been clearer." If anyone is interested in doing this, they might consider using my animations for one set of students and my text for another set. In this way, the information would come from the same source. The animations are at

The relevant text is at

If the experiment doesn't need to be binary, one could add a group of students learning from the audio version of this material.

or even the online lecctures

Mark Bishop

Tanya Gupta's picture

thanks Mark, I look forward to using these animations and book (hopefully collaborating with you for research studies). thanks for sharing.

Milind Khadilkar's picture

Thanks, Mark, for the links. I went through a couple of them. What is interesting is that they also address the casual reader/viewver/listener that I am, by keeping things simple. Thanks again. Regards.

rpendarvis's picture

I do not think students are really that different in the way they think now but they do have a lot of tools available which we did not have.  We were stubborn and actually studied the book because that was the main way of getting good grades.  Books are not viewed in the same way now.  Students do have a propensity for being entertained which we might have had if it had been available.  We were different in that we expected studying to be work.

Rich Messeder's picture

My experience at the university level during 2005-2015 is that STEM students
a) don't like to read. Their reading comprehension skills are low. I had students come to me for help, and when I asked if they had read the material, the reply was usually to the effect of "No, I was hoping that you would explain."
b) expect to get the course content from the class. This was a repeated, clear statement by many students who felt that if it were not presented during class, it was not going to show up on an exam.
c) developed and demonstrated strategies for cheating, most of which revolved around automated testing.
d) showed that they understood the psychology of faculty, and knew which faculty were likely to be manipulated, under the guise of seeking help. It was astonishing to see.
I think that we have built in many of these responses culturally, and students come to the U prepared with these skills, rather than reading and comprehension skills, problem-solving skills, and self-awareness.
I am in favor of a mix of teaching styles and methods that
a) involve thinking with paper and pencil...and estimating where appropriate
b) review exam quizzes, to keep material fresh, and compensate for deficiencies in K-12
c) making it clear that not all material will be presented in class
d) making exams more about thought processes than about plug-and-chug answers (which are easier to correct)
e) make it clear that a significant part of the grade is about how well they express themselves on exams, quizzes, homework. If they cannot express themselves clearly, I opine, they don't know the material. We used to teach this skill in HS. I will also not take the time to grade illegible work.

I put in a lot of extra time, but only for those students who show a genuine interest in learning and working. I opine that over the past few years that I have participated in this conference, much has been revealed about how any of us learn effectively, how we reinforce learning, how we communicate that to others, the value of peer teaching and teamwork in general, and the effect of economic and social background (yep, even among middle class white students) on how well they do in school. I don't see that information applied broadly in academia today, from start to finish. I see that there are many success stories in this conference, but my impression is that those successes represent a small fraction of all stories. I have close ties to the private sector, and the impression there is that students come out with degrees with good grades, but can't actually do the work.