Collaborative Research: Alternative Strategies for Problem Solving in Science

Principal Investigator: 
Co-Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

We conduct a three-phase project to characterize the use of cognitive strategies during spatial problem solving in both general and organic chemistry. We aim to identify the differential use of visuo-spatial strategies and the availability of alternative or cooperative analytical strategies for scientific problem solving by students and instructors, individuals with high and low spatial ability, and men and women. We also develop and evaluate methods of training these strategies.

Setting: 

The research setting is university science classrooms in Maryland and California. The sample includes the entire population of students enrolled in general and organic chemistry at UCSB and UMD. This includes approximately 2000 students per year for 3 years.

Research Design: 

This research project is cross-sectional and is designed to generate descriptive [observational] associative or correlational [quasi-experimental] and causal [quasi-experimental] evidence. Original data are collected through assessments of learning or achievement tests, observation [personal] and survey research [self-completed questionnaires].

The interview protocols are analyzed qualitatively using a constant-compartive method while the quasi-experimental data are analyzed using ANCOVA models.

Findings: 

Consistent with our stated research plan, we have completed the initial set of studies to identify student and expert strategy choice in general and organic chemistry. Our findings from the protocol analyses to date indicate that both experts and students are aware of a wide variety of strategies for solving chemistry problems that involve spatial information. For example, when comparing two three-dimensional molecular structures, some students (and experts) may mentally visualize and rotate each molecule to make an identity comparison. Other students (and experts) instead employ a naming algorithm that allows them to make the same comparison without visualization and mental rotation. Although we do not believe we have generated an exhaustive list of strategies, we have identified 6 analytical strategies and 5 visuo-spatial strategies used by novices and experts that we will use to frame the future studies.

Our findings from our classroom observations and in-class artifact analysis have shown that properly trained instructors can teach students to employ either visuo-spatial strategies or analytical strategies when they attempt science assessment items. Moreover, we have been able to show that we can construct assessment items using specific representations that encourage students to use one strategy specifically. For example, students report using mental rotation for solving an exam item that contains one chemical representation, but report using an analytical naming strategy for solving a similar exam item that contains three chemical representations. Our studies of strategies used in solving items from tests of spatial ability similarly show that people use a variety of strategies on these tasks. In the case of one of the tests studied (a mental rotation test) we found that not all participants use mental imagery to solve test items and some use purely analytic strategies. In the case of the other tests examined (a paper-folding test and a three-dimensional perspective-taking test) we found that all participants solve test items using mental imagery to some extent, but imagistic strategies are augmented by analytic strategies to different degrees by different individuals, and these strategies reduce the need for mental imagery.

Publications & Presentations: 

STIEFF, M., & RAJE, S. (2008). EXPERTISE AND SPATIAL REASONING IN ADVANCED SCIENTIFIC PROBLEM SOLVING. PROCEEDINGS OF THE EIGHTH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE OF THE LEARNING SCIENCES (ICLS). MAHWAH, NJ: ERLBAUM