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Undergrads who depend on rote learning struggle with Chemistry

ĎAbstraction learnersí who are more cerebral in their analysis do much better in higher-level chemistry courses
BY Uttara Choudhury |   06-07-2017
Chemistry Students

College, especially for science students, is tough because learning is far from simple. We know memory is vital for learning. But in college an undergrad can’t depend on rote learning and has to undertake more and more complex analytical thinking. No matter how hard-working, many college students struggle with rigorous science courses because of different learning styles and an inability to grasp abstract concepts, suggests new research from Washington University, in St. Louis.

The researchers at Washington University found that those who can make accurate extrapolation predictions based on concepts presented in class what they dub ‘abstraction learners’ consistently outperformed so-called ‘exemplar learners’ who have trouble doing so and instead depend on rote memorization. The findings, published in the Journal of Chemical Education, are key to understanding why so many college students drop out from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs.

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

In the study, the researchers looked at over 800 students taking chemistry courses over three semesters at a top US research university and found nearly half of those tested were having difficulty making the leap from example to concept.

“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.”

The study used a computerized learning test to figure out how students are able to understand abstract concepts 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 analyze 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 student 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,” according to the Phys.org news portal.

Students who were 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.’“

As a rule, abstract learners look for the patterns. They are more cerebral in their analysis. They seem to understand that things aren’t always what they appear to be and abstract from the examples.

“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,” reported Phys.org.

Frye told reporters; “We know people who are rote learners struggle with science, and if we can identify them early, we can change the curriculum and put in supplemental support.”

It’s important for both students and teachers to match or bridge learning styles to be most effective. 


Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London. 


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