A Pilot Study Investigating Average Students’ Learning on General Chemistry Problems from Cognitive Psychology and DBER Perspectives

Dr. Diane Bunce

Average (C achievement level) students in chemistry exhibit a mixed pattern of success on problems of several topics including molecular structure. The purpose of this pilot study is to investigate the behavior of average students on a series of three molecular-structure problems used in a general chemistry course, with the purpose of identifying how average students solve problems and possibly providing insight into the type of intervention that might be helpful to increase their success. Students from a professional college completed a basic concept-learning task that indicated whether they were Exemplar learners (relied on solved problems they had already seen) or Abstractors (used the underlying concepts to solve problems). Eleven average students were randomly selected and interviewed as they solved aloud a retention, near-transfer, and far-transfer problem on molecular structure. The interview transcripts were analyzed for evidence of where and what kind of difficulty students exhibited across the three levels of problem demands. The results of the pilot study were analyzed to reveal how Exemplars and Abstractors approach each of the three problem levels, the types of mistakes they make, the resource they would choose to help them solve a problem when they are stuck, how they would use that resource, their confidence that their answers are correct, and how their level of confidence is related to their ability to successfully solve the problem. The results indicated that Exemplar learners and Abstractors differed in both their approach to solving problems in general and the way they solved problems of differing demand levels. Misunderstanding of the underlying concept increased for both Exemplar learners and Abstractor average students across the three levels of problems. Exemplar learners were not as confident as Abstractors in their answers. Exemplar learners did not demonstrate as clear a choice for specific resources if stuck as did Abstractors, nor did they give as clear a reason for why they would choose a specific resource. Abstractors also demonstrated a higher relationship between their confidence and their level of achievement on a problem. These results will be discussed during the presentation.

Co-Authors: Gina Frey (Chemistry & CIRCLE, Wash U), Mark McDaniel (Psychology & CIRCLE, Wash U), Martin Perry (Chemistry, STLCOP), Mike Cahill (CIRCLE, Wash U)