Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Utilizing a Differentiation Framework, Piagetian Theories and Bloom’s Taxonomy to Foster Experiential Learning Activities in Chemical Engineering

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Brenda Hutton-Prager

Submitted: November 25th, 2017 Reviewed: February 19th, 2018 Published: October 10th, 2018

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.75646

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This chapter will explore the development of laboratory experiments and analysis for undergraduate chemical engineering students, by utilizing a differentiation framework specifically adapted for university-level education. The differentiation framework explores the relationship between Piagetian and post-Piagetian thinking skills with differentiated learning skills, demonstrating links with Bloom’s taxonomy and experiential learning theories. Experimental activities developed within such a framework will allow all students to participate fully in the learning experience intended, as they will be given opportunities to reflect on the learning, and put this new learning into action, within their current thinking operational level. This chapter provides an in-depth look into the educational framework proposed, and then shows examples of how it is used in the development of experimental activities. Educators following this advice will greatly enhance the educational outcomes of the experimental activities conducted.


  • personalized learning
  • differentiation framework
  • Bloom’s taxonomy
  • Piagetian and post-formal thinking experiential learning

1. Introduction

There is no lack of pedagogical theories aimed at the K-12 education sector, many of which can be utilized together in order to provide an excellent education for children. Some of these theories are being employed in lower classmen with higher education to improve the educational outcomes of young adult learners [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]. Malcolm Knowles [6] popularized the term “andragogy,” which refers to adult learning theories. These ideas became widespread in the 1960s, and typically referred to informal education for later year adults, who could draw on their life experiences as part of their learning. Formal education such as that experienced at university, community college or trade school, did not adopt such principles. These young adult learners can benefit from teaching and learning methods used in the high schools, but with extensions or adaptations to meet their undergraduate needs. Many have typically not gained sufficient “life experience” to benefit from andragogical teaching methodology as defined, and hence fall into an “in-between” educational group, where teaching methods need to be developed more formally.

This chapter outlines some key adaptations of pedagogical methods suitable in post-secondary education, followed by applications of these methods in chemical engineering undergraduate laboratory classes. It is anticipated that these methods would be useful for all Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) undergraduate and graduate education.


2. Development of an educational framework for STEM education

2.1. Piagetian and post-Piagetian (pP) learning theories

Piaget’s theory, or Piagetian theory, has had a huge impact on the educational beliefs of educators around the world, and has largely dictated the ”expected” intellectual development of children as they progress from birth to adulthood [7]. While this theory is still well accepted in many educational domains, the connections with biological progression of childhood development have come under scrutiny. It is well documented that students acquire new knowledge in a series of progressive stages (matching Piagetian stages), except that this development occurs at vastly different rates between students, with factors such as level of maturity, experience, culture, and individual ability strongly influencing these rates [8]. Due to these different rates of progression, it has been well observed that as many as 50% of freshmen students in higher education have yet to complete the final stage of Piagetian acquirement of knowledge [7].

Briefly, the four stages outlined by Piaget are (a) the sensorimotor stage for infants (0–2 years); (b) the pre-operational stage (2–7 years); (c) the concrete operational stage (7–11 years); and (d) the formal operational stage (12–15 years) [7, 8, 9]. The sensorimotor stage sees infants acquiring knowledge using their sensory skills such as touch, sight, or feelings, and is present with the infant right up until the time speech begins. The pre-operational stage occurs when young children use the additional skill of language to bring further meaning to their knowledge development. While language is used to describe various situations, there is often an over-exaggeration and little logic to the verbal explanations, and others opinions have little impact on the learner, although they may be copied. At the concrete operational stage, children are able to expand their thought processes and overall intellect by incorporating logic, comparing objects, and understanding concrete ideas [8]. In the final stage of Piaget’s theory, the learner can deal with more abstract ideas, construct their own thought patterns, and evaluate information provided; however, while they can evaluate and make sense of information, typically only one single answer will be considered “correct” [8, 10].

More recently, Piagetian theory has been extended to include further thought patterns, commonly known as post-Piagetian (pP) or post-formal ideas. In a study by Wu and Chiou [10], post-formal thinking was linked to creativity, and also the need for creativity in science (and likely STEM) fields to pursue and generate original thought. Although formal operational thinking is required for performing systematic tasks—a necessity in STEM fields—it does not allow for creativity, as formal thinkers believe there is only one correct answer [10]. Therefore, successful STEM researchers need to display both formal and creative thinking. Post-formal or pP levels of development are said to include two further stages: (e) relativistic thinking; and (f) dialectical thinking. In relativistic thinking, the learner begins to observe contradictions with potential solutions, and ultimately accepts that more than one solution is plausible given different ways of viewing a particular situation. This acceptance of other perspectives enables more novel solutions to ultimately be found. In dialectical thinking, the learner is open to new knowledge, and in fact expects to change their current thought pattern as new knowledge is found or presented. This is known as an “evolution of knowledge” thought pattern, and essentially can only evolve from contradictions of thought. Dialectical thinking enables the learner to synthesize new thought, and is essential for the creative process. Researchers operating at this level are typically more creative [10]. A final stage in thinking skill suggested here is (g) creative or independent thinking, where post-formal thinking has become an independent process, and the learner no longer relies upon guidance to come up with individual thought. This helps distinguish the educator demonstrating and encouraging development of thinking patterns (e) and (f) to research students versus those who have since mastered the “art” of thinking. The ultimate goal of a successful PhD student is one who is equipped with sufficient thinking intellect to be independent, and hence thinking stage (g) is included in the current discussion. These last three stages can equally be applied to professionals in their respective fields who have gained expert-level competence and independence of thought.

Given seven progressive stages of thinking skill development and acquirement, influenced by many outside factors influencing the rate of development, a typical class will consist of students operating at varying thinking levels. As such, it is important to run all classes, even in higher education settings, in a differentiated fashion to meet the needs of all students.

2.2. Differentiated or personalized learning theories

Carol Tomlinson has made the differentiated teaching and learning pedagogy famous, particularly in the K-12 educational sector [11, 12, 13], also more recently known as personalized learning. The ultimate goals of differentiated teaching is to promote growth in learning of all students from their starting point, ultimately promoting independence of learning within their particular stage of intellectual thinking development. With the explosion of the computer age, many automated tools are being developed to provide drill practice for students at their level of competency, gradually increasing or decreasing the level of difficulty as required. This is one of many tools at an educator’s disposal to utilize in the classroom. Others include providing differentiated homework sheets; group work to conduct more open-ended problems; inquiry-based learning tasks; experiential learning tasks; active learning; and many more. Each of these tasks, if carefully constructed, provides opportunities for learners to actively engage with the material, promoting depth of learning within their zone of proximal development (ZPD) [14], all the while challenging them to the next level of thinking.

This method of teaching (and learning) is quite popular at the K-12 level, despite some inevitable critics [15]. However, it is yet to gain popularity and commonality in higher and graduate level education. Much of this is to do with the fact that the original Piagetian theory concluded formal operational thinking by age 15, and hence there was no need for differentiated learning in higher education settings, since all students would be performing at the same intellectual level of thinking. More recent post-formal thinking levels, and an acceptance of different rates of thinking development in all learners, strongly dictate the necessity to continue differentiated learning into the higher education sector.

2.2.1. Differentiated learning in K-12 education

Differentiated learning is described by a number of key characteristics by several researchers in the field [16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23], and these have been further summarized into five key differentiation principles, DP1–DP5 below [24]:

  1. Understand student need and preferred learning modes.

  2. Focus on key concepts and provide multiple approaches to learning.

  3. Provide challenging learning experiences within each student’s ZPD.

  4. Foster collaboration between students and their faculty.

  5. Create independent learners and ownership of learning.

For concrete operational thinkers, the educator would likely recap prior core knowledge before beginning a new topic, and identify the types of activities that students prefer to assist their learning (DP1). When teaching the key concepts of the topic, the educator would incorporate variety in the activities, but would provide strong guidance and instructional teaching regardless of activity being undertaken (DP2). Problem-solving and critical thinking would be explicitly demonstrated to the students to enable them to follow similar patterns when solving problems on their own (DP3). Group activities would feature strongly in the learning, however in the early stages, students would learn “how to work in groups” more so than relying specifically on group tasks to promote further learning (DP4). Finally, the educator would provide tasks that competent learners within this thinking category could successfully complete unaided, but the vast majority of tasks would be those following pre-specified steps.

By contrast, for formal operational thinkers, the educator would create opportunities for learners to be more responsible for their own learning. For example, while he/she would still identify the existing knowledge of the learners, review of the core knowledge would be up to the student (DP1) and, although the key concepts would still be taught in multiple ways, there would be less dependence on the instructional approach, providing more freedom for students to explore abstract problems (DP2). Challenging tasks would rely on students’ prior mastery of problem-solving skills, concentrating more on developing adaptations of these skills to non-routine problems (DP3). Collaborative tasks with other students would see the students now begin to rely on each other to add to existing knowledge, having now mastered the key functioning of a team (DP4). Independence would be demonstrated when learners rely on their own problem-solving skills, and those of their peers, to independently work problems and make sense of more abstract ones as well (DP5).

A detailed study by Valiandes [22] was conducted in 13 Cypriot primary schools, covering 479 fourth-grade students (average age 9 years) and 24 teachers. The students were functional at the pre-operational and concrete operational thinking stages of Piaget. An important aspect of this study was the in-depth support given to the teachers to adequately train them in differentiated teaching strategies. Students were tested on literacy skills, and post-test results were significantly better for students participating in differentiated learning than the control group, which had largely instructional-based learning. Typical observations of differentiated instruction included noting the time spent by the teacher (a) commenting on student general behavior; (b) providing additional examples; (c) direct teaching/asking questions; and (d) providing student guidelines for work. Other observations included identifying the degree of activity variation; providing personalized support to students; providing learning opportunities to students of all readiness levels; time for students to reflect on basic knowledge and skills, or prerequisite knowledge; prioritizing order of activities; accomplishing lesson objectives; and providing differentiated homework. Many of these observations fit well into the DP in the concrete operational level. As a result of this in-depth study, differentiated practices were described as [22]:

“instruction planning based on constructivism learning theory, the hierarchical order of learning activities (DP1), the maximization of students’ active participation in the learning process, the reduction of teachers’ talking time during teaching (DP2), the variation of activities, the opportunity for students to work at their own pace, the personalized support that students receive (DP3), the differentiation of activities according to students’ interests and learning profile (DP4), and the continuous evaluation of students’ achievement with a simultaneous and ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of the learning process (DP5).”

The above quote has been interlaced with the identification of the five DPs as explained earlier, to demonstrate that these principles broadly cover many descriptions of differentiated practices. This example shows both the effectiveness of differentiated instruction at (mostly) the concrete operational level, as well as the importance of fully equipping teachers with the appropriate skills in delivering such instruction.

2.2.2. Differentiated learning in higher education

Educators of lower classmen in the higher education sector may encounter significant numbers of students operating in the concrete or formal operational levels, and hence differentiating the instruction would follow a similar pattern to those outlined above in Section 2.2.1. This is adequately demonstrated by a few reported studies of freshmen level mathematics classes [25, 26]. In the study by Chamberlin and Powers [25], freshmen mathematics students taking “number and operations” were studied. Data were initially gathered on the students to judge their interests and preferred learning modes (DP1). Graduated activities were then implemented, each aimed at differing levels of intellectual readiness based on an analysis of the students’ pre-requisite core knowledge. These activities included class extension activities, student work groups, student choice in activities, direct instructional modification as required, differentiated homework sheets, and formative/summative testing (DP2–DP4). Analysis of the pre- and post-testing indicated that students receiving differentiated instruction improved by 1.7 points out of 8, while the control group improved by only 0.3 points. It was concluded that the differentiated learning was successful, and mastery of required skills and independence in performance was observed (DP5) at the thinking operational levels of the students. The range of activities particularly identifies students working in the concrete and formal operation stages.

What might a differentiated classroom look like for upper classmen, or learners intellectually ready to undertake relativistic and/or dialectical thinking? In these two stages, the learner would gradually take on a more active role in their learning skill development through the five DPs. While these principles remain similar, the learner would become more active in participating and directing the learning, with the educator playing a guidance role. In relativistic thinking stages, the educator may still outline the required pre-requisite knowledge but would expect the student to revise accordingly. The educator would still deliver key concepts in multiple ways, but the learner would also be expected to experiment with different modes of learning, in order to maximize knowledge retention. In DP3–DP4, the activities presented to the students would begin at lower level (concrete thinking) to confirm knowledge of new concepts, but would progress to include abstract and ill-defined problems that present different solution paths.

In the dialectical thinking stage, the learner would take an even more active role in understanding his/her needs at the beginning of a new topic, and deciphering the key concepts of that topic. This level of learning/instruction within a formal institution would be seen in graduate level classes, advanced students in lower level classes, or research studies. As such, the activities in DP3 and DP4 would be learner-initiated (possibly at the initial direction of the educator), where learners would delve in depth into the chosen topic and make sense of the apparent contradictions presented. Students may eventually come to the realization of new knowledge as a result of these apparent anomalies.

In the final creative thinking stage, the learner has essentially mastered all previous stages of intellectual thinking development and can pursue a new field of interest at depth, and with the ability to creatively synthesize new knowledge. This would typically be seen with an advanced PhD student and/or experienced researchers, as well as expert industry professionals.

The extension of differentiated teaching and learning to the later stages of post-formal thinking is graphically displayed in Appendix A. The horizontal axis describes a progression in differentiated learning skills (DP1–DP5), while the vertical axis describes a progression in thinking skills (Piagetian and pP thinking stages). This arrangement shows the differentiation framework as it commonly stands in K-12 education (concrete and formal operations only), and then extended for later-year learners (post-formal thinking). Note that sensorimotor and pre-operational levels have been left blank, given that the focus is on higher educational training. Next to DP5 for each thinking level is a description of characteristics a learner will display once they have achieved independence with learning at that thinking level. This figure is to be interpreted as a continuum for both thinking and learning skills, and the characteristics described will alert the educator that the learner is ready to progress to the next level of intellectual thinking. The ages and approximate school year levels next to Piagetian and pP thinking stages are intended as a guide only, and are very fluid, with a particular reminder of the many outside influences that affect the rate of progression through these stages. This is true also for progressing through the various learning stages within each thinking level. Finally, the vertical axis to the right of the figure loosely assigns the different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, which also covers different thinking stages from lower to higher order thinking.

To the best of the author’s knowledge, Appendix A is believed to be the first attempt by linking intellectual thinking skills at the higher and graduate education levels with a differentiation framework. Extensions to this level have not typically been considered to this depth. Several school systems provide differentiated curricula in all mainstream classes to grade 10, and then assume a more “one-size-fits-all” approach beyond this level (e.g., [27]). This is despite the general acceptance that Piagetian rates of progression are fluid, and competence in formal operational thinking by age 16 is no longer expected in all students. Hence, Appendix A is an attempt to provide additional differentiation assistance from grade 10.

2.3. Bloom’s taxonomy

Bloom’s taxonomy was originally published in 1956, and later developed and modified in 2002 by Krathwohl [28]. This most common form of Bloom’s taxonomy is the cognitive domain, represented by lower order thinking (LOT) and higher order thinking (HOT) activities. However, two other domains have also been developed, which include the affective domain (interests, attitudes, and values) and the psychomotor domain (motor skills).

The cognitive domain can be used in a number of ways by the educator, and indeed learners, to fully master a topic of interest. In Appendix A, it can be seen that the six main cognitive stages of Bloom’s taxonomy (LOT: remember, understand, and apply; and HOT: analyze, evaluate, and create) are loosely matched with the Piagetian and pP developmental thinking skills. In this way, the broad matching of categories indicates that it takes many years to move through the LOT and HOT cognitive domains suggested by Bloom, showing that progressive intellectual development is required to access higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. This taxonomy is progressive in a similar manner as Piagetian thinking skills, and demonstrates that one must be comfortable with LOT before accessing HOT.

On a much smaller scale, an educator may commonly use this taxonomy for a particular topic or even a single class being presented to learners. Tasks will be organized such that early activities require students to remember and understand new terminology and concepts, and later ones will provide opportunity in applying these concepts to progressively more difficult tasks. The depth of LOT and HOT will vary depending on the intellectual thinking level of the learner (Piagetian and pP), and hence the ability to “create” new knowledge for any given topic will be limited by the depth of thinking capability of the learner.

Fully independent learners operating in the creative domain of post-formal thinking will have developed their own methods of learning a new topic to expert level, based on a culmination of all previous learning they have experienced to that point. Even at this fully independent thinking stage, a learner to a new topic of interest will still need to progress through LOT and HOT in order to become sufficiently competent in a new field. These learners will have the skills to generate actual new knowledge, as opposed to learners operating at lower thinking skill levels, who will create new knowledge for them in their overall development. This is a key difference between a researcher or industry expert generating new knowledge and a learner becoming competent in their field.

The five broad DP also to some degree have links with Bloom’s LOT and HOT. For example, in DP1 and DP2, the teaching and learning focus is on understanding existing knowledge and learning concepts of a new topic. In DP3 and DP4, the focus shifts to applying this newly gained knowledge to progressively more difficult tasks, which require some degree of the analysis and evaluation of the assigned problem. Finally, in DP5, independence of the learner within their current thinking skill category is reached when they are able to become fully competent with the range of tasks required, creating new knowledge for them.

To recap, Bloom’s taxonomy can be used as a tool to (a) demonstrate life-long learning; (b) frame the teaching of a given topic; and (c) frame the learning of a given topic for more independent learners.


3. Developing experimental activities within the educational framework for chemical engineering

Within the framework, previously discussed are many opportunities for the educator to develop and deliver a variety of learning activities. While there are many activities available in an educator’s “toolkit” for various situations, only experiential learning will be explored here, which governs the nature of experimental tasks and other experience-based non-experimental learning activities for the class. This learning theory, together with the educational framework discussed, will be demonstrated in the development of experiential activities for chemical engineering undergraduates.

3.1. Experiential learning theory

Kolb’s experiential learning was progressed to its current form from significant earlier works of Dewey, Lewin, and Piaget [29]. Its prime motivation is the acquirement of knowledge through experience. The four modes of learning are (a) concrete experience; (b) reflective observation; (c) abstract conceptualization or thinking; and (d) active experimentation, or acting on one’s new knowledge [29]. These are often summarized into: experience; reflect; think; and act. This curiosity-driven learning increases engagement and interest of students, helping them to achieve learning independence. Similarities can be observed with the Piagetian and pP thinking stages, where the earlier ones are concerned with experience (touch, visual, smell, etc.); the intermediate stages develop reflection and thinking about observations; and the final stages promote action of a learner to discover new information for her/himself.

As an activity in an educator’s toolkit, this theory can be shown as a small in-class thinking task to explain an observation; as a longer-term real-life assignment or design project; or as a formal experimental class. Such activities could form the instruction over DP2–DP4, depending on depth and time constraints. To avoid confusion, an experimental class is a subset of experiential learning, and not all experiential activities need to include experiments.

3.2. Developing an experimental activity in chemical engineering

Following the differentiation framework and interactions with Piagetian and pP theories, as well as Bloom’s taxonomy, the educator must start at DP1 by “knowing the student needs.” Knowing these needs will determine which Piagetian thinking skills primarily make up the laboratory class. For lower classmen, the students would typically be operating over a range of concrete, formal, and relativistic, while for upper classmen, the latter two would be more common, perhaps with some operating at dialectical thinking stage. However, each class is unique, and this must be determined by the educators running the theory classes, and discussed with the educators running the practical classes (as is most usually the case).

Having decided on two or three thinking skill levels that best represent the class, the educator will then develop the practical class on a particular unit operation with key learning objectives in mind, mostly within the DP2–DP4 range. Within this range, the level of difficulty of the tasks increases, from providing conceptual knowledge of the experiment through to applying this knowledge, and then analyzing and evaluating the resulting data. This is akin to the middle part of a Bloom’s taxonomy cycle. DP5, where students practice independence, may be incorporated by a final task that requires the students to come up with a part or all of an extended investigation from their experimental task. This will build on their knowledge gained within the previous DPs, and will equip them with independent skills within their thinking skill range. When developing the experimental class, the educator should also keep in mind the experiential learning cycle just described, allowing adequate opportunity for reflection and cognitive thinking after an observation, followed by tasks that allow the students to actively use their newly gained knowledge.

A common method to incorporate different levels of thinking operational ability is to include choice between the required tasks. Those operating at higher thinking levels will typically choose the tasks that satisfy their need and hunger for learning, while those at lower levels will choose tasks more suitable for them. Rarely do students choose “the easy way out,” as discovered by Hutton-Prager and O’Haver [30], and the vast majority of students genuinely engage with material by challenging themselves.

A planning template is shown in Table 1, demonstrating how the educational framework and pedagogies can be used to develop a meaningful laboratory class. The final format to the students would be a handout (or part of an experimental booklet) detailing the unit operation name, theory, tasks, and questions. Report write-up differs between colleges, and specific information on how this is to be done needs to be conveyed to the students. It is common to follow the format of a typical research publication.

3.2.1. Dissecting unit operation experimental activities into educational outcomes

There are some dedicated educational researchers looking into developing meaningful experimental activities that promote long-term retention and learning by the students (for example, see [31, 32, 33, 34]). Frequently, experiments are labeled as “cookbook” experiments, where students follow a detailed set of instructions and describe what they observe [33]. While this does have obvious advantages from a safety and time viewpoint, on its own, it does not provide sufficient opportunity for students to practice HOT questions and reflective activities as per experiential learning principles. However, as a differentiated activity, some students may require a more “cookbook” style experiment to assist progression of their learning, but this would still be incorporated with other opportunities to extend thinking. It is important to take into account the students’ thinking levels when developing experimental tasks.

Some more “innovative” experiments presented at the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) annual conference in 2016, have been reviewed as per the template described in Table 1, and their results appear in Table 2. The reader is encouraged to read the full publications, as only a brief summary is presented here. This summary is based only on the conference presentation materials, and not the actual laboratory information presented to the students.

1Differentiation frameworkThe educator must first determine the key learning objectives for the laboratory class, including the “bare minimum” acceptable levels of knowledge to be gained.
She/he then considers the prior knowledge of the students coming into the laboratory class.
What thinking level (Piagetian, pP) are the students operating at? The educator confers with other professors who know the students well.
2Differentiation framework; LOT from Bloom’s taxonomyA short and concise theoretical base of the unit operation intended for the experimental study is provided, including references to more detailed discussions. This will assist students learning this for the first time and those who need a brief review.
3–4Differentiation framework; LOT from Bloom’s taxonomyAs most laboratory classes are done in groups, DP3 and DP4 will be considered together.
Regardless of thinking operational level within the class, it is good to begin with some concrete tasks to confirm one’s knowledge, and become competent in operating the equipment. A precise procedure* on how to routinely operate the equipment is provided.
Progressively challenging tasks covering Piagetian and pP thinking levels; “experience” and “reflect” from experiential learningA variety of tasks are designed for the students to collect data/observations for subsequent analysis, and the precise instructions are gradually reduced as the students gain competence running the unit operation. These data collection tasks need to align with the key learning objectives, and will allow students to fully explore the capabilities or function of the unit operation.
HOT from Bloom’s taxonomy; “reflect” and “think” from experiential learningUtilizing the collected data, written response tasks are provided that require students to analyze and evaluate the information, drawing on their knowledge and the theory behind the unit operation. Many of these tasks are open-ended to ensure reflection/in-depth thinking by the students.
5HOT from Bloom’s taxonomy; “act” from experiential learningWithin the ability levels of the learners, an extension to the investigation is provided, where the students are required to come up with their own procedure to investigate a new phenomenon on the unit operation. An applied response task to this investigation is also included.

Table 1.

Planning template to assist in coming up with a well-rounded experimental task, meeting all the required learning objectives.

Precise procedure required for safety reasons; use DP5 to allow students freedom in coming up with a new experimental task instead.

DPTheoriesExperiment 1: Mechanical properties of foods [34]Experiment 2: Unsteady state conduction [34]Experiment 3: Air conditioner experiment—thermodynamics cycle [32]
1Differentiation frameworkDetailed objectives providedDetailed objectives providedDoes not appear to have been provided.
2Differentiation framework; LOT from Bloom’s taxonomyFundamental physical properties of food in unit operations covered in classes preceding experimental activity.Fourier’s Law of conduction previously developed in classes.Pre-lab worksheet completed with instructor guided demonstration of equipment, discussing equipment, concepts and how to collect data.
3–4Differentiation framework; LOT from Bloom’s taxonomy.Operating procedure providedOperating procedure providedNo procedures provided, in lieu of the previous week’s demonstration of the equipment.
Progressively challenging tasks; “experience” and “reflect” from experiential learningExperiment was designed in three parts, progressively becoming more difficult.Difficult to assess—does not appear to progress tasks.Spreadsheet assignment done individually, asking for specific calculations and tables to be created in Excel.
HOT from Bloom’s taxonomy; “reflect” and “think” from experiential learningGood assessment questions which are open-ended and require students to think and reflect.Assessment tasks require calculations but they do not appear to provide depth beyond calculation procedures.Target audience given to each group. Team devised experimental plan based on their audience, and collected relevant data.
5HOT from Bloom’s taxonomy; “act” from experiential learningNone provided, but difficult to determine from information provided.None provided.A3 lab report poster required for submission; website creation to explain new concepts learned.

Table 2.

Summary of three experimental tasks, dissected into the proposed framework.

This small sample of experiments demonstrates many of the tasks required as per the planning template (Table 1). Two of the three experimental tasks provided detailed objectives. It could not be determined from the information provided whether or not student ability or operational thinking levels were taken into account. Based on the description of tasks performed, Experiment 1 would suit formal operational thinkers; Experiment 2 would be better suited for concrete—formal operational thinkers; and Experiment 3 would be an excellent task for formal—relativistic thinkers. The first two experiments lack the creativity and HOT tasks (even at the suitable thinking levels), while the third experiment lacks some initial tasks at the LOT level to assist students in building their knowledge. The pre-laboratory worksheet and Excel task may be sufficient, but this will depend on the operational thinking levels of the students performing this task. The creative tasks discussed in Experiment 3 were pleasing to see, and fully met the requirements of HOT and experiential learning in a fun and engaging way for the students.

These same experiments could be written for students performing at different thinking skill development levels, and activities within each of the learning skill (DP) categories would hence vary to accommodate the different thinking levels. If Experiment 2 was used at the concrete operational development level, DP3–DP4 would need to be populated with additional experimental tasks and at least one open-ended question. There would also need to be a task included in which students could “act” on their new knowledge and participate in HOT at their operational thinking level. If this same experiment was developed for formal and/or relativistic thinkers, then there would be more challenging activities included within DP3–DP4 exploring different aspects of Fourier’s law; many more open-ended questions; and full exploratory tasks with no direction provided by the instructor. However, this would need to be preceded by some concrete activities to prepare the students in competency of equipment operation, both from a safety viewpoint as well as providing groundwork in which they can build knowledge. This was well-demonstrated in Experiment 3.

By stark contrast, the more common “cookbook” experiments [33] would typically provide objectives (DP1); sometimes a background theory (DP2); a step-by-step procedure to be followed exactly; a set of basic analysis and closed questions relating to the observations (partial requirement of DP3–DP4); and no extended task from the learning gained (no DP5). This setup lacks student engagement and does not extend the theoretical learning provided in class into practical settings [33].

3.2.2. Example of a freshman design project developed within the educational framework

Hutton-Prager has previously described a Freshman design project implemented in ChE101: Introduction to Chemical Engineering at the University of Mississippi (UM) [30, 35], as part of the development of differentiated teaching and learning. Each semester, this four-week program requires students to investigate the full-scale processing of a candy bar. It begins with student groups making the candy bar in a food laboratory, and observing the intricacies required to successfully prepare the bar. Data and observations are collected and subsequently analyzed, along with a detailed investigation of the scale-up process. Table 3 demonstrates how this project meets the requirements of the experimental planning template (Table 1), covering all aspects of DP1–DP5, Bloom’s taxonomy and experiential learning.

1Differentiation frameworkThe educator, having spent most of the semester with the students, has determined that most students are operating in the concrete and formal operations stages.
The key objectives of the freshman design project are:
  • Provide a real-life example from the food industry where chemical engineers may be employed.

  • Understand the process conditions required for control in a full-scale process.

  • Perform calculations of flow rate, pressure, and temperature.

  • Identify unit operations within the candy-bar process.

  • Gain an appreciation of what is required for scale-up of a “recipe” to bulk production of candy bars.

  • Learn how to draw flow charts of the process.

  • Consider economic aspects of the candy-bar process.

2Differentiation framework; LOT from Bloom’s taxonomyThe project statement provided to the students details a real-life scenario of a student on an internship, involved in doing some plant trials to scale-up a new candy bar for potential sale.
All the learning leading up to this design project is on developing skill in conducting pressure, temperature, and flow rate calculations.
3–4Differentiation framework; LOT from Bloom’s taxonomyA recipe is provided to the students that carefully details the exact steps to be taken to make a small-scale version of the candy bar (likened to a plant trial in the scenario). Discussions before the practical session require students to think about how they will log their temperature vs. time data in the various sections of the candy-bar preparation, and come up with their own observation sheets.
Progressively challenging tasks covering Piagetian and pP thinking levels; “experience” and “reflect” from experiential learningStudents are encouraged to come up with their own methods for the chocolate coating of the candy bar. They are advised before the experimental trial to research into the most suitable methods for chocolate coating.
During the laboratory class, students identify different unit operations and think about how these stages would need to be modified if being prepared on a much larger scale. As an example, they quickly realize that manually stirring the mixture over a hot plate will require substantial modifications on a large scale.
HOT from Bloom’s taxonomy; “reflect” and “think” from experiential learningIn the subsequent weeks after the experimental session, students work their way through a guided template report, in which they are required to graph their temperature vs. time data; perform statistical calculations on the data; explain their observations; and explain the chemistry behind the candy-bar process. The choice of candy bar always involves a caramelization step or a bicarbonate soda reaction step, which requires thinking/reflection by the students to scientifically explain the observations from the experimental trial. This is framed by an executive summary; background on the candy-bar company; conclusions; and recommendations on whether to go to full-scale production. The actual answer is irrelevant; it is the analysis/evaluation of the trial in coming to a recommendation that is important.
5HOT from Bloom’s taxonomy; “act” from experiential learningStudents are asked to explore scale-up of their process. They identify the unit operations of the process; decide on an order for continuous candy bar preparation; draw a block-flow diagram representing the full-scale process; choose a unit operation to explore its detailed design; perform example calculations of flow rate, average molecular weight, etc.; and consider some economic impacts on the final sale of the candy bar. They submit their written report with a “supervisor” target audience, and produce a 5-min verbal presentation discussing their experimental trial, the results, and their recommendations.

Table 3.

Description of the freshman design project implemented in ChE101: Introduction to Chemical Engineering, at University of Mississippi.

This design project covers all four stages of experiential learning (experience, reflect, think, and act); the five differentiation principles; and both LOT and HOT from Bloom’s taxonomy. Bare minimums have been built into the written report, where students must demonstrate their skill in the required calculations and explanations of observations. In DP5 where students explore the scale-up process, they have a choice in which unit operation to investigate. Depending on operational thinking level, students may choose an “easier” unit operation that requires less explanation than others, and will not be penalized. There is no upper limit to the depth in which students explore this project. The final requirement of the verbal presentation provides opportunities for students to learn oral communication skills, and importantly promotes independence as they explain their project in a realistic scenario.


4. Non-experimental experiential activities

It is worth completing this discussion with a brief explanation of experiential activities that can be performed in a theory class. Remembering that experiential learning requires reflecting, thinking, and acting after an experience, a common activity employed by an educator is a thinking experiment. This requires the students to imagine a particular unit operation, and think about how it might work. Others might include practical demonstrations, real-life scenarios, or “story-telling” particularly in the form of analogies, which enables the learners to access the complexities of a topic using more familiar situations.

The author has previously introduced a very successful thinking experiment into ChE417: Separation Processes, at UM on fixed bed adsorbers. This is preceded by a theory lesson outlining the basic terminology of adsorption processes, typical adsorbents, and applications, followed by the various adsorption isotherms commonly discussed in the literature. This helps to build knowledge and creates an “experience” (although theoretical) of how adsorbers work and their typical applications. The thinking experiment begins in the following class, where the students are asked to think about how the concentration of solute in the fluid would vary as it travels over the length of a fixed bed adsorber. They draw their thoughts on a concentration vs. length graph. This is followed by a class discussion on mass transfer zones, and then students are asked to think about whether a narrow or wide mass transfer zone is better, with justification. They then need to discuss in groups what types of factors might affect the length and the rate of movement of this mass transfer zone, and are challenged to come up with at least 10 different factors. The thinking experiment continues where students are asked to draw on a concentration vs. time graph what the breakthrough situation may look like. With further discussion, they come to the realization that integrating such a curve will represent the amount of solute adsorbed for a given time. This exercise is highly engaging for the students, and enables them to fully “experience” the workings of a fixed bed adsorber, with considerable reflection and cognitive developmental opportunities. Acting on this new knowledge is subsequently gained with calculation questions for fixed bed adsorber design.

This straightforward example of presenting content in a highly engaging way demonstrates how a unit operations “experiment” can still be conducted effectively within a theory class. This type of teaching and learning is particularly suited to smaller colleges where equipment and funding may be minimal. Studies have shown that experiential learning activities such as the one described are only marginally less successful than an actual experimental program [36]. If the experimental programs are not carefully developed as outlined earlier in this chapter, then the net gain of experiential learning via experiment is reduced, and active learning activities within a theory class can be equally or more beneficial.


5. Conclusions

A differentiation framework for higher education has been introduced and discussed, which extends the framework commonly used in K-12 education systems. This framework has been built on existing ideas of post-Piagetian thinking levels, and has mapped each thinking level to five broad differentiation principles. The framework has also been linked to Bloom’s taxonomy of lower and higher order thinking skills.

Using this differentiation framework and experiential learning theories, a model for experimental classes in undergraduate chemical engineering unit operations has been developed. This model has been demonstrated using some pre-existing experimental activities described at ASEE 2016 [32, 34]. Its full capacity has been shown with a freshman chemical engineering design project currently operational at the University of Mississippi, providing examples of how all aspects of a differentiated activity can be developed, meeting the requirements of both thinking and learning skill development.



This work has been developed at the University of Mississippi, and is not funded externally.


Conflict of interest

The author has no conflict of interest.


A differentiation framework of learning skills, matched to operational thinking ability level, described by Piagetian and post-Piagetian theories.


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Written By

Brenda Hutton-Prager

Submitted: November 25th, 2017 Reviewed: February 19th, 2018 Published: October 10th, 2018