Play card games to teach electronic configuration and ionic compound formation | Feature

Like many schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we run a three-year course for science GCSE, but it is a challenging step up for many students from lower school learning. Early in the course, students need to gain fluency with atomic structure, linking it to the periodic table, isotopes and ions. Some students relish this. They spot the trends and patterns quickly and show rapid development. For others, it’s a real struggle. This can have a huge impact on subsequent learning due to the time constraints in delivering the course. And students that are capable of higher tier chemistry soon end up on the foundation tier pathway.

Our usual strategy to improve these students’ understanding is through low-stakes testing and guided practice. However, some students simply do not show improvement. They start developing an attitude of ‘I can’t do chemistry’, which can make the next two and a half years a struggle for them and their teachers. I wanted to see if we could improve their understanding and recognition of ions, and remove the triggers of assessment anxiety through gameplay.

Could students show the same metacognitive approaches in learning about ions and ionic bonding?

In education, terms often evolve and mutate. Game-based learning is not the same as gamification. The latter brings the strategies of gameplay into lessons, for example through use of a game-based learning platform such as Kahoot! Typically, these strategies are there to improve engagement, whereas game-based learning seeks to improve conceptual learning through playing games.

When you pick up a deck of playing cards, you instantly know what to expect and start planning your strategies to win the game at hand. As cards are played, you monitor your progress, adapting your strategy and perhaps taking a risk. These metacognitive processes are key to your success. Could students show the same metacognitive approaches in learning about ions and ionic bonding?

how to play

I designed a deck of anions and cations that students would encounter during the GCSE course. Together with other teachers in my school, we trialled the deck critically, thinking about what students need to develop more fluency with the tricky concept of ions. We distilled this down to include electronic configurations, dot and cross diagrams, covalent line diagrams and the symbolic representations, eg Mg2+. The idea was to provide many different representations of the same species to allow students to correctly identify the ions and develop a deeper understanding of what each representation means.

Download your own deck for free from Origami Organelles. I would recommend a deck for every four students.

We then thought about which games would be commonly known and simple. Students would not have to invest as much working memory into the rules with easy, well-known games, freeing up space to think about the cards and their strategies.

In the end, we decided on:

  • snap – to encourage recognition of different representations of the same species.
  • gin – to develop fluency in making ionic compounds with a balanced charge.
  • naming gin – to improve students’ naming of compounds.
  • eliminate gin – to develop strategy and metacognitive processes as ‘played’ compounds cannot be played by another student.

Each of these games is quick to play. This was a key outcome as we wanted something that could be used at the beginning or end of a lesson for 10–15 minutes to help manage our time effectively.

Students were developing fluency with the language and models that are integral to chemistry

After the initial trial of the deck, we were able to see how the distribution of ions needed to be developed to allow for challenging gameplay. For instance, when playing snap there was still a low probability of matching species, but matching electronic configuration was a breeze. However, the latter required a lot more thought from the players. It would have been straightforward to solely focus on ions formed from groups I, II, III, VI and VII, but this would have ignored a key aspect of ionic compound formation that students come across at GCSE – acids. This raised another issue, how should we represent, for example, a sulfate ion in a way to facilitate understanding. We simplified the cards for transition metals and larger species where the octet rule is not applicable.

Everyone’s a winner

It was amazing to see students fully immersed in each of the games, genuinely excited to play. The intervention had a positive impact on the students pushing for the higher tier paper, with a large improvement in their structure and bonding assessments compared to previous cohorts, along with a more positive attitude to chemistry. By regularly playing these games, they were developing fluency with the language and models that are integral to chemistry and the beginning of the GCSE course, which helped them engage with more of the theory in later lessons. Another useful thing about the deck is that we have been able to use the cards under the visualizer to do retrieval practice of ions.

Undertaking this action research project has had a huge impact on my students and me. The time investment to consolidate students’ understanding of ions and compounds has been worth it. Some of the outcomes draw parallels to the Mastery curriculum in mathematics, which describes that every student can learn maths if they are given enough time. It could be that every student can learn chemistry if they are given enough time too, with mastery in certain concepts being key for future progress.

Thank you to the RSC’s Chemical Education Research Group (CERG) for supporting the project via a teacher-researcher fellowship.