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Students mental models of atomic spectra


Cite this: DOI: 10.1039/c6rp00051g
Nilufer Didis- Korhasan*a and Lu Wangb

Mental modeling, which is a theory about knowledge organization, has been recently studied by science
educators to examine students understanding of scientific concepts. This qualitative study investigates
undergraduate students mental models of atomic spectra. Nine second-year physics students, who
have already taken the basic chemistry and chemistry laboratory application courses, participated in the
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study. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with the participants. The analysis revealed that
Received 25th February 2016, students had four types of coherently organized knowledge structures: the Scientific Model of Atomic
Accepted 4th May 2016 Spectra (SMAS), the Primitive Scientific Model of Atomic Spectra (PSMAS), No Photon Model (NPM), and
DOI: 10.1039/c6rp00051g the Orbit Model (OM). Identified mental models indicated that students used some fundamental
concepts interchangeably, and electronic transition and photon energy were the threshold concepts
www.rsc.org/cerp for students scientific understanding of atomic spectra.

Introduction investigating the constraints of mental models revealed that


eight aspects were in action in students understanding of
Mental modeling is a theory about knowledge organization. For chemistry. Out of the eight aspects, four of them were student-
this reason, a mental model can be defined as the representation centered, such as appreciation of chemical representations, prior
of an individuals knowledge (Seel, 2006). Mental models are the chemistry knowledge, lack of any mental model and lack of
knowledge structures, which are composed of coherent elements motivation, and the other four were course-centered, such as
to explain phenomena (Didis- et al., 2014). The function of mental teaching and assessment styles, use of chemical representations,
models is similar to computer simulations, because they allow the amount of content and the speed of teaching the content. The
simulations in learners mind by processing inputs to predict researchers indicated that for the construction of mental models
outcomes (Taber, 2013). Thus, they allow individuals reasoning especially on the submicroscopic level concepts, students under-
and facilitate problem solving and as a result they have great standing of macroscopic and symbolic representations was very
importance in everyday reasoning (Gentner, 2002). important, because when the reality and the representations are
Mental modeling research in science education dates back misunderstood, they limit students development of knowledge
to the 1980s, and two dierent books about mental models organization. In addition, some concepts, which are considered as
were published in 1983 (Gentner and Stevens, 1983; Johnson- threshold (Meyer and Land, 2003; 2006; Cousin, 2006; Park and
Laird, 1983). The mental modeling framework was recently Light, 2009; Talanquer, 2015), need to be fully understood by
studied to examine students understanding of dierent chemistry students for the construction of correct mental models and as a
concepts such as galvanic cells (Supasorn, 2015), ionic bonding result, conceptual troublesomeness may associate with these
(Coll and Treagust, 2003), chemical bonding (Coll and Treagust, threshold concepts (Park and Light, 2009). Ke et al. (2005) stated
2001; Coll and Taylor, 2002; Stefani and Tsaparlis, 2009), chemical that sensory motor experiences also had a role in students
compounds (Chittleborough et al., 2002), vapor pressure (Tumay, mental models based on the classical interpretation of quantum
2014), atomic structure (Harrison and Treagust, 1996; Park and theory and that other primitive knowledge elements were in the
Light, 2009), molecules (Harrison and Treagust, 1996), atomic development of mental models of classical and quantum ideas.
and molecular orbitals, the Schrodinger equation, and hybridization Just as atomic structure is an important concept in science
(Stefani and Tsaparlis, 2009). Chittleborough et al.s (2002) research from Democritus to today, helping students to understand it is
also important in science education (Park and Light, 2009). As
science educators, we hope to help students construct coherently
a
Bulent Ecevit University, Faculty of Education, 67300, Zonguldak, Turkey. and correctly organized knowledge structures, i.e., mental models,
E-mail: niluferdidis@gmail.com; Fax: +90 372 323 8693; Tel: +90 372 323 3870
b
about the atomic world, because they may support understanding,
Harvard University, Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology, Cambridge,
MA, 02138, USA
reasoning, and predictions (Gentner, 2002) about the other related
Current address: Harvard University, Department of Physics, Cambridge, MA, concepts in quantum theory. However, while learning quantum
02138, USA. theory, students may construct incorrect mental models causing

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incorrect reasoning. Investigation of incorrect models, as well as (Muller and Wiesner, 2002; Baily and Finkelstein, 2009; 2010).
correct models, is important for revealing the learning process and In addition, recent research indicated that the development of
creating materials that minimize the triggering errors. From the software facilitating the learning of the quantum concepts may
constructivists perspective of learning, if we could learn more lower the barrier for students conceptual understanding. Some
about students knowledge structures, no matter correct or of these media are: PhET Simulations for quantum tunneling,
incorrect, we can help them construct scientific knowledge wave packets, covalent bonds, the photoelectric effect, the
structures by revising or improving their previous knowledge SternGerlach experiment, Rutherford scattering, models of
structures. In light of the existing body of mental model the hydrogen atom, blackbody radiation, etc. (McKagan et al.,
research, in this study we aim to investigate how second-year 2008); Visual Quantum Mechanics: for matter waves, potential
undergraduate physics students understand atomic spectra, and energy diagrams, quantum orbitals, wavefuntions, probability,
how they organize fundamental concepts in quantum theory to the uncertainty principle, electron diffraction, etc. (Zollman
explain this phenomenon. The research questions of this study are et al., 2002); QuVis Quantum Mechanics Visualization: for spin,
as follows: photon, waves, etc. (Kohnle et al., 2015).
 What are the students mental models of atomic spectra? As far as the literature has found, students scientific learning
 How is the structure of the mental models (i.e. are the of quantum concepts is painful no matter what stage they learn,
concepts used in a model all un/scientific (pure) or a mixture of be it the secondary level to graduate. However, research-based
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scientific and unscientific concepts (hybrid))? courses and material developments like tutorials (Zollman et al.,
 What do the mental models reflect about students under- 2002; McKagan et al., 2008; Singh, 2008b; Baily and Finkelstein,
standing of atomic spectra? 2009; 2010; Kohnle et al., 2015), revision of quantum theory
We focused on students mental models of atomic spectra curricula (Asikainen and Hirvonen, 2009; Carr and McKagan,
because this topic contains very important concepts that are 2009; Ivanjek et al., 2015; McKagan et al., 2010), exploration
used in the upper level science courses that teach the quantum of students conceptual understanding and problem solving
theory, such as the concepts of photons, electronic states in an by conceptual tests (Wuttiprom et al., 2009; Zhu and Singh,
atom, electronic transitions, and atomic orbitals. In addition, 2012; 2013; Dick-Perez et al., 2016), attitude and motivation
mental models not only indicate whether individual concepts (Didis- Korhasan, 2015) towards learning the quantum concepts
are understood scientifically but also whether these concepts are in the focus of physics and chemistry educators, who
are used in a coherent and correct way. Scientific knowledge teach the concepts of quantum theory in upper secondary and
organization is also important for future science teachers and university courses.
professors in their subject matter knowledge when they teach
in schools and universities. Mental modeling research
In addition to previous research examining students under-
standing of the concepts in quantum theory, the following
Related literature research about how students organized their knowledge of
the concepts in quantum theory is also one of the focuses
Pedagogical research about the atomic world in both physics and chemistry education research, because
Quantum theory, which can be considered as a paradigm shift students abilities to solve the problems in a quantum
from classical to quantum perspective, introduced many new mechanics test do not always demonstrate their understanding
concepts, and these concepts are sometimes too abstract and of the concepts (Ke et al., 2005). If new knowledge is consistent
counter-intuitive to understand. However, learning of these with the previous knowledge, mental models can facilitate
concepts is important for the further development of scientific learning (Gentner, 2002). For this reason how students construct
ideas providing the development of science and technology. For and organize their knowledge in learning quantum theory was
this reason, many science educators aimed to examine upper examined by researchers using the mental modeling framework,
level secondary, undergraduate, and graduate level students for example students understanding of potential energy diagrams
understanding of the concepts of quantum theory in the and probability (Bao, 1999), quantization of energy, light and
context of the atomic world. These were: atomic and molecular angular momentum (Didis- et al., 2014), atomic structure (Ke
orbitals (Stefani and Tsaparlis, 2009; Tsaparlis and Papaphotis, et al., 2005; Park and Light, 2009), electromagnetic radiation,
2009), the Schrodinger equation, physical observables, measure- and Wiens law (Vadnere and Joshi, 2009).
ment, wavefunction, Hilbert space (Singh, 2001; 2008a; Zhu and One of the earliest studies using the mental modeling
Singh, 2012), the SternGerlach experiment (Zhu and Singh, framework is the research of Bao (1999). Bao studied university
2011), atomic spectra (Ivanjek et al., 2015), angular momentum physics students mental models of the probability concept for
(Zhu and Singh, 2013), wavefunction, probability density classical and quantum mechanics. He developed his Model
(Emigh et al., 2015), energy levels and transition, wave particle Analysis tool to make quantitative explanations of students
duality, uncertainty (Gardner, 2002), probability (Sadaghiani, models. This tool includes two algorithms to examine students
2005; Wattanakasiwich, 2005), operators, observables, eigenvalues mental models quantitatively. With the Model Analysis tool, by
(Didis- et al., 2010), potential wells (Ozcan et al., 2009), using students answers in the test with multiple-choice questions,
and the discrimination of classical and quantum notions he identified students model-based responses. In addition,

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by using these model-based responses, he constructed density structure with the organization of quantum mechanical concepts
matrices, which included the information about students such as electron, energy level, orbital, uncertainty, wave function,
model states. Five force and motion questions of FCI (Hestenes probability, etc. The researchers named students mental models
et al., 1992) were used to determine physical models as by considering the three stages in the history of quantum theory.
correct, incorrect and null models. After the analysis, The results were similar to Baos (1999) findings about having
Bao explained the superiority of this analysis to the score-based classical and quantum interpretations. Students having the
(measurement with multiple-choice tests) analysis by indicating Early Quantum Mechanics (EQM) model had classical ideas
the loss of information in score-based analysis. He implemented about the electron behavior with fixed orbits; students having
this analysis to examine students mental models in quantum the Transitional Wave Mechanics (TWM) model considered the
mechanics. He first developed tutorials, conducted interviews, wave nature of the electron with a wave like path; and the last
conceptual quizzes, and homework/exam questions, and then group of students having the Probabilistic Wave Mechanics
he developed a multiple-choice test to construct matrices. By the (PWM) model interpreted the electron behavior by considering
experience of students diculties in the classes, he examined probability and uncertainty. The researchers indicated that
students conceptions of potential energy diagrams and most students had the EQM model that was based on classical
probability topics. In his study, Bao identified three types of mechanics. The TWM model was considered as a conceptual
mental models of students for quantum mechanical concepts. development with the change in the previous model and the
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These types were: (1) strong classical mechanical models; (2) PWM model was mainly observed in experienced students (PhD
hybrid models including correct information about quantum students). Finally, students had more mental models together,
mechanical concepts by using classical mechanical reasoning; and this result indicated that the development of students
and (3) mixing models including both quantum mechanical and mental models was not linear (i.e. EQM and PWM may exist
classical mechanical models at the same time. at the same time) and they improved their mental models.
Vadnere and Joshis (2009) study is a considerably new study The study by Park and Light (2009) also aimed to identify
using Baos tool (1999) that he developed in his dissertation to students mental models of atomic structure and troublesome
examine students mental model; however, their design dif- concepts that play a role in the construction of mental models.
fered from that of Bao (1999). The researchers examined The researchers implemented a questionnaire to 633 first-year
students mental models of electromagnetic radiation, Wiens college students taking a general chemistry course. This course
law, etc. with a weak experimental design. The researchers focused on fundamental chemical principles and seven of nine
implemented a pre-test to 119 volunteer Standard 12 (corres- chapters were about the atomic structure in the textbook. The
ponding to K-12) students. Software was then used to teach researchers not only accepted the quantum mechanical model
students these concepts. Afterward, the students were post- of an atom as scientific models, they also considered other
tested. In the analysis, the researchers used the density three models taught in high schools and previously identified
matrix, which was used in mental model identification by by other researchers (Justi and Gilbert, 2000 as cited in Park
Bao (1999). They first defined three probabilities for students and Light, 2009) as scientific models. They coded students
mental models such as the expert model (E), the misconception explanations in a 13-level hierarchical order by considering the
model (M), and the null model (N) by considering students chronological development of the concepts. These levels of
answers. In the examination of the development of students understanding were used to classify the mental models of
mental models, the researchers identified an increase in the 20 students about the atomic structure such as the Particle
probability of triggering the expert state, and a decrease in the model, the Nuclear model, Bohrs model, and the Quantum
null state in the post-test than in the pre-test. This way, they model. Pre- and Post-interviews were conducted with students.
explained that this software was successful in the development Three high achiever students had a single coherent mental
of students mental models. They suggested that the tools of model of the atomic structure in each of the interviews and the
quantum mechanics, which were the mathematical expressions others had mixed mental models with fragmented knowledge
used in the definition of quantum particles such as density elements. Probability and energy quantization were identified
matrix, could be used to analyze student learning. as the threshold concepts for understanding atomic structure and
Ke et al. (2005) aimed to investigate variation and progression they were explained as threshold barriers distinguishing between
in students mental models of quantum mechanics phenomena. A students who got or did not get the target level of understanding.
cross sectional survey was carried out and the data were collected Didis- et al. (2014) examined second-year undergraduate
first with the implementation of a pencil and paper questionnaire students mental models of the quantization of physical observables
to 140 students in dierent grades from undergraduate to PhD. and investigated context dependency of mental models in
Then, two-step interviews were conducted with the selected dierent contexts such as blackbody radiation, photoelectric
participants. In the first step of the interviews, participants eect, atom, etc. Researchers collected data during an academic
reexamined their answers in the questionnaire and explained semester (15 weeks) in a modern physics course constructing
more about their answers. In the next step, they grouped and the basic ideas of quantum theory. Dierent sources of data were
linked the concepts by using concepts cards with a card-sort used to identify students mental models about the quantization
task and they discussed the rationale behind their choices. of light, energy, and angular momentum. These were basically
The researchers identified three mental structures about atomic interviews with 31 students, tests, and examination papers.

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Six types of context dependent mental models the Scientific In total, nine students participated in the study, five of them
Model (SM), the Primitive Scientific Model (PSM), the Shredding were males and four of them were females. Participants had
Model (ShM), the Alternating Model (AM), the Integrative Model already successfully completed the introductory chemistry and
(IM), and the Evolution Model (EM) were identified. Some of chemistry laboratory courses, and they were taking the modern
these mental models were hybrid and some students had mixed physics course. These nine participants were selected purposively
model states (having more than one model) to explain the among the 98 students and they participated in the research
quantization phenomenon. Didis- Korhasan et al. (2016) also voluntarily. Because this was a qualitative examination of students
examined the influence of instructional issues on these mental understanding and we did not aim to generalize findings, we
models. By the analysis of almost 10 week classroom observation delimited the participant selection by selecting almost 10% of the
data (2760 min) and interviews, students mental models were students. The selection criteria were to provide diversities among
reinterpreted in terms of elements emerging from the learning the participants in terms of students interest in learning quantum
environment. The results revealed that the manner of teaching theory as well as their academic performance. The level of
(instructional methodologies and content specific techniques students interest was determined by the first author of this
used by the instructor), the order of the topics, the familiarity paper who had the opportunities to observe the students
with concepts, and peers played roles in the development of participation in the modern physics course (e.g., how much
mental models. they asked questions to the instructor in and after class and
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discussed related topics with their peers).


Research assumptions
In order to identify students mental models of atomic spectra,
Mental models are complex mental structures which cannot be a test with four questions was developed (see Appendix I) and it
observed directly. For this reason, identification of mental was taken by the participants via one-on-one interviews. The
models is not a simple process and it requires in-depth questioning questions were designed to reveal the participants cognitive
(Taber, 2008). This research had some assumptions about the structures and to encourage them to conceptually explain the
identification of mental models: phenomenon of atomic spectral lines. Starting from general to
 Since mental models are abstract structures constructed in specific, visible to invisible, concrete to abstract in the first
mind, identification of mental models is based on inferences question, students were asked to interpret the lines in the
from participants explanations. atomic emission and absorption spectra. In the second ques-
 Mental models are coherent knowledge structures and for tion, they explained some basic terms related to atomic spectra:
this reason coherency, that is having a single conceptual energy with negative values, discrete energy levels, electronic
framework (Didis- et al., 2014), among the concepts constructing transition, and photon emission. In the third question, they were
a mental model is an important feature to specify the model. asked how the transition of an electron between energy levels is
 Mental models allow qualitative reasoning (Gentner, 2002) related to the emission of a photon. In the fourth and last
to explain experienced or hypothetical situations as well as question, students made qualitative reasoning about the behavior
physical phenomena. of an electron and the resulting atomic spectra in a hypothetical
 Mental models may not have firm boundaries. The elements situation where the electron in the hydrogen atom obeys classical
of one mental model might be confused (Norman, 1983, p. 8). mechanics rather than quantum mechanics. During the interviews,
participants were requested to think out loud as much as possible.
Methodology Each interview took almost one hour and was video recorded.

To investigate individuals knowledge structures, asking for


their mental models directly is not enough (Gentner, 2002). Data analysis
For this reason, indirect methods, such as interviews, tests, and After the verbal data (i.e. the students answers to the questions
questionnaires including conceptual questions and qualitative in Appendix I) were transcribed and matched with the visual
reasoning problems that reveal students knowledge patterns, and mathematical artifacts created during the interviews,
are used to infer students mental models. Both qualitative and the data analysis was conducted by using a code list. All
quantitative methodologies can be used to investigate students codes emerged from the data. Mutual exclusiveness and
mental models with dierent designs, and each has advantages appropriateness to explain atomic spectra were the criteria
and disadvantages in terms of the number of participants and for determining the codes. A draft code list was presented to
the amount of time spent for investigation. This research examined two external researchers (one of them is a physics educator and
students mental models of atomic spectra by a qualitative the other is a molecular physicist) for feedback. Both of the
approach, discovered students scientific and unscientific con- authors discussed about the coding, and definitions of the
ceptions related to atomic spectra, and identified the threshold concepts in the code list were clarified and rewritten after
concepts that limit knowledge organization. resolving the discrepancies. The final code list is presented in
Table 1. The first five of the six concepts are scientific and
Data collection reflects the reality, while the last one, the orbit (O), is unscientific
The participants were selected among the second-year under- in the context of atomic spectra although it was used in Bohrs
graduate students enrolled in the physics program of a university. atomic model.

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Table 1 The code list for the determination of mental models of atomic spectra

Code of concepts Abbr. Description


Bound electron BE An electron in an atom.
Discrete energy levels DEL Energy levels for an electron in the atom.
Spectral lines SL The colored lines in an emission spectrum or the dark lines in an absorption spectrum.
Photon energy PE Energy of a photon with a certain wavelength.
Electronic Transition ET Change of an electrons quantum state from one to another within an atom.
Orbita O Existence of an electron in a specific orbit.
a
Unscientific concept for the quantum atom model.

The mental models for atomic spectra were identified Results


following the methodology used by Didis- et al. (2014). In the Students mental models
data analysis, participants coherent use of these codes (i.e. the
concepts) to explain the atomic spectra was important. For this Four dierent mental models of atomic spectra were identified;
aim, we focused on how students used the concepts coherently. the Scientific Model of Atomic Spectra (SMAS) and the other
three were unscientific: the Primitive Scientific Model of
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If these concepts were meaningfully connected together to


have a single conceptual framework, the observed knowledge Atomic Spectra (PSMAS), the No Photon Model (NPM), and
organization was called a mental model (see Appendix II for the Orbit Model (OM). Table 2 lists these mental models with
sample coding). The proposed mental models are not students the elements constructing the models.
definitions of atomic spectra. The students were not asked Scientific Model of Atomic Spectra (SMAS). The Scientific
to answer the question what is an atomic spectrum. Instead, Model of Atomic Spectra (SMAS) was observed in two of the
the mental models were identified by researchers based on nine students. In this model, students explained atomic spectra
inferences from participants explanations to the features with the coherent use of BE, DEL, ET, PE, and SL. More
related to atomic spectra described in the questions listed in specifically, the spectral lines (SL) arise from the transitions
Appendix I. In the investigation of mental structures, both (ET) of an electron in an atom (BE) from a quantum state to
of the authors discussed and agreed on four mental models another quantum state with a dierent energy level (DEL).
summarized in Fig. 1. Because a bound electron has discrete energy levels (DEL),
Fig. 1 presents how the codes (concepts) are related to each the magnitude of the energy of the absorbed or emitted photon
other and used together to form coherent frameworks, i.e., mental (PE) can be determined by the dierence between these specific
models. For example, the coherent use of the concepts (we call energy values. For this reason, spectral lines correspond to
them codes in the data analysis) bound electron (BE), discrete specific wavelengths. One of the two students explained the
energy levels (DEL), electronic transition (ET), photon energy (PE), spectral lines as follows:
and spectral lines (SL) is called the Scientific Model of Atomic Interviewer (I): Lets look at this. [Q1: In an emission
Spectra (SMAS), and it is outlined by the triangle with dotted lines. spectrum, what do the (colored) lines represent (in the visible
region), or in an absorption spectrum what do the dark lines
represent? Why do the lines occur? Why do they have dierent
colors (in the visible region) in emission spectra? Why are they
dark in absorption spectra?] Do you have any idea?
Student 8 (ST8): Yes I have. This is umm. . . In an atom, when
an electron with a dierent n is falling down to the other n
level, it emits a photon. This has a specific energy, for example
passing from n = 3 to n = 2, the photon is emitted with an
amount of eV energy between these energy levels. For this
reason these lines occur.
I: Ok, then, (pointing to the emission spectrum in the figure)
how does this dark area occur?
ST8: This is for example, here, umm. . ., in this dark area
(pointing to the emission spectrum in the figure), a photon
cannot be emitted. The magnitude of the energy that does not
Fig. 1 Composition of mental models about atomic spectra. The triangle correspond to dierence between two energy levels is dark here.
outlined by the dotted lines represents the Scientific Model of Atomic Absorption is the reverse of emission. That means, the
Spectra (SMAS); the shaded triangles represent the three unscientific absorbed photons correspond to dark lines, and other areas
models, and they are: the Primitive Scientific Model of Atomic Spectra
are seen colored.
(PSMAS), the No Photon Model (NPM), and the Orbit Model (OM). Ellipses
on a triangle contain the concepts used coherently (but not necessarily
One of the important observations about the students
correctly) in a mental model. The unscientific concept, the orbit (O), is in displaying this model was the relationship between spectral
shaded ellipse. lines and quantized energy levels. Another excerpt given below

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Table 2 Mental models of atomic spectra

Codes of concepts
Scientific Unscientific
Mental models BE DEL SL PE ET O
Scientific Model of Atomic Spectra (SMAS)     
Primitive Scientific Model of Atomic Spectra (PSMAS)a   
No Photon Model (NPM)a   
Orbit Model (OM)a   
a
Unscientific mental models of atomic spectra.

belongs to the other student who explains spectral lines as I: Why do we see dierent lines? Why are they lines?
follows: ST1: Line structure is probably because of each color has
I: Is there any relationship between energy levels and the specific character. For this reason they are dierent lines. But I
spectral lines? Is the distance between the spectral lines related have no idea about they are black in absorption spectrum (smiling).
to the energy levels? I: Lets look at this (pointing to Question 2). You see E
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ST9: Yes. here in eV. What does it mean?


I: How? ST1: Umm. . . When an electron is jumping from one energy
ST9: Energy levels determine the distance between the lines. level to another, umm. . . For example when jumping from 2 to
That means, for example, there are spectral lines. The transition 1, energy changes due to them. We call energy levels. . .
of an electron occurs between the discrete energy levels in an I: All right! What do these arrows (pointing to part d in
atom and it determines the wavelength of the emitted photon. Question 2) mean?
As a result of this, the energy dierence between two levels ST1: Energy level changes. There is energy dierence
(pointing to the figure) explains lines, and also the distances between them. Umm. . . It is radiation. We define radiation as
among the spectral lines. hn. Then, we explain spectrum. Because the energies are
Some conversations are omitted here dierent, dierent colored lights emitted naturally.
I: (pointing to the figure in Question 2) All right. Could you The other student who displayed this model also associated
explain what Part d each arrow means here? spectral lines with just the change of the discrete energy levels
ST9: Umm. . . This is the transition of an excited electron to rather than connecting it with electronic transitions. Furthermore,
the ground state. Arrows explain this. It gives the energy as the this student did not understand the energy levels correctly and
dierence of these energy values. Photon energy, which is hn, associated energies with orbits through mathematical manip-
equals to the dierence between these energy values. ulations as shown in Fig. 2.
This mental model is the target model for understanding ST2: If we get a small part here (drawing electron orbits and
atomic spectra, in which scientific concepts are understood and pointing to them), I guess it might be wrong but, anyway, if we
linked together correctly to explain spectral lines. consider this small region (on the orbit), we do not see as a
Primitive Scientific Model of Atomic Spectra (PSMAS). The curve but we see it as a line, that is an energy level.
Primitive Scientific Model of Atomic Spectra (PSMAS) was I: Do you mean the small part is an energy level?
another model which was observed in two of the nine students. ST2: Yes (smiling). I think, an energy level is, here (pointing
This model can be considered as a primitive scientific model to his drawing), umm, I do not understand that it is the energy
because it includes the coherent use of three elements of SMAS, of an electron or it is the energy of orbit! I do not know. . .
which are DEL, SL, and PE. I: Ok, I am trying to understand what you mean.
One of the two students with this model ignored the electronic ST2: From the beginning of the semester, it (electron) always
transitions in an atom in the explanation of spectral lines (SL), and changes energy levels and photon emitted or we send photon
considered radiation independent of the behavior of an electron in
an atom. More specifically, the emitted photon (PE) was described as
a spontaneous event when energy levels (DEL) change. This students
explanation of the emission and absorption spectra is as follows:
I: Lets examine these spectra. [Q1: In an emission spectrum,
what do the (colored) lines represent (in the visible region), or
in an absorption spectrum what do the dark lines represent?
Why do the lines occur? Why do they have dierent colors (in
the visible region) in emission spectra? Why are they dark in
absorption spectra?]
ST1: Umm. . . I remember that spectra are as the fingerprints
of atoms. It is interesting. I like this description. . . Probably,
the colored lines are because of radiation. Fig. 2 Explanation of energy levels in terms of orbits and integrals.

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and it also changes energy level. I remember it. I remember I: Do you mean this energy level corresponds to a line in the
from modern physics, but there were similar explanations in spectrum (pointing to the figures of Questions 1 and 2) and
the chemistry course. (Smiling). . . Umm. . . If we get a part from another energy level is another line in the spectrum?
here (pointing to his drawing again). . . Dont we integrate small ST5: Yes, thats right.
parts in this way? For example, (drawing the integral graph), An excerpt from the third student displaying this model
this is dz (smiling). . . I know this. . . I am not sure about my showed how energy levels correspond to spectral lines as follows:
knowledge. Umm. . . These lines (pointing to energy levels), they ST3: Umm. . . Energy level is inversely proportional to wave-
are energy levels of electrons. But there is something missing. I length. That means, if it has a long wavelength, the energy is so
feel I am right. little.
PSMAS is the closest model to SMAS in terms of recognizing I: Do you mean here (pointing to the spectral lines) energy
the relationship between photon energy (PE) and discrete levels are dierent?
energy levels (DEL) of an electron. However, the missing of ST3: If a wavelength of this light is dierent (showing a line
BE and ET in the model reflects wrong knowledge organization in spectrum) probably its energy level is dierent. This energy is
and incorrect understanding of concepts. Students with PSMAS hn (writing the formula in a box).
treated spectral lines as a property of an atom that is not connected Orbit Model (OM). The Orbit Model (OM) is similar to NPM,
to the behavior of the electron or any electronic transition. and the main dierence is that instead of the discrete energy
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No Photon Model (NPM). The most common model is the levels (DEL) that correspond to the dierent spectral lines, it is
No Photon Model (NPM), since four students displayed this the dierent orbits (O) where an electron resides in an atom
model. All of them were aware of DEL and SL; however, they (BE) that corresponds to dierent spectral lines (SL). Similar
thought that they were the same concepts. More specifically, to NPM, photons were not mentioned in OM. hn was not
students thought that an electron in an atom (BE) has energy considered as the energy for a photon, but rather, the student
levels (DEL) and these dierent energies correspond to the thought hn corresponds to a spectral line. The students explanation
dierent spectral lines (SL). No transitions between energy is as follows:
levels or the concept of a photon was mentioned. hn was not I: [Q4: Suppose the electron in a hydrogen atom obeys
considered as the energy for a photon, but the energy level that classical mechanics rather than quantum mechanics. What
corresponds to a spectral line. One of the examples below explained would you expect to observe in the spectrum?]
students association of spectral lines with energy levels: ST6: Umm. . . I think about that. . . The electron will fall
I: Here are the spectra (pointing to the figure in Question 1). down to the nucleus. . .
First one is an emission spectrum and the other is absorption. I: How will they fall down?
You see the colored lines between 400 nm and 700 nm in the ST6: Am I right? I am not sure but this is not a real event so
emission spectrum. [Q1: In an emission spectrum, what do the you cannot see such a thing (smiling).
(colored) lines represent (in the visible region), or in an I: What about spectrum?
absorption spectrum what do the dark lines represent? Why ST6: If you ask me the spectrum, I think these colors are
do the lines occur? Why do they have dierent colors (in because of orbits, but I do not know. Spectrum occurs probably
the visible region) in emission spectra? Why are they dark in due to the distances of the orbits. That means, if it is real, we
absorption spectra?] see these spectral lines here (drawing the discrete spectral
ST7: Umm. . . They are. . . These colorful lines are energy levels. lines, which were close to each other at one end of the spectrum
I: Energy levels? around 400 nm, as shown in Fig. 3) because now orbits are
ST7: Yeah. . . being closer to each other at this end. This might happen at the
I: How do you explain, for example, why the dark area other end (pointing to the opposite end of spectrum for 700 nm).
between the colored lines is large here and it is small here? The student displaying this model had similar knowledge
ST7: I am not sure but I think it is because of the dierence organization to the students with NPM but this student connected
between energy levels. . . spectral lines with orbits that are at dierent distances from the
Another student gave a similar explanation on atomic nucleus. This was also an incorrect model. The student did not
spectra. have a correct understanding of discrete energy levels, electronic
I: [Q1: In an emission spectrum, what do the (colored) lines transition, photon energy, or orbitals.
represent (in the visible region), or in an absorption spectrum
what do the dark lines represent? Why do the lines occur? Why do Structure of mental models
they have dierent colors (in the visible region) in emission spectra? Table 3 compares the structures of dierent mental models in
Why are they dark in absorption spectra?] Can you explain? terms of purity (Bao, 1999; Didis- et al., 2014) by considering
ST5: Yes. . . It is related to energy levels. whether the concepts involved are scientific or unscientific. If
I: How they are related? all the concepts involved are of the same type (e.g. scientific), it
ST5: Both are already discrete (smiling). was called a pure model, and if not (e.g. both scientific and
I: You see lines. unscientific), it was called a hybrid model.
ST5: Yes, these lines have got to be energy levels (pointing to One of the interesting findings of this study on the structure
the spectrum). of mental models reflected in Table 3 is that a pure mental

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What do the mental models reflect about students


understanding of atomic spectra?
This research indicated some threshold concepts explained
by researchers (Meyer and Land, 2003; 2006; Cousin, 2006; Park
and Light, 2009; Talanquer, 2015). A threshold concept can be
described as opening up a new and previously inaccessible
Fig. 3 A students drawing of the emission spectrum. A hypothetical way of thinking about something (Meyer and Land, 2006, p. 3).
electron in the hydrogen atom obeys classical mechanics rather than They are dicult to understand but when they are understood
quantum mechanics. There are discrete spectral lines when the electron is they provide more connected and deeper understanding
falling down to the nucleus. Lines are getting closer to each other because (Chandler-Grevatt, 2015). Threshold concepts are assumed to
orbits are getting closer to each other. The student did not consider the
have the following five characteristics: transformative, integrative,
dierence between the 400 nm end and the 700 nm end of the spectrum,
and stated that the closer lines can exist in either end of the spectrum irreversible, troublesome, and bounded (Meyer and Land, 2003;
depending on which end the nucleus is. The lines are concentrated at one 2006; Cousin, 2006; Park and Light, 2009; Talanquer, 2015).
end because it is approaching the nucleus. Mor (in the lower right Electronic transition (ET) and photon energy (PE) are identified
corner) means the color violet. as threshold concepts in understanding atomic spectra as they
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demonstrate the five characteristics mentioned above. Firstly,


these two concepts are transformative because unscientific
model with all the concepts used being scientific is not necessarily
mental models emerged due to the missing of one or both of
a scientific mental model. Although all the elements of a mental
these two concepts as shown in Fig. 4.
model can be all scientific concepts, whether the mental model
Electronic transition (ET) is what dierentiates the two
is scientific or not depends on the connections among the
models SMAS and PSMAS. Students with PSMAS do not associate
concepts in the knowledge organization. For example, in the
the change in energy levels in an atom with the electronic
SMAS, students used scientific concepts in a coherent and
transition between dierent quantum states. An important
correct way. However, in mental models PSMAS and NPM,
thing to point out is that the unscientific model PSMAS is very
students used scientific concepts with incomplete or incorrect
hard to be identified with common calculation questions in
understanding and connected them incorrectly when they organized
atomic spectra. Students with either SMAS or PSMAS will be able
their knowledge.
to correctly calculate the wavelengths in the absorption or
The incorrect pure organization of knowledge can be manifested
emission spectra based on that the photon energy equals the
in two ways. First is without using all the scientific concepts
dierence between two discrete energy levels.
needed in the construction of a scientific mental model, and the
In addition to electronic transition (ET), photon energy (PE)
second is with incorrect links. For example, the students with
is the other threshold concept: students with PSMAS lack ET
PSMAS did not consider electronic transition between energy
and misconnected PE directly to DEL, and students with NPM
levels to explain the photon energy and they explained it only in
or OM lack both of these concepts in their mental models.
terms of the dierence between energy levels. The absence of
The lack of the concept of photon energy is easier to be
these concepts in their knowledge organization prevented the
identified than the concept of electronic transition with calculation
construction of correct models.
questions, as the students with NPM or OM will not be able to
In another example, students displaying NPM had wrong
correctly calculate the wavelengths in atomic spectra based on
links among the scientific concepts in addition to missing
the wrong connection between spectral lines (SL) and discrete
concepts; they did not fully understand DEL or SL and incorrectly
energy levels (DEL) in NPM or orbits (O) in OM.
connected these two together.
The transformative characteristic of these two threshold
In addition to the pure mental models, the last type of
concepts is also demonstrated as they bring a shift from a classical
organization is the hybrid model. In our study, we observed that
perspective (common sense) to the quantum perspective in
OM was a hybrid unscientific model which was constructed by
the use of scientific and unscientific elements together.

Table 3 Purity of mental models

Mental Scientific Unscientific


models elements elements Connection Purity
SMAS 5 0 + Pure, scientific
PSMAS 3 0 . Pure, unscientifica
NPM 3 0 ., Pure, unscientificb
OM 2 1 ., Hybrid, unscientificb
(+) corresponds to correct connection. ( ) corresponds to wrong Fig. 4 Domains for mental models of atomic spectra identified by two
connections. () corresponds to missing connections. a Wrong under- threshold concepts. The visual model of Park and Light (2009) about the
standing with missing concepts. b Wrong understanding with missing/ threshold concepts was used to indicate their role in the construction of
wrong concepts and missing/wrong connections among the concepts. scientific and unscientific models.

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explaining the atomic spectra. The correct understanding of questions on atomic spectra without the misconception on
atomic spectra with electronic transition and photon energy orbitals exposed.
is also a reflection of a scientific understanding of atomic
structures and the wave-particle duality of light and matter. As
threshold concepts, ET and PE are also integrative because they Conclusion, discussion and
bring together other important concepts spectral lines, implications
discrete energy levels, and bound electron of atomic spectra
as shown in Fig. 1. Mental models are the knowledge structures constructed in an
Given their transformative and integrative roles in explaining individuals mind, which are composed of coherent elements to
the atomic spectra, they are irreversible and unlikely to be forgotten. explain what is perceived when seeking a deeper understanding
They are troublesome, that is they require the quantum perspective (Norman, 1983; Taber, 2013; Didis- et al., 2014). Our research
and are hence counter-intuitive and dicult to understand. has shown that students wrong understanding of the concepts
Their troublesome characteristic is also why the electronic results in the construction of unscientific mental models of
transition (ET) is missed in all the three unscientific mental atomic spectra. Gentner (2002) explained that novices had a
models and photon energy (PE) is misused in PSMAS and tendency to learn conservatively. For this reason, students
missed in NPM and OM. Lastly, they are bounded, because often used locally coherent but inconsistent structures. One
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they are specific to the disciplines related to quantum theory. of the interesting findings was almost half of the students
We think that understanding the phenomenon of atomic (4 students) associated discrete energy levels (DEL) with
spectra can be seen as a strategic tool to assess whether the discrete spectral lines (SL) in NPM. Ivanjek et al. (2015)
students have a good understanding of the following three indicated that a large number of Croatian and American
aspects shown in Fig. 5: (1) the behavior of an electron in an students might have such a kind of understanding in atomic
atom (wave-particle duality of matter), (2) the wave-particle spectra. This kind of idea might be considered as a misconception
duality of light, and (3) the interaction between an electron of students about atomic spectra; however, our research findings
and a photon (lightmatter interaction). As shown in Fig. 5, the indicated that students might have this misunderstanding with
SMAS consists of five scientific concepts concerning the above a coherent wrong organization of the fundamental knowledge
three aspects. elements about the spectral phenomenon. Another model, OM,
The behavior of an electron in an atom (BE) can be explained was the other kind of wrong association of spectral lines.
with the wavefunctions (orbitals) associated with the corresponding One student having this model explained that the change in
energies (DEL). In the process of an electronic transition (ET) orbits caused the collapse of spectral lines toward one end of
between dierent quantum states, the electron absorbs or the spectrum. The findings of Ivanjek et al. (2015) and our
releases energy that corresponds to the packet of energy carried findings from dierent countries reflected how students intended
by a photon (PE), which explains the colors and discreteness of to concretize abstract concepts with observable elements (e.g.
spectral lines (SL). This is how matter and light interact. spectral lines) with wrong associations.
The only limitation of using atomic spectra as the assessment As Park and Lights (2009) research indicated the importance
tool for the understanding of atomic structures is that SMAS of threshold concepts to understand the atomic structure
does not require the understanding of orbitals, so students well, we also identified that two of the fundamental concepts,
with an incorrect understanding of orbitals can do well in electronic transition (ET) and photon energy (PE) were threshold
concepts in the construction of a scientific mental model about
atomic spectra. There are two important concepts embedded in
other concepts such as atomic structure and the nature of light.
Similar to the findings from previous research studies (Bao,
1999; Didis- et al., 2014), we also observed that both scientific
and unscientific elements were used together in one of the
students mental models, and that is the hybrid unscientific
model OM. One possible explanation of this model is that the
students kept the early Bohrs atomic models describing the
atom in terms of orbit, but they misused this concept to explain
atomic spectra.
Students with NPM and OM incorrectly connected either the
individual discrete energy levels or the classical orbits to each
of the spectral lines. One possible cause for this misconception
is that the students misinterpreted the symbolic representations
of the energy levels or the classical electron orbits, and hence drew
Fig. 5 The scientific model of atomic spectra (SMAS) as a reflection of the
correct understanding of (1) the behavior of an electron in an atom (wave-
incorrect connections with the spectral lines (an observable reality).
particle duality of matter), (2) the wave-particle duality of light, and (3) the This is consistent with the explanation by Chittleborough et al.
interaction between an electron and a photon (lightmatter interaction). (2002) that the misconceptions arise from the wrong interpretation

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of symbolic representations that are not always clearly defined. (3) When using quantum terminologies and visual represen-
In addition, this wrong connection can also be explained with tations to describe quantum phenomena, teachers should
an inappropriate analogy between analog and target. Previous make sure that students understand them correctly. Human-
research indicated that mental models were often based on like or classical attributions to quantum objects should be
analogies (Duit, 1991; Treagust et al., 1994; Glynn and Takahashi, carefully used to avoid misconceptions. Mathematical connections
1998; Gentner, 2002; Glynn, 2007; 2008; Didis- , 2015). Students should also be emphasized for quantum theory concepts and
explanations of NPM indicate their wrong analogical reasoning visuals (Tsaparlis, 1997) to prevent students from applying
based on the shared feature, i.e. discreteness, for both irrelevant mathematical models to explain quantum concepts.
the discrete energy levels and the discrete spectral lines. Didis- (4) Conceptual questions on atomic spectra used in the
et al.s (2014) research indicated the existence of an analogy in interviews not only help us identify the dierent mental models
the unscientific mental model of quantization. In the Shred- students may have, but also help identify students misconceptions
ding Model, students explained quantization as a slicing of and increase their interest in understanding this phenomenon.
a cake. Firstly, as noted earlier in this paper, the unscientific model
In addition to concretizing dicult abstract concepts by PSMAS is very hard to be identified with common calculation
either misinterpreting the symbolic representation or drawing questions in atomic spectra, because students with either SMAS
inappropriate analogies, we also observed that students tried to or PSMAS will be able to correctly calculate the wavelengths in
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use irrelevant mathematical models to interpret the visual the absorption or emission spectra based on that the photon
representations. One example is that a student described orbits energy equals the dierence between two discrete energy levels.
as an integration process as shown in Fig. 2. Therefore if calculation questions are the only form of assessment
Students use of the concepts such as energy level and of students understanding of atomic spectra, students with
spectral lines, orbit and orbital interchangeably in this PSMAS can answer them correctly and hence have the illusion
study is similar to the physics education students use of that they fully understand the phenomena of atomic spectra.
some quantum mechanical concepts such as operator and Secondly, we observed in our interview that when the students
observable interchangeably (Didis- et al., 2010). In addition, realized that they cannot fully explain the spectral lines in the
students use of the concepts orbit and orbital interchange- absorption and emission spectra, they got really curious and
ably may also indicate students diculty in discriminating wanted to ask more questions to learn what was really going on.
classical and quantum phenomena (Bao, 1999; Ke et al., In addition to the conceptual questions listed in Appendix I,
2005). Ke et al.s (2005) research showed that the experienced another good one is to ask students why lines in the emission
students having quantum mechanical mental models knew and absorption spectral lines appear at the same wavelengths.
about the dierences between classical and quantum ideas, (5) We suggest that teachers take time to explain the physical
but students having classical mental models for quantum set up for the atomic spectra so that the students understand
concepts were not aware of their conflicts. Based on these the dierence between absorption and emission spectra instead
discussions, we draw attention to the following issues and of inventing or guessing what atomic spectra are.
suggestions for teachers to consider: (6) Knowledge in chemistry and physics can be organized
(1) As the topic of atomic spectra involves the atomic separately (Taber, 2001) by students and this artificial division
structure (matter), properties of light, and how light and matter could be a barrier in students learning. Greca and Freire (2014)
interact, we suggest that teachers start with the introduction of suggested that some physics concepts that are base for quantum
the first two aspects to provide students a solid background, mechanics should be modified and taught to all undergraduate
and then explain how a photon and an electron interact through students. However, sometimes chemistry students may consider
the absorption/emission of a photon during an electronic chemistry learning separate from physics learning (Taber, 2001).
transition. This may minimize students mistake in associating Vice versa, it is possible that physics students may consider
electronic energy levels directly with spectral lines. atomic orbitals as a concept in chemistry and fail to transfer the
(2) Developing links among concepts helps identify mis- knowledge to understanding atomic spectra taught in a physics
conceptions of individual concepts and promotes meaningful class. Teachers should be careful not to promote division
learning. A concept may be understood better in relation to between physics and chemistry, but should provide required
other concepts (Taber, 2015). Conceptual linkages made by physics or chemistry background to students so that they can
learners among dierent concepts help teachers understand understand the quantum mechanical concepts eectively.
how well the students understand them. Teachers should Both qualitative and quantitative methodologies can be used
explore and map out the links students hold for concepts to investigate students mental models with dierent designs,
taught in the class (Taber, 2015). Atomic spectra is a strategic and our research used a qualitative approach and identified
topic where we can help students understand the fundamentals students mental models from their answers to a series of
of both matter and light. The integration of multiple topics conceptual questions. For further research, some quantitative
has advantages to overcome misconceptions as explained approaches (Bao, 1999; Stamovlasis et al., 2013; Vadnere and
in Tsaparlis (1997) where the integration of atomic orbitals Joshi, 2009) may be used with a statistical analysis of data from
and spectroscopic terms was used to help students clarify the a larger number of students for generalization of results to
misconceptions around atomic orbitals. dierent populations.

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Appendix I: interview protocol Acknowledgements


(1) In an emission spectrum, what do the (colored) lines We thank Bulent Ecevit University and the Scientific and
represent (in the visible region), or in an absorption spectrum Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK).
what do the dark lines represent? Why do the lines occur? Why
do they have dierent colors (in the visible region) in emission
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This journal is The Royal Society of Chemistry 2016 Chem. Educ. Res. Pract.