Research in Science Education

, Volume 41, Issue 4, pp 587–609 | Cite as

Conceptual Versus Algorithmic Problem-solving: Focusing on Problems Dealing with Conservation of Matter in Chemistry



The students’ performance in various types of problems dealing with the conservation of matter during chemical reactions has been investigated at different levels of schooling. The participants were 499 ninth grade (ages 14, 15 years) and 624 eleventh grade (ages 16, 17 years) Greek students. Data was collected using a written questionnaire concerning basic chemical concepts. Results of statistical factor and correlation analysis confirmed the classification of the problems used in three types: “algorithmic-type”, “particulate-type”, and “conceptual-type”. All the students had a far better performance in “particulate-type” problems than in the others. Although students’ ability in solving “algorithmic-type” problem increases as their school experience in chemistry progresses, their ability in solving “conceptual-type” problems decreases. Students’ achievement in chemistry was measured by a Chemical Concepts Test (CCT) containing 57 questions of various forms. High-achievement students scored higher both on “algorithmic-type” and “particulate-type” problems than low achievers with the greatest difference observed in solving “algorithmic-type” problems. It is concluded that competence in “particulate-type” and “algorithmic-type” problem solving may be independent of competence in solving “conceptual-type” ones. Furthermore, it was found that students’ misconceptions concerning chemical reactions and equivalence between mass and energy are impediments to their problem solving abilities. Finally, based on the findings, few suggestions concerning teaching practices are discussed.


Algorithmic problems Chemical reaction Chemistry Conceptual problems Conservation of matter Misconceptions 



This work was partial supported by fund from “Special Account for Research Grants” of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratory of Organic Chemistry; Department of ChemistryNational and Kapodistrian University of AthensAthensGreece

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