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Assoc Prof Bette Davidowitz
  +27 (0)21 650 2549
  6.41.1, PD Hahn building, upper campus


Academic qualifications and positions held

  • Associate Professor (2007—present), University of Cape Town, RSA
  • Senior Lecturer (2000—2006), University of Cape Town, RSA
  • Senior Scientific Officer (1986—1993), Chief Scientific Officer (1994—1996), Principal Scientific Officer (1997—1999), University of Cape Town, RSA
  • BSc Honours (1974), MSc (1977), PhD (1984), University of Cape Town, RSA

Other awards and accolades

  • Certificate of commendation awarded at the National Excellence in Teaching and Learning Awards, December 2012
  • South African Chemical Institute Medal for Chemical Education, awarded July 2004
  • Recipient of Distinguished Teacher Award, awarded December 2004

Research Interests

My research in chemistry education is located within the paradigm of the scholarship of teaching and learning, where the term ‘scholarship’ is considered to have a broader meaning, encompassing both teaching and research. I believe that engaging in original research related closely to teaching practice can advance our understanding of success in student learning in chemistry courses at tertiary level. My research is focused in three areas namely learning in the classroom, learning in the laboratory and students’ adjustment to the university. The majority of students who participated in these studies are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Learning in the Classroom

Chemistry Writing Project1

This project evaluated the development of the communicative skills of increasingly diverse second–year Chemistry students. A programme of writing assignments in the second–year Chemistry curriculum was designed to focus on writing as a tool for learning. Research revealed that students who were able to engage with the concepts could write about them in a coherent manner. Poor understanding of the materials led to the production of reports which were simply a collection of statements. Thus students’ writing can serve as an assessment tool to gauge their understanding of the material. The writing project has become an integral part of the undergraduate chemistry curriculum.

Second year tutorial scheme2

Throughput of students is a concern for academic departments in South Africa. In order to reduce content for increased mastery, and ensure student engagement with chemical concepts, tutorials were introduced for one of the second year chemistry courses at UCT in the place of some formal lectures. The impact of this innovation was investigated using questionnaires, interviews and a study of opportunistic data, such as examination results. Analysis of the data showed that the overall pass rate increased noticeably as did the number of students achieving high marks. Student, tutor and lecturer feedback lent credence to the belief that the improvement was largely due to the introduction of the tutorial scheme. Based on the findings from this project the tutorial scheme has been integrated into the second year chemistry curriculum.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge, PCK3

Capturing and portraying PCK

Teaching organic chemistry at the undergraduate level has long been regarded as challenging and students are often alienated by the mass of detail which seems to characterise the subject. In this project we investigated the practice of an accomplished lecturer by trying to capture and portray his pedagogical content knowledge, PCK. Data analysed from interviews and a set of five introductory lectures showed the framing of Big Ideas designed to underpin later work in the course. Five manifestations of his practice emerged strongly from the data analysis, namely Explanations, Representations, Interaction with Students, Curricular Saliency and Topic Specific Strategies which allowed us to make inferences about his underlying knowledge and beliefs regarding how the discipline should be taught. The most important aspect of his practice was his recognition of the basic underlying concepts to be mastered before starting the main part of the course, and his strong beliefs related to the learning of the discipline.

Determining the correlation between Content Knowledge and PCK4

It is commonly accepted that a high level of Content Knowledge, CK, is a prerequisite for the special knowledge base of good teachers known as Pedagogical Content Knowledge, PCK. More recently the construct of Topic Specific Professional Knowledge has been integrated into a consensus model of PCK. While there have been many qualitative studies focussing on PCK and its relationship to CK, quantitative studies are a more recent feature of work in this area. In statistical terms, this translates to the question: what proportion of the variance in PCK is accounted for by the variance in CK? In order to address this question one needs instruments that are valid and reliable, as well as being unidimensional in order to measure both variables. In addition, for a meaningful estimation of the correlation between CK and PCK, the data collected using these instruments should be interval data. The Rasch statistical model was used to address all of these requirements. During Rasch analysis raw score data for the topic of organic chemistry were transformed into interval measures and empirical evidence was obtained for validity, reliability and unidimensionality of the instruments developed for this study. The scatter plot of CK versus PCK measures revealed a reasonably strong linear relationship, r = 0.705, p-value < 0.001, which implies that an estimated 49% of the variance in PCK is accounted for by variance in CK.

Learning Approach Profiles5

What is the connection between student success and their approaches to learning? Do learning approaches develop with university experience? We explored these questions by constructing profiles using a specially developed fixed response instrument. Successful senior students showed more sophisticated approaches to learning. Unsuccessful students fell into two different categories; those using a surface approach and predominantly first generation tertiary students who used deep approaches. The findings have informed teaching in the academic development course where the lecturer provides “signposts” to enable students to access the tertiary environment while at the same time encouraging a deep approach to learning.

Submicroscopic diagrams in teaching and assessment6,7

This project focuses on a pedagogical approach to the teaching of chemical equations introduced to first year university students with little previous chemical knowledge. During the instruction period students had to interpret and construct diagrams of reactions at the submicro level, and relate them to chemical equations at the symbolic level with the aim of improving their understanding of chemical equations and concepts. Students received instruction in symbol conventions, practice through graded tutorial tasks, and feedback on their efforts over the semester. Analysis of the student responses to formative test and summative examination items over consecutive years indicates that there was a consistent improvement in the abilities of the various cohorts to answer stoichiometry questions correctly. The student–generated submicro diagrams serve as a visualisation tool for teaching and learning abstract concepts in solving problems.

Chemistry Competence Test8-11

A fruitful collaboration with Professor Marietjie Potgieter from the Chemistry Department at the University of Pretoria led to the development and evaluation of the Chemistry Competence Test which has been used for several purposes as outlined in the abstract of our paper published in 2011.

The development of the Chemistry Competence Test was prompted by the extensive curriculum changes in the South African school system after democracy was established in 1994. As chemists, we were concerned that there might be a lack of articulation between secondary and tertiary levels, since we anticipated that curriculum changes would have an impact on the knowledge base and skills development of prospective students. A diagnostic test developed initially to document proficiencies of first-time entering students to South African universities has proved to be a versatile instrument for multiple uses. Apart from monitoring levels of preparedness for tertiary chemistry during a period of systemic change it has also been used to evaluate institutional placement policies, to identify specific conceptual problems and procedural deficiencies and to measure conceptual gains over the course of the first year at university. In addition, its application for the prediction of risk of failure in first-year chemistry based on cognitive and non-cognitive variables was demonstrated. All these findings are valuable resources to inform lecturers who are concerned about minimizing the conceptual gap between secondary and tertiary chemistry.

Learning in Laboratories

Understanding of the Reliability of Chemical Data12

This study investigated the status of procedural knowledge of second year science and chemical engineering students at UCT. Procedural knowledge includes collection, manipulation, and interpretation of experimental data. A piloted questionnaire was administered to students before any instruction on data handling. Comparisons were made across the tasks, and clusters of responses were identified. The findings of this study had an impact on the design and content of the first year practical manual.

Flow diagrams13,14

Chemistry practicals are very resource intensive. If students are simply going through the motions then they are not getting “value for money” and neither is the university. I introduced an approach requiring students to construct flow diagrams in advance for each experimental procedure. A questionnaire was administered to investigate the success of the flow diagrams. Students found flow diagrams useful for time management and many of them said that the diagrams had helped them to “see the bigger picture”. Flow diagrams are considered to be a very useful strategy for learning and have been implemented in other departments and institutions.13

A rubric was later developed for the analysis of flow diagrams. The analysis showed that most students were able to draw flow diagrams that revealed evidence of deep processing. Most students had some concept of how the apparatus worked, providing evidence of their initiation into the social practice of laboratory work. The analysis also showed that flow diagrams could be used to gauge the students’ level of understanding of the practical manual. On completion of the research project, the rubric was simplified for use as part of the assessment for practical sessions.14

Metacognition in laboratories15

A research project explored the Competency Tripod Model and flow diagrams as two resources for enabling students’ metacognition in the chemistry laboratory. The resource which was found to be universally successful was the use of flow diagrams—all students endorsed this practice most enthusiastically. Flow diagrams are aimed at eliminating “noise” from practical sessions and enhancing procedural knowledge. Evidence suggests that they also succeed as metacognitive resources by asking students to engage with the instructions in the laboratory manual. Two of the four students appropriated the Competency Tripod model, while the others admitted to being influenced by it, but did not find it useful. We concluded that the climate created by the use of the various resources did enable metacognition in these students. The project also led to significant curriculum development in the practical course.

Signal to noise ratio in laboratories16

In practical sessions, students lack sufficient time or opportunity for deep processing of information. If the signal to noise ratio is too low, it can obscure the ‘chemical message’ which the lecturer is trying to convey. This project was an action research driven attempt to improve on a Hess’s Law experiment well known in most first year curricula. Data collected in 2000 indicated that students struggled primarily because there were too many practical demands to allow them to focus on the concepts involved. The experiment was re–designed and analysis of data collected in 2001 showed that the changes made a significant impact on the effectiveness of the laboratory session. The findings are relevant to designers of experiments in all disciplines.

Facilitating Adjustment to Higher Education

Skills for Success in Science17

Several studies have emphasised the importance of addressing social and emotional factors in facilitating adjustment to tertiary education. The Skills for Success in Science programme was introduced in 2005 for first-year students registered in the General Entry for Programmes in Science, GEPS. The broad aims were life skills development and improved adjustment which are assumed to underpin academic performance. Questionnaires and focus groups discussions were used to evaluate the 2005 programme. Students spoke about the improvement they experienced in coping with the new demands of being at university and the sense of mastery they derived from the programme. Interviews with the 2005 cohort at the beginning of 2007 revealed that the benefits of the programme extend beyond the first year.

Adjusting to tertiary studies18

Once students are admitted to institutions, they need to adapt. The chapter begins with an examination of studies looking into gaps in education, particularly between school and university level. The basic theoretical model to be used here is the notion of a holistic study of gaps, conceived by Rollnick, Manyatsi, Lubben and Bradley (1998). The chapter looks at elements of the gap that impinge on students’ ability to adapt to tertiary study. Gaps in subject matter knowledge are present but so are differences in teaching styles. Surprisingly similarities also exist, such as in methods of assessment. On the non-cognitive side, the issue of epistemological access is again found to be significant. Other studies of adjustment to higher education reveal challenges of alienation and engagement (Case, 2007) in engineering education. The chapter concludes with an examination of mentoring programmes and life skills programmes both of which contribute to the achievement of epistemological access.

Factors affecting students’ persistence in a science programme19

Building on an earlier study on student adjustment, this paper explores the reasons underlying access students’ decisions on their study programmes as they progress through their extended science degree, including the role of career aspirations in these decisions. Data from semi-structured interviews with 20 third year undergraduates show two groups according to their decision criteria. Programme–focused students are guided by an interest in the science subject and, later, by the possibilities of the study programme. Their main aim is the completion of the degree. Career–oriented students are motivated, initially, by role models and extra–curricular science activities, and subsequently by the career they see themselves pursuing after graduation. There is some indication that career orientation is linked with greater study persistence.

Representative Publications

  1. Davidowitz, B. (2004). The Chemistry writing project at UCT: from teaching communication skills to writing as a tool for learning. Davidowitz, B. African Journal of Research in SMT Education, 8, 127-139.
  2. Davidowitz, B. & Rollnick, M. (2005). Improving performance in a second year chemistry course: an evaluation of a tutorial scheme on the learning of chemistry.. South African Journal of Chemistry, 58, 138-143.
  3. Davidowitz, B. and Rollnick, M. (2011). What lies at the heart of good undergraduate teaching? A case study in organic chemistry. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 12, 271–278.
  4. Davidowitz, B. and Vokwana, N. (2014). Developing an instrument to assess Grade 12 teachers’ TSPCK in organic chemistry. In H. Venkat, M. Rollnick, M. Askew and J. Loughran (Eds). Exploring Mathematics and Science Teachers’ Knowledge: Windows into teacher thinking, Routledge, pages 178-194.
  5. Rollnick, M., Davidowitz, B., Keane, M., Bapoo, A. and Magadla, L. (2008). Students’ learning-approach profiles in relation to their university experience and success. Teaching in Higher Education, 13, 29-42.
  6. Davidowitz, B., Chittleborough, G. and Murray E. (2010). Student-generated submicro diagrams: a useful tool for teaching and learning chemical equations and stoichiometry. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 11, 84–91.
  7. Davidowitz, B. and Chittleborough, G. (2009). Linking the sub-micro and symbolic levels: Diagrams. In J. Gilbert, K. & D. F. Treagust (Eds.), Multiple representations in chemical education. Dordrecht: Springer, pages 169-191.
  8. Potgieter, M. and Davidowitz, B. (2011). Preparedness for tertiary chemistry: multiple applications of the Chemistry Competence Test for diagnostic and prediction purposes. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 12, 15–28.
  9. Potgieter, M., Davidowitz, B. and Venter, E. (2008). Assessment of preparedness of first-year chemistry students: development and application of an instrument for diagnostic and placement purposes. African Journal of Research in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 12 (Special Edition), 1-18.
  10. Potgieter, M., Davidowitz, B. and Mathabatha S. (2008). Preparedness for tertiary chemistry: issues of placement and performance of academic development programmes. South African Journal of Higher Education, 22(4), 861-876.
  11. Potgieter, M. and Davidowitz, B. (2010). Grade 12 Achievement Rating Scales in the New National Senior Certificate as Indication of Preparedness for Tertiary Chemistry. South African Journal of Chemistry, 63, 75–82.
  12. Davidowitz, B. Lubben, F. and Rollnick, M.S. (2001). Undergraduate Science and Engineering students’ understanding of the reliability of chemical data. Journal of Chemical Education, 78, 20, 247-252.
  13. Davidowitz, B. & Rollnick, M. (2001). Effectiveness of Flow Diagrams as a Strategy for Learning in Laboratories. Australian Journal of Education in Chemistry, 57, 18-24.
  14. Davidowitz, B., Rollnick, M. & Fakudze, C. (2005). Development and application of a rubric for analysis of novice students’ laboratory flow diagrams. International Journal of Science Education, 27, 43-59.
  15. Davidowitz, B. and Rollnick, M. (2003). Enabling metacognition in the laboratory: a case study of four second year university Chemistry students. Research in Science Education, 33, 43-69.
  16. Davidowitz, B., Rollnick, M. and Fakudze, C. (2003). Increasing the Signal to Noise Ratio in a Chemistry Laboratory – Improving a Practical for Academic Development Students. South African Journal of Chemistry, 56, 47-53.
  17. Davidowitz B. and Schreiber B. (2008). Facilitating adjustment to higher education: towards enhancing academic functioning in an Academic Development Programme. South African Journal of Higher Education, 22, 191-206.
  18. Davidowitz, B. and Rollnick, M. (2010). Adjustment of Under-Prepared Students to Tertiary Education. In M Rollnick (Ed) Identifying Potential for Equitable Access to Tertiary Level Science, Dordrecht: Springer, pages 89-106.
  19. Lubben, F., Davidowitz, B., Allie, S., Buffler, A. and Scott, I. (2010). Factors influencing access students’ persistence in an undergraduate science programme: A South African case study. International Journal of Educational Development, 30, 351–358.