Scholarship

Concept Building Approaches

Synopsis

We know there are differences in the way students approach solving problems. Some students try to notice and memorize key features, while others look for underlying patterns, principles, and rules. This research investigates the impact and differences in these learning approaches in the classroom.

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Denise Leonard

Associate Director, Educational Development

(314) 935-6142

dleonard23@wustl.edu

Background

Recent cognitive science laboratory research (McDaniel, Cahill, Robbins, & Weiner, 2014) by cognitive psychologists has shown differences in the way students approach solving problems. Some students try to notice and memorize key features, while others look for underlying patterns, principles, and rules.

To investigate the impact of these “rote-based” or “rule-based” learning approaches in the classroom, in 2009 Mark McDaniel (Professor, Psychology; co-Director, CIRCLE) teamed up with Gina Frey (Associate Professor, Chemistry; co-Director, CIRCLE; Former Executive Director, The Teaching Center) who integrated this inquiry into her General Chemistry course. This research project focuses on the relationship of concept-building approaches and performance.

The team, which is based in The Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) has found that rule-based learners typically outperform rote-based learners. For example, while rote-based learners struggle to solve unfamiliar problems that fall outside the scope of what they have memorized, rule-based learners draw upon underlying patterns and principles that allow them to creatively solve novel problems.

We are currently expanding this research into General Chemistry courses at other institutions to find out what instructional methods can support/encourage rote-based learners towards adopting a rule-based approach.

For a more detailed overview of this project, please see the CIRCLE website.

References

Collaborators

  • Mark McDaniel, co-Director, CIRCLE; Professor, Psychology
  • Gina Frey, co-Director, CIRCLE; Associate Professor, Chemistry; Former Executive Director, The Teaching Center
  • Michael Cahill, Jiuqing Zhao (CIRCLE researchers)
  • James Doele; Mike Rauch; David Ruvolo, (undergraduate CIRCLE researchers)

Participating with Washington University in this investigation are six other colleges and universities that form the Luce consortium:

  • Berea College (KY)
  • Drexel University (PA)
  • Georgia Regents University (GA)
  • Ouachita Baptist University (AR)
  • University of Guelph (Canada)
  • Weber State University (UT)

Papers

  • McDaniel, M. A., Cahill M.J., Robbins, M., Wiener, C. (2014). Individual differences in learning and transfer: Stable tendencies for learning exemplars versus abstracting rules. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 143(2), 668-693