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University of Colorado Denver College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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Faculty & Staff Directory

Karen Knaus, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Email: Karen Knaus
Office Location: Science Building 3071C
Phone: (303) 352-3628
Fax: (303) 556-4776
Office hours:
T  12:00-1:30PM
R  12:00-1:30PM
Or by appt.                

Area of Expertise:
Chemical Education Research


NSF Post-doctoral fellowship, Chemical Education Research (research specialization: educational assessment), ACS Exams Institute, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2006-2008

Ph.D., Clinical/BioAnalytical Chemistry (research specializations: protein crystallography and computational chemistry), Cleveland State University, 1999-2006


Research in the Knaus laboratory is focused on developing educational assessment materials in chemistry. Educational assessment is a broad field of study that involves the measurement of learning. The nature of educational assessment is becoming increasingly more important as teachers are being asked to defend the teaching and learning that takes place in their classrooms. Assessment research studies in our laboratory involve using a strong theoretical basis to support the design of experiments and interpretation of results. Persons interested in doing research in our lab may have a strong desire to pursue a career in teaching and also have an interest in curriculum reform and educational policy.

There are three major project themes in our lab:
  • Investigating the complexity of general chemistry learning content
Description: Chemistry is considered by many to be a complex domain of learning. Perception plays an important role in the learning process. Whether perceptions are related to understanding particular concepts or the difficulty and mental effort invested in solving tasks, perceptions are an important part of the learning process that should not be ignored. This project explores how students’ perceptions of the complexity of learning content contribute to learning and performance in first year college chemistry. Creation of novel assessment materials, survey instruments, and cognitive interviewing techniques are important components of this project.

Related reading:
Chase, W.G., and H.A. Simon. (1973). "Perception in chess." Cognitive Psychology, 1, 33–81.

Johnstone, A. H. (2006), "Chemical education research in Glasgow in perspective." Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 2006, 7 (2), 49-63.

Johnstone, A. H. (2010), "You can’t get there from here." Journal of Chemical Education, 87(1), 22-29.

  • Developing assessment tools that examine expertise in chemistry

Description: What makes a person an “expert” in a particular area of learning (such as organic synthesis or teaching high school chemistry)? Some studies indicate that expertise is achieved through ten or more years of deliberate practice. This project is aimed at understanding how “experts” vs. “novices” organize their knowledge in particular chemistry content areas. The design of novel assessment tools that allow us to probe knowledge organization is the basis for this work.

Related reading:
Ericsson, K. A., Roring, R. W., & Nandagopal, K. (2007). "Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance: An account based on the expert-performance framework." High Abilities Studies, 18, 3-56.

Ericsson, K. A., Nandagopal, K., & Roring, R. W. (2007). "Toward a science of exceptional achievement: Attaining superior performance through deliberate practice." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

  • Investigating the learning of chemistry through creative activities

Description: How do we get students excited about learning chemistry?
Creative inspiration can be a powerful tool for learning. If you visit You Tube Broadcast Yourself TM (, you will find a variety of homemade student chemistry videos. In this project, the measurement of learning of chemistry that is achieved through creative activities is the focus. What kind of creative outlets can you imagine that could potentially motivate and enhance the learning of chemistry? Can we quantify the learning of chemistry through these activities? How do creative activities change students’ perceptions of chemistry?

Select Publications

Knaus K. J., Murphy K. L. and Holme T A., (2009), "Designing chemistry practice exams for enhanced benefits," Journal of Chemical Education, 86, 827-832.

Knaus K. J.,
Murphy K. L. and Holme T. A., (2010), "The impact of nanoscience context on multiple choice chemistry items," in Nanotechnology in Undergraduate Education, K. A. O. Pacheco, ed., ACS Symposium Series, Oxford University Press, pp. 7-18.

Knaus K. J., Murphy K. L., Blecking A. J. and Holme T.A., (Accepted), "A valid and reliable instrument for cognitive complexity rating assignment of chemistry exam items," to be published in the Journal of Chemical Education.
Recent presentations:
“Generating classroom cognition profiles during the assessment of learning of chemistry” 240th American Chemical Society National Meeting, Boston, MA, August 2010.

“Using factors of cognitive complexity to measure cognitive development during the learning of chemistry” Cognition in Chemical Education Symposium, 239th American Chemical Society National Meeting, San Francisco, CA, March 2010.

“An Investigation of the Complexity of General Chemistry Learning Content”.
ACS Exams 75th Anniversary and the State of Assessment in the 21st Century symposium, 238th American Chemical Society Meeting, Washington, D.C., August 2009.

CHEM 2061: General Chemistry II 

Chem 4600 & Chem 5600: Molecules of Healing