Written by Alyssa Walker

If you’re a STEM student who learns by example only, you may be missing out on some key concepts. 

A new study published in the Journal of Chemical Education suggests that regardless of intelligence or preparation, many university students struggle with introductory science courses.  Why?  A lack of fundamental knowledge—which leads to a failure of understanding abstract concepts.

Study co-author and Florence E. Moog Professor of STEM Education in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Regina F. Frey said, “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.”

Researchers studied over 800 university students in entry-level chemistry courses over three semesters a highly competitive research universities. 

About half said that they found it difficult to bridge the gap between example to concept—regardless of level of intelligence.

Implications for teaching STEM courses are big.  The study suggests real differences between cognitive differences in the way students build conceptual frameworks.  In science, those frameworks are critical for success.

The researchers assessed students and determined those were “abstraction learners” – those who can extrapolate predictions based on study material and “exemplar learners” – those who could not make the cognitive leap.

What did they find?

“Abstraction learners demonstrated advantages over exemplar learners even after taking into account preparation via ACT scores and prior chemistry performance,” Frey said. 

Learn more about studying science and engineering.


Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.
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