Facilitating Learning of Quantum Chemical Concepts through Grounding in Sensory Experience


Embodied Cognition, Haptic Learning Environment, Preparation for Future Learning, Educational Technology, Tactile Interaction


University chemistry students are expected to master highly abstract ideas such as energy, electrostatic forces, or non-classical, probabilistic behavior, often introduced as symbols or equations. To professional chemists, these representations stand for powerful ideas, and they can translate easily between them and what they see in the laboratory. For many students, however, the failure to “see” these ideas contributes to learning difficulties and a loss of interest (Tümay, 2016).

A major challenge for educators is introducing students to this knowledge outside of everyday, perceivable know-how.

Figure 1. The project is situated in an embodied cognition framework and assumes that imperceptible concepts which are often the concepts of interest in the chemical domain (blue) have to be understood by means of metaphors (indicated as arrows) grounde grounded in the perceivable domains of symbols and the laboratory (purple). Figure reproduced from Müller, 2023.

One approach towards teaching these imperceptible concepts is the embodied approach, which suggests to ground – that is to map novel ideas to familiar domains – these abstract concepts in sensory experience. One way to make these concepts accessible to our senses is by introducing haptic feedback to a (chemistry) learning environment (Zacharia, 2015). By navigating a haptic device, the user can feel feedback that corresponds to non-classical forces present in chemical reactions which are calculated based on quantum mechanical principles. Thanks to the exponential advances in technology, as well as the development of real-time quantum chemistry algorithms, this has now become possible (Haag & Reiher, 2013; Marti & Reiher, 2009; Weymuth & Reiher, 2021).

This project tackled this educational and technological challenge, and advances the use of embodied cognition in the learning of abstract ideas in (quantum) chemistry.

In a collaboration between the Learning Sciences group of Manu Kapur, and the Theoretical Chemistry group of Markus Reiher, we engineered and evaluated a haptic learning environment where students encountered and explored potential energy surfaces and the corresponding forces through interactions that are empowering, expressive, and even playful.

Research Questions and Hypotheses

In the scope of this project, we aimed to reproduce and build upon previously found positive effect of haptic feedback on academic performance in the context of initial quantum chemistry learning (Zohar & Levy, 2021). Hence, we asked to what extent learning with this specific haptic learning environment facilitates learning of basic quantum chemical concepts compared to the same environment without haptic feedback and the same visual environment navigated with a computer mouse. Moreover, we were interested in how this embodied learning process was mediated by learning mechanisms.

We hypothesized posttest performance to be highest for the students receiving haptic feedback (experimental), followed by students who used the computer mouse (control) and last by students who used the haptic device but did not receive haptic feedback (comparison). Based on PS-I literature, we further hypothesized positive affect, state curiosity and knowledge gap awareness to be influenced positively by the mode of the PS phase (Sinha & Kapur, 2021).

State of the project

Figure 2. In the scope of this project, four studies were conducted. Study I was a usability study based on the results of which the environment was improved. Study II to IV were problem-solving followed by instruction (PS-I) studies that investigated the effect of unsupported (II and III) or explained (IV) haptic feedback on learning.


The learning environment is embedded in SCINE Heron, the graphical user interface for the Software for Chemical Interaction Networks (SCINE) project. It was developed with both theories for grounded and embodied learning as well as the theory for interactive multimodal learning in mind. The software is used by both a novice audience as well as by researchers. In the environment relevant for this project, the students can select one or multiple atoms either with a computer mouse or with a haptic device. When they pull on the atom, the rest of the molecular system adapts to minimize the electronic energy of the system. If navigated with the haptic device, the operator further feels the quantum chemical force that would act on the atom(s). The software was released and is available on Zenodo (Bensberg et al., 2022).

Video 1. SCINE Heron.

Unsupported haptic feedback hinders learning

In what we denoted as study III in Figure 2, we compared fourth-semester students who used SCINE Heron either with a computer mouse (control), a haptic device without haptic feedback (comparison) or a haptic device with haptic feedback (experimental). The instructions were identical to isolate the mode of navigation (haptic device versus computer mouse) and the haptic feedback as only manipulated variables. We found that while the device did not have a significant effect on the learning outcome, the haptic feedback itself was hindering for learning (Müller et al., accepted). We explained this with the fact that only very few students connected all three available representations (molecular simulation, energy graph and haptic feedback) and therefore, the students who did not receive haptic feedback could focus better on the two visual representations while the haptic representation was rather distracting. We attributed the distracting effect to a failure of the students to understand the cognitive metaphor offered by the haptic feedback as it was not introduced at all to the students. We further found many different and sometimes detrimental conceptualizations of energy, for example energy as stimulus (i.e. F = E instead of the correct F = ∇E).

Figure 3. The students who performed the problem-solving tasks with the haptic device but without haptic feedback outperformed the students who received unsupported haptic feedback. Figure reproduced from Müller, 2023.

Explained haptic feedback activates salient learning mechanisms

We explored this finding further and compared in study IV students who did receive haptic feedback together with an explanation of the target metaphor to students who did not receive haptic feedback but a visual representation of the force as arrows on the atoms together with an explanation of how the length and direction of the arrows are determined. While the groups did not significantly differ in performance (due to a low response rate to the posttest), we found that many salient learning mechanisms (see Figure 4) were increased in the haptic group. We argue that the embodied experience facilitated the connection to prior experiences and hence mental integration of the new information.

Figure 4. Students who received explained haptic feedback showed higher attention, curiosity as well as positive affect and perceived relevance compared to their peers who received a traditional, visual representation of the force.


Müller, C. H., Reiher, M., Kapur, M. (2023, August 22 – 26). Concreteness in Quantum Chemistry. [Poster Session]. EARLI 2023, Thessaloniki, Greece.

Müller, C. H., Kapur, M., Reiher, M. (2023, July 28 – 29). Die vielfältigen Konzeptionen der chemischen Bindung bei Studierenden: Eine Fallstudie im Kontext der einführenden Quantenchemie‐Vorlesung. [Poster Session]. Berliner Methodentreffen Qualitative Forschung, Berlin, Germany.

Müller, C. H., Kapur, M., Reiher, M. (2022, September 8). Bachelor Students’ Understanding of Basic Quantum Chemical Concepts. [Poster Session]. SCS Fall Meeting 2022, Zurich, Switzerland.

Müller, C. H., Kapur, M., Reiher, M. (2022, August 22 – 24). SCINE Interactive: A Quantum–based Virtual Learning Environment for Chemistry with Haptic Feedback. [Technology Demonstration]. EARLI SIG 6 & 7 Conference, Zollikofen, Switzerland.

Müller, C. H. (2022, May 31 – June 3). Facilitating Learning of Quantum Chemical Concepts through Grounding in Sensory Experience. [Doctoral Consortium]. ISLS Annual Meeting – Doctoral Consortium, online.

Müller, C. H., Kapur, M., Reiher, M. (2021, September 10). Real-Time Haptic Chemistry: Dive Hands–First into the Molecular World. [Poster Session]. SCS Fall Meeting 2021, online. Runner-up poster award in the session computational chemistry of the SCS Fall Meeting 2021 (funded by the Swiss Chemical Society and DSM Nutritional Products).

Müller, C. H., Reiher, M., Kapur, M.  (2021, August 18 – 20). Access the Molecular World through Haptic Quantum Chemistry. [Poster Session]. JURE 2021, online.


Bensberg, Moritz, Brandino, Giuseppe P., Can, Yavuz, Del, Maria, Grimmel, Stephanie A., Mesiti, Michele, Müller, Charlotte H., Steiner, Miguel, Türtscher, Paul L., Unsleber, Jan P., Weberndorfer, Manuel, Weymuth, Thomas, & Reiher, Markus. (2022). qcscine/heron: Release 1.0.0 (1.0.0) [Computer software]. Zenodo. doi:10.5281/ZENODO.7038388

Haag, M. P., & Reiher, M. (2013). Real-time quantum chemistry. Int. J. Quantum Chem., 113(1), 8–20. doi:10.1002/qua.24336

Marti, K. H., & Reiher, M. (2009). Haptic quantum chemistry. J. Comput. Chem., 30(13), 2010–2020. doi:10.1002/jcc.21201

Müller, C. H. (2023). Embodied Quantum Chemistry Learning from Haptic Feedback. ETH Zurich.

Müller, C. H., Reiher, M., & Kapur, M. (accepted). Embodied Preparation for Learning Basic Quantum Chemistry: A Mixed-Method Study. J. Comp. Assist. Learn.

Sinha, T., & Kapur, M. (2021). When Problem Solving Followed by Instruction Works: Evidence for Productive Failure. Review of Educational Research, 91(5), 761–798. doi:10.3102/00346543211019105

Tümay, H. (2016). Reconsidering learning difficulties and misconceptions in chemistry: Emergence in chemistry and its implications for chemical education. CERP, 17(2), 229–245. doi:10.1039/c6rp00008h

Weymuth, T., & Reiher, M. (2021). Immersive Interactive Quantum Mechanics for Teaching and Learning Chemistry. CHIMIA, 75(1–2), 45. doi:10.2533/chimia.2021.45

Zacharia, Z. C. (2015). Examining whether touch sensory feedback is necessary for science learning through experimentation: A literature review of two different lines of research across K-16. Educ. Res. Rev., 16, 116–137. doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2015.10.001

Zohar, A. R., & Levy, S. T. (2021). From feeling forces to understanding forces: The impact of bodily engagement on learning in science. JRST, 58(8), 1203–1237. doi:10.1002/tea.21698

Dr. Charlotte Müller

Prof. Dr. Manu Kapur

Prof. Dr. Markus Reiher