Recent reports stress that students need an integrated understanding of science, particularly to understand the big ideas or core concepts. Chemical reaction is one such “big idea”. Despite considerable research regarding students’ learning of chemical reaction, studies have focused mainly on common high-school student difficulties at a certain stage of learning, usually after completing study of the topic. Few studies have analyzed the acquisition process of these scientific ideas during the learning process for middle-school students. Furthermore, unlike other studies that focused on separate ideas as opposed to their interrelationship, this study examines how students’ understandings of early concepts relate to their understanding of later concepts and investigates the understanding of separate sub-ideas in relationship to their contribution to the understanding of a big idea. This study characterizes 7th grade students’ learning of a core idea in scientific literacy as they participate in a coherent curriculum. The study explores the prior knowledge, new knowledge, challenges, and development of the students’ understanding of chemical reactions as they study the chemistry unit from the IQWST curriculum entitled “How Can I Make New Stuff From Old Stuff?” I used construct maps to guide the development and analysis of assessment items aimed at finding evidence for learning utilizing both quantitative and qualitative data from sources collected before, during and after instruction. The main findings show that students’ understanding of chemical reaction comprises many components and that each alone is important for student growth and further learning. The results also show that understanding the chemical reaction construct, which is fundamental to the field, is a markedly more complex and difficult process than it might seem. Beyond the difficulties in understanding, this study highlights what students can learn and at different stages of the learning process as opposed to what they can do only after the instruction. This knowledge can enable teachers and educators to adjust the curriculum instruction. Thus, the proposed construct maps and the related findings provide input for curriculum development, helping instructors to break down the concept of chemical reactions into the elements that contribute to this big idea
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