Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Chemistry/Chemistry Education Research

First Advisor

Hannah Sevian

Second Advisor

Michelle Foster

Third Advisor

Jason J. Evans


Over the past two decades, chemistry education researchers shifted their focus toward what skills might be required in the twenty-first century chemical industry and to question whether the learning that occurs in traditional undergraduate teaching labs is sufficient for preparing the future workforce. For example, learning from failure and overcoming struggle are described as necessary traits for becoming a successful scientist, yet it is unclear how these struggles manifest and are dealt with in a laboratory learning environment as well as what students gain from these challenges. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education research has proposed the idea of productive struggle as a pedagogical tool for introducing struggle and failure into the classroom. While productive struggle seems to be a promising tool, little of the current research accounts for struggle within complex social environments and the potential for multiple learning outcomes. Therefore, this dissertation explores students’ experiences with struggles that occur during undergraduate general chemistry laboratory activities to observe how and what students learn from the obstacles they face.

This dissertation examines student struggle through a sociocultural theoretical perspective, using the conceptual and analytical framework of activity theory. By analyzing survey (n students = 327), video (n students = 52), and interview data (n students = 44) collected across two semesters of an undergraduate general chemistry laboratory course, second-generation activity system triangles were built from the data for multiple levels of laboratory activity to establish the contexts of the participants. The domains-of-struggle framework was developed by showing how different domains (cognitive, psychomotor, epistemological, and socioemotional) of struggle arose from contradictions within and among these activity systems. Then, student and teaching assistant actions were analyzed to glean how students learned to overcome struggle. Student actions were categorized by what they were productive toward, revealing a dichotomy between the goals of task completion and self-care. The data was analyzed for repeated externalized actions of the students that occurred after the struggle was resolved, providing evidence of learning outcomes. Findings showed a variety of learning outcomes produced. Implications for laboratory curricular design and future productive struggle research are discussed.


Free and open access to this Campus Access Dissertation is made available to the UMass Boston community by ScholarWorks at UMass Boston. Those not on campus and those without a UMass Boston campus username and password may gain access to this dissertation through resources like Proquest Dissertations & Theses Global or through Interlibrary Loan. If you have a UMass Boston campus username and password and would like to download this work from off-campus, click on the "Off-Campus UMass Boston Users" link above.