Putting together the pieces – a new way to learn physics and chemistry

NDSU continues to build upon its national reputation as a leader in STEM education research with a recent award of $804,191 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Undergraduate Education.

Mila Kryjevskaia, NDSU associate professor of physics, leads this five-year project that aims to provide better understanding and improvement of college students' reasoning skills in the context of chemistry and physics courses. Alexey Leontyev, NDSU assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, serves as co-principal investigator along with researchers from University of Maine, Penn State University - Greater Allegheny, and University of North Florida.

“Through their scientific investigation into the underpinnings of undergraduate STEM success in chemistry and physics, Drs. Kryjevskaia, Leontyev, and colleagues will be able to bring actionable solutions to student retention issues and create additional workforce pathways for NDSU to serve the state’s needs in high demand fields,” said NDSU President David Cook. “It is an exciting example of how our College of Science and Mathematics researchers truly contribute to our land-grant mission.”

Despite decades of work aimed at improving students’ science learning by developing and implementing research-based instructional materials, the researchers have identified that students who can demonstrate correct conceptual understanding and reasoning on one task often fail to reason productively on tasks that require the same knowledge and skills.

“No matter how hard we try to get students to understand a concept, we seem to never be able to reach a certain percentage of them,” said Kryjevskaia. “That made me consider the reasoning processes that prevent people from using the formal knowledge they possess in favor of intuitive ideas.”

She found insight in dual process theory.

Originally developed in the field of psychology, dual process theory looks at how an answer to a problem can arise as a result of two different thought processes: automatic/unconscious/intuitive and explicit/conscious/effortful. While the explicit processes change as we gain experience and education, the implicit intuitive processes take longer to impact.

Relying on intuitive process is typically the first method we use to solve a problem. Individuals who have formed an expertise in a specific area rely on the conscious and explicit methods to check their intuition. For novices however, this is a challenge. As a result, novice learners often accept their intuitive responses without further scrutiny. Researchers have found that inconsistencies often stem from this interplay between human reasoning tendencies and relevant discipline-specific knowledge and skills.

Kryjevskaia presented students with a question and asked them to answer it and about 60% of them got it correct. When presented the same question along with a set of correct knowledge elements that just needed to be organized into a logical chain to solve the problem, the number of correct responses surprisingly did not change.

“The success rate on the question did not improve because many students who answered incorrectly were using the correct knowledge elements to justify their intuitive ideas,” she theorized. “We determined that simply having specific knowledge was not as important as utilizing the correct reasoning skills to find the answer. It showed us that as instructors, we need to focus on helping students improve their reasoning.”

The research team is creating new tools for instructors to incorporate into college-level introductory physics, general chemistry, and organic chemistry courses. The online reasoning chain construction assessment (ORCCA) tools and instructor guides present students with the type of questions that often elicit incorrect intuitive responses but with all correct knowledge elements so that students can assemble them and practice the correct reasoning skills that will result in a correct answer to the problem.

Kryjevskaia hopes her work will have an impact on today’s student retention challenges. “I want students to know that there are different methods of reasoning and solving problems that they can learn that will make them more effective at solving problems. When we are first learning, we make mistakes and that is normal and expected. But making mistakes doesn’t mean that a student isn’t good enough to succeed in STEM or that they don’t belong in a physics or chemistry class. They need to learn how to examine their current thinking, override intuition when necessary, and engage in analytical or formal thinking.”

“This work has the potential to dramatically improve how students learn physics and chemistry and I believe it will help many of our students see that they truly do belong in those disciplines,” added Dean of Science and Mathematics Kimberly Wallin. “It’s important to note that the award (an NSF IUSE Level 3 Engaged Student Learning track grant) is extremely hard to obtain and only a handful are awarded annually across all STEM disciplines. Work like this shows how NDSU is emerging as a leader in discipline-based education research (DBER) and student learning research.”

More information about NSF award 2142436, “Developing, Testing, and Disseminating Reasoning Chain Construction Tools for Introductory Physics and Chemistry Courses” is available here.

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