STEM students who learn by example may miss key concepts, study finds

May 16, 2017 by Gerry Everding
Credit: Washington University in St. Louis

No matter how smart, well-prepared or hard-working, many college students struggle with rigorous introductory science courses because their approach to learning fails to provide a working knowledge of abstract concepts that underlie examples presented in the classroom, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

"Our results find that individual differences in how acquire and represent concepts is a potentially crucial factor in explaining the success or failure of learning complex concepts in introductory chemistry courses," said study co-author Regina F. Frey, the Florence E. Moog Professor of STEM Education in Arts & Sciences.

The findings, published online May 12 in the Journal of Chemical Education, are important because they may help to explain why so many aspiring students make an early exit from , technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs after failing to perform well in tough introductory science courses.

In this study, which included more than 800 students taking chemistry courses over three semesters at a highly competitive research university, about 50 percent of those tested were classified as having difficulty making the leap from example to concept. And that was true of students with similar educational backgrounds and equally high marks in advance placement courses and college entrance exams.

"Every instructor nods when you say students seem to do well when tests present concepts the same way they were addressed in class or in homework, but flounder when the test presents these same concepts in a different context ," said study co-author Mark McDaniel, a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University. "If nothing else, this study should provide teachers with a better understanding of why some of their students may be floundering when it comes to applying a studied concept to a novel situation."

Frey and McDaniel are co-directors of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) at Washington University, where they explore how new innovations from learning and memory research can be used to improve classroom education.

Much of their current research focuses on improving student performance in introductory science courses where a primary goal is ensuring that students can use basic concepts to explore problems in new and unknown contexts.

This study suggests there are real and identifiable cognitive differences in how individuals go about building a conceptual framework to explain what's happening in complex scientific scenarios. Understanding those differences and finding ways to deal with them early may be critical to success in science because advanced work requires students to be creative problem solvers, they argue.

The study used a computerized learning assessment to gauge how well students are able to grasp presented as part of a fictional NASA science assignment. The task required learning the functional relation between two new elements associated with a new organism discovered on Mars. The students were asked to determine how much of the fictional element Beros the new organism might excrete after absorbing a certain amount of Zebon.

By using a fictional scenario, the researchers eliminated any advantage a particular might have based on prior education or experience with a real world science problem, ensuring that the ability to build concepts and apply them was a primary driver of performance in the learning assessment.

The assessment, which could be offered online, provides a way for researchers—and potentially teachers and students—to evaluate whether someone has difficulty building a conceptual framework for understanding the interaction between variables in a complex scientific scenario.

Students who are able to make accurate extrapolation predictions based on the study material were categorized as "abstraction learners." Those who failed to make the leap from the studied examples to the extrapolation test were classified as "exemplar learners."

After the assessment, researchers tracked the performance of all students as they worked their way through one of three semester-long chemistry courses. Abstraction learners consistently outperformed exemplar learners in all three courses. These performance differences grew even more pronounced among students taking the higher level course, Organic Chemistry 2.

"Abstraction learners demonstrated advantages over exemplar learners even after taking into account preparation via ACT scores and prior chemistry performance." Frey said. "Our results suggest that individual differences in how learners acquire and represent concepts persist from laboratory learning to learning complex concepts in introductory chemistry courses."

Explore further: Can large introductory science courses teach students to learn effectively?

More information: Li Ye et al. Examining the Impact of Chemistry Education Research Articles from 2007 through 2013 by Citation Counts, Journal of Chemical Education (2015). DOI: 10.1021/ed5007635

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Eikka
not rated yet May 17, 2017
Should students who have great trouble making inferences from examples to concept even be in college in the first place?

The trouble is that higher education is still largely based on meeting quotas and having high pass-through rates because the institutions gain money by the number of degrees produced, so they leave these "outs" for the less intelligent people who can perform rote memorization but are otherwise incapable of the kind of abstract thinking required to succeed in the STEM field.

People who are only good at memorizing stuff and dealing with information through algorithms and case examples are going to be technicians and assistants at best - they won't qualify for engineers and researchers - so it's a complete waste of everyone's time and money to put them through some master's degree by catering to their lack of abstract thinking.

So it's actually a good thing that they drop out.
rrwillsj
not rated yet May 17, 2017
Eikka, it would be nice if we could separate out all the dullards and slackers and dumpsters from the obviously superior fraction of society, such as you and I.

However...how many labor-saving devices have been patented by the lazy. How many new ideas developed by the slackers. Heck & shucks, the dumpsters even accidentally got one of their own elected President!

You cut off your 'inferiors' from the possibility of improving their lives, just cause they didn't meet your standards? You can see the bloody results of that 'superiority' today, all over the Middle East.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) May 17, 2017
Much of their current research focuses on improving student performance in introductory science courses

There's a way to help those who have trouble applying concepts...at least there's a way to catch them early to identify which studnts need additional help: Take them in a 1-on-1 situation and have them explain the concept back to you.

Students (like any human) will take the easy route. If they see that examples can often suffice and this is the easy option for them they will go that way. This does not mean that they cannot conceptuialize. It's just that that is the hard path for them. Putting them in a situation where the easy path is not an option most often solves the problem (at least that's my experience from students I have tutored)
sascoflame
not rated yet May 22, 2017
Finally, after decades of denial, the truth comes out. So called "science" claimed that only speed was important and that abstract thought did not exist.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet May 22, 2017
So called "science" claimed that only speed was important and that abstract thought did not exist.

Allright, I'll bite: do you have any source for this preposterous claim?

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