STEM College Students Who Learn by Example May Lack Key Attribute

Posted By Terri Williams on June 7, 2017 at 1:07 pm
STEM College Students Who Learn by Example May Lack Key Attribute

A study in the Journal of Chemical Education may shed light on why students who perform well on ACT, SAT, and AP exams often struggle with introductory science courses in college and end up transferring from STEM disciplines. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis studied more than 800 students taking chemistry classes over the course of three semesters, and discovered that a student’s learning style determined success in these courses.

The STEM pipeline issue is troubling on several fronts. On more than one international assessment, U.S. students fail to impress in math and science. Meanwhile, it appears to be a disconnect between the most popular degrees and the most in-demand degrees, resulting in not enough students pursuing STEM majors.

But how many college students might be leaving STEM disciplines as a result of their performance in introductory STEM subjects? For example, a previous report reveals that Calculus I may stop some women students from pursuing STEM degrees.

As noted above, the Washington University study focuses on learning styles. Mark McDaniel, one of the study’s authors and a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences and co-director of the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning, and Education (CIRCLE) at Washington University, tells GoodCall®, “Some people tend to memorize or learn the examples that are provided as instances of the concept – we term these exemplar learners, while others tend to extract the underlying principles or abstraction that summarizes the critical features of the training instances – we term these abstraction learners.”

However, the exemplar learners did not fare as well when presented with abstract concepts. In fact, 50% of the students in the study were not able to grasp concepts on chemistry tests when presented in a different format. This is problematic because the ability to solve complex problems is critical in chemistry and other STEM classes. “The study shows that for courses that require a more process-oriented approach (the need to have in-depth reasoning and conceptual understanding), the performance differences (on course exams) between exemplar and abstraction learners are quite robust.”

As a result, McDaniel explains that students who learn by example go on to perform “significantly more poorly” in advanced chemistry courses. And these results are independent of performance on ACT, SAT, and AP exams.

According to Gina Frey, one of the study’s co-authors and also the Florence E. Moog Professor of STEM Education in Arts & Sciences, and co-director of CIRCLE, “Exemplar-learning students learn by memorizing examples and solutions to example problems – but these students tend not to learn the underlying principles or abstractions that are captured by the examples used in class and on homework.”

If the test problem is modified or presented in a different context, Frey explains, “These students do not understand that how the previously studied problems are analogous to, or can be applied to, the new test problem – essentially, these learners do not know how to start to solve the test problem.”

Symptomatic of a deeper problem?

Dexter Perkins, a professor in the department of geology and geological engineering at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, has written extensively on this topic. He tells GoodCall® that as a general rule, lecture classes and simple objective exams are not effective in promoting learning, and most college teachers need to change how they teach. “Students must be engaged in order to learn, they must be engaged in order to progress intellectually, and traditional college classes are just not engaging to most students today.” He believes that STEM disciplines present problems that aren’t related to students who learn by example.

“I have many students who come to my classes and start by telling me that they are ‘no good’ at math, or ‘no good’ at science, etcetera, but where do they get these notions?” Perkins says he’s convinced that many K-12 teachers are not trained to teach science and math, and they also believe that these are difficult subjects. “I think the teachers, even if they do not mean to, pass this notion on to their students.” And, Perkins believes that parents and society as a whole also contribute to this way of thinking.

He explains that STEM disciplines are actually very abstract. “Drop a ball and time it falling to the ground – that is bookkeeping, but, explain why it falls and why it accelerates – that is heavy stuff.”

Likewise, Perkins says it’s easy to identify minerals and memorize what happens in biological cells. But explaining what constitutes a mineral or all of the moving parts in biological cells – that’s a different story. “Students figure out quickly that there is something missing with those simplistic models.”

While subjects like science and engineering require a higher-level of thinking, Perkins doesn’t think students, even those with several years of college, are at that level. “It is hard to say, but I think that my poor students never get there: the mediocre ones maybe start to ‘get it’ during their senior year, and the top students – there are very few – may get it a year earlier.”

However, Perkins says it takes (1) time, (2) practice, and (3) nurturing, to develop good STEM habits.  “And most college classes are not designed to help this development.”

Possible help for those who learn by example?

So, does this mean that abstract learning is a lost cause for exemplar students – those who learn by example? McDaniel says it’s not clear if all of the students in a given course can develop abstract learning skills. “However, we do have preliminary data that show that using active-learning methods that strive to make the underlying principles visible – at least, we have shown this for the Peer-Led Team Learning or PLTL method – can improve performance on far-transfer problems for a subset of exemplar learners.”

Frey adds, “This result implies that with appropriate instruction, these learners were able to acquire more abstract knowledge of the underlying chemistry principles.”

If teachers can apply learning concepts to different contexts, this might help students to make the necessary connections, according to Hui-Yin Hsu, an associate professor and chair of Teacher Education at New York Institute of Technology. Hsu tells GoodCall®, “For example, a teacher might need to use several examples to help students apply Newton’s law of motion to understand ‘the law of inertia’ – students need time to digest the concept itself and to practice the concept in various contexts.”

Some contexts for students who learn by example might include various approaches. “They might perform experiments, watch videos, and exchange with classmates the ways in which the law relates to their personal experiences in real life situations,” Hsu explains. And, with a comprehensive understanding, she believes that students – even those who typically learn by example – will be in a better position to solve problems. “The students will be able to make connections or association to the concept even outside familiar contexts.” But Hsu acknowledges, “This kind of instruction requires time.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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