Spectracular Educational Impacts


We’re expanding upon the points made in the introductory language of the Spectracular! Indiegogo campaign to explain how we think each aspect of the project could have various impacts on teaching, learning, and assessment.  We’ll keep this article brief.

Intended Teaching Impacts

First, we’re making the card game into a turn-key product package that can be downloaded or shipped to any undergraduate chemistry classroom in the country.  We’re adding an instructor guide system to allow any chemistry professor to implement the paper card game into his or her classroom teaching with confidence—and minimal hassle.

This means we’re streamlining the process for using the card game system as a teaching tool and modeling how to improve this kind of implementation for similar card-app learning systems.

Second, we’re extending the expertise of any chemistry professor to give more effective feedback more often to more of his or her students by combining the usefulness of the mobile app and the web dashboard to coordinate what students already understand with what they’re doing in and out of class.

This means a professor can use the dashboard to strategize shifts in his or her teaching to better serve improvements in understanding for his or her students.  This “shift strategy” will likely differ from one class to the next, even with the same group of students.

Third, using the web dashboard, we want to help professors understand what their students do and don’t understand, and how they can help their students improve their spectroscopy skills in the most meaningful way, working together and separately using the card game and app.

This can help professors get a better understanding of how the app and card game are working together as teaching and learning tools, giving professors a better strategy for communicating with their students about how they can use the card game and app as tools to learn spectroscopy more effectively.

Intended Learning Impacts

We’re considering potential learning impacts for the Spectracular! Project from two basic perspectives: learning inside the classroom (collaboratively with classmates playing a game) and learning outside the classroom (individually while studying spectroscopy).

Inside The Classroom

First, we’re upgrading the paper card game to make it easier to play, so students can focus on learning together, instead of how to play the game.

Class time is precious, especially when it comes to the opportunity for real-time collaboration with other students.  This time should not be wasted figuring out how to use the learning tools to learn.

Second, we’re adding user guides and additional reference materials to ship with the game.

The card game must function well enough without the use of the app, and must be a useful learning tool even if the classroom internet connection is slow or unavailable.  This is what we call a “blackout plan”…what happens with learning technologies when the power goes out?  Teaching and learning must continue.

Third, we’re prototyping the mobile app to give students a way to check their own structure matches during a card game, and to challenge the matches of other students with greater confidence.

In this way, the app serves as a  scaffolding system to help learning increase their analysis and interpretation skills, ideally with less and less help from the app.  (This is something called the “expertise reversal” effect.) 

Additionally, these scaffolds for match checking and challenging can help prevent students from mistakenly reinforcing misconceptions by playing games with unnoticed incorrect card matches.

Fourth, we’re also building the app to streamline access to specific reference information based on the cards currently on the table.

Currently, students switch back and forth between reference materials (on paper and smartphones and laptops) to help them accomplish much of the learning that we’re hoping to support with the app.  This current “multi-modal” system is workable, but quite clunky, and we think the streamlining process will help students focus more on learning and less on getting access to necessary support information.

Outside The Classroom

First, we’re building the app to help students track all the matches they make in class, so they can review them later as many times as they want, linking to interactive step-wise explanatory animations on demand.

Essentially, learners will be able to sort through a personal archive or feed of all previous matches they’ve scanned.  This function will allow for a very powerful review process to help students understand the problem areas in their learning that may need more effort.

Second, we’re building a web dashboard to help students learn more effectively, by tracking their progress with spectroscopy skills as they play the paper card game and use the mobile app inside and outside of class.

This will help each student manage his or her own learning, making additional strategic decisions about where to place future learning effort, with, quite literally, a bigger picture view of their own learning progress.  Also, our intention for the dashboard is to help students improve the way they understand and communicate with others about their specific learning challenges.

Once a student realizes they need help, we want them to be able to use the dashboard to package and communicate these very specific needs—essentially, informed questions—to their professors, peer tutors, and classmates.

Intended Assessment Impacts

First, we’re hybridizing the paper card game with QR codes, which means we can track a lot more about what students are doing with the card game, not to mention send a lot more data their way (through the mobile app) when they need it.

Patterns emerging from these data will help us to have a much better understanding of the effectiveness of any paper card game as an individual and collaborative learning tool.

This means we can track what they are doing with the reference materials embedded in the card data.  This is really cool, because we can make clearer connections between students’ learning challenges and the tools they’re using to attempt to overcome these challenges.

In fact, the mobile app is designed to increase the precision of how we can track all sorts of ways students are interacting with spectroscopy content and activities as they practice and improve.

We’re positioning ourselves to collect data we don’t even know we need yet.  This is one way we’re hoping to “future-proof” the design of this app system for continued improvements in unobtrusive assessment of learning.

Next, one of the intended uses of the web dashboard is to watch how students manage their own learning progress through the knowledge, skills, and abilities associated with spectroscopy so we can better triangulate how we interpret the way they are interacting with the card game and the mobile app.

If we can understand how students THINK they’re learning, we can use algorithms to help students actually learn in a way that makes the most sense to them.  We can also empower professors to help students learn in ways that make the most sense to learners, which provides the potential for a much higher likelihood of engagement and effectiveness of learning, inside and outside the classroom.

Along the same lines, the more precise data collected about students’ repeated interactions with on-demand explanatory animations can be linked to how far along they are in their understanding of spectroscopy and how to use it.

For example: This means that we’re going to get a lot more information than just “Jill watched IEA 001.020 on March 16th at 2:14pm ET”.  We’re gathering evidence (sometimes multiple times a second) about the fact that Jill watched an IEA about [insert general topic here] after reviewing [structure match AB, captured in class three days ago], and she repeatedly engaged with sections 04 and 09 of this IEA, two and three times, respectively, and these sections are associated with chemistry/spectroscopy topics X and Y.  Additionally, she raised three questions while in the process of engaging with this IEA, which somehow relate to topics X and Y.   There’s no telling how many evidential statements will actually be generated during the 1-3 minutes Jill is engaged with this IEA.

Furthermore, we’re treating the way students play the game and use the mobile app as a series of problems to be solved, which means we can apply problem-based learning and assessment design practices to the way we build the game, app, dashboard, explanatory animations, and reference materials.

To accomplish this, we’re using a four-space model of simulation-based assessment to approach the way students engage with this hybrid simulation system of card game and app and dashboard.  The four spaces are problem, tool, solution, and response, and can be thought of as concentric circles.  The problem space defines the current problem to be solved.  Inside that is the tool space, which defines the tools currently available to solve the problem.  Inside that is the solution space, which is the activities that one or more people do to actually solve the problem.  Inside that is the response space, which is a version of the solution space that represents a state of “completion” or “doneness” of the problem solution.  In a more traditional sense, you can think of the response space as the final version of a homework assignment that you’d turn in for grading.

When we think about assessing students’ learning activities in Spectracular! using this model of assessment, we can plan for all sorts of ways to understand “partial responses” as students make necessary mistakes throughout the learning process, individually and with their classmates.  This allows us to move completely away from the traditional model of test-based assessment.

Don’t take a test, just do the work.  Play the game.  Solve the problem.  We’ll stay out of the way and gather lots of evidence about how you’re learning so that the app and system can provide the best feedback possible.  This has the potential to have a major impact on learning with hybrid technologies.

Lastly, we’re taking this approach to coordinate the design of our learning outcomes, assessment models, evaluation rubrics, and data protocols.  This way we can map all the data we’ll be gathering so we can better understand what the patterns of data mean for how students are learning spectroscopy within the context of organic chemistry.

From the beginning of this project, we’re approaching the solution from an “assessment first” mindset, meaning that all interactions with all aspects of the hybrid experience are opportunities for unobtrusive assessment, with one goal in mind: the ongoing support of learning, delivered exactly as it should be to each learner as they struggle and improve.

Everything we do to improve the way we assess students’ learning about spectroscopy is intended to improve the ways students learn—and the ways teachers teach—with the card game, app, dashboard, and animations in the Spectracular! experience.


We’re already planning a follow-up article about what we think the potential impacts are for this project concerning STEM careers and life in general for the average citizen, as well as how this project model could be applied to many other forms and uses of spectroscopy, as well as many other subject areas that would be a good fit for this type of learning system.

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