ERIC Identifier: ED274512
Publication Date: 1985-00-00
Author: Helgeson, Stanley L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Research in College Science Teaching: Cognitive Levels and
Reasoning. ERIC/SMEAC Special Digest No. 1.
Teaching students to reason, to think critically, to solve problems in
science has long been a concern at all levels. There is often an implicit
assumption that college students operate at the formal level. The research
reviewed for this digest deals with this issue. The studies presented represent
a sample of the research in this complex area. The sample is in no way
exhaustive, nor can it be claimed to represent all areas of investigation.
Rather, it is intended as an indication of the current state of the art with
cognitive level or development of the learner as a common thread.
The relationship between measured formal thought and that required to
understand formal concepts in college level physical science was studied by
Boram and Renner (1985). Using individual interview tasks, 49 students enrolled
in a physics course for elementary teachers were evaluated for their abilities
to use: (1) combinatorial logic, (2) separation and control of variables, (3)
proportional reasoning, and (4) reciprocal implications. During one semester,
the students were given experiences with 30 physics concepts; six of these
concepts dealing with torque, electricity, optics, and heat were used in the
research. Understanding these concepts required using one or more of the
characteristics of formal thought.
Analysis of the data led the investigators to conclude that a non-significant
relationship exists between formal thought characteristics required to solve a
problem and demonstrating the possession of those characteristics. When success
on each of the interview tasks was correlated with success on each of the other
interview tasks, all correlations were significant and moderately high, leading
to the conclusion that success on a problem which requires formal thought
depends on an overall formal thought structure.
Gipson and Abraham (1985) studied the relationships between
formal-operational thought and conceptual difficulties in genetics problem
solving. Seventy-one college general biology students were taught a unit in
Mendelian genetics by the traditional lecture method emphasizing meiotic
formation of gametes, dominance, segregation, and independent assortment. The
Punnett square model was used for practice problems requiring the students to:
(1) identify phenotype and genotype ratios that could be produced by parent
organisms, (2) identify genotype and phenotype ratios from the resulting zygotic
combinations, and (3) estimate the probabilities for gamete formations or zygote
combinations. A unit test, followed eight weeks later by a content-validated
posttest, was used to evaluate the students' problem solving skills. Both tests
required the students to use proportional reasoning, combinatorial reasoning,
and probabilistic reasoning with problems similar to those involving practice
with the Punnett square.
Evaluation of the students' intellectual development was accomplished by
means of three Piagetian tasks. No direct relationships were found between
Piagetian tasks and their corresponding occurrence in genetics problems.
Significant differences were found for all three reasoning types among students
of different levels of development. Formal-operational students had
significantly more success in the three reasoning areas than did transitional
students, and transitional students had significantly more success than did
Staver and Pascarella (1984) investigated the effects of various methods and
formats of administering a Piagetian reasoning problem, the Mr. Short-Mr. Tall
problem. The task was presented using four methods: (1) individual clinical
interview, (2) group presentation of the task followed by paper-and-pencil
problem with illustration, (3) group administration of paper-and-pencil
instrument with illustration, and (4) group administration of paper-and-pencil
instrument without illustration. Each method included four formats: (1)
completion answer with essay justification, (2) completion answer with multiple
choice justification, (3) multiple choice answer with essay justification, and
(4) multiple choice answer with multiple choice justification. Subjects in the
study were 376 students who were enrolled in a freshman level biological science
class. A 4x4 factorial design was used with method and format of assessment as
main effects. The results showed that neither method nor format of assessment
accounted for a significant amount of variance in student performance. The
overall interaction was not significant.
Staver (1984) conducted a closely related study involving the mealworm
problem, a Piagetian reasoning problem which requires students to control
variables. The subjects were 253 students enrolled in a freshman level
biological science class. The task was presented using the first three methods
described in the preceding study with each of the three methods including the
same four formats as described in the earlier study. The research design used
was a 3x4 factorial with method and format of assessment as main effects.
Regression analysis with the individual as the unit of analysis revealed that
format but not method of assessment accounted for a significant amount of
variance in student performance. The overall interaction was not significant.
Staver concluded that these two studies clearly demonstrate that the method of
administration for two separate Piagetian tasks of different reasoning patterns
exerts no significant influence on subjects' scores. The format of assessment,
however, can influence scores. The case for assessment of Piagetian reasoning
patterns by group methods is, in the investigator's judgment, strengthened.
Niaz and Lawson (1985) conducted a study to test the hypothesis that formal
reasoning is required to balance even simple one-step chemical equations, while
formal reasoning and a sufficiently large mental capacity (for information
processing) are required to balance more complex, many-step equations.
Twenty-five students enrolled in one section of a non-major undergraduate
science course were pretested to determine their: (1) level of intellectual
development, (2) mental capacity, and (3) ability to disembed relevant
information from irrelevant background (i.e., their degree of field
independence). It was predicted that when a sample of students that varied in
developmental level (i.e., some concrete, some transitional, and some formal)
and in mental capacity was taught how to balance equations in the traditional
manner, then those who were concrete operational would fail to learn to balance
equations because they had failed to internalize the basic hypothetico-deductive
reasoning pattern required to assimilate the instruction and to subsequently
balance the equations. On the other hand, those students who were formal
operational would learn how to balance equations because they presumably had
already acquired the necessary hypothetico- deductive reasoning pattern. The
transitional students, it was predicted, would perform at a level intermediate
to the concrete and formal students. Students were given instruction in using
trial and error to balance chemical equations to ensure that all students
understood that basic task-specific knowledge, that is, to control the
experience variable as much as possible. Thus, any posttest differences would
not be due to differences in task- specific knowledge but to developmental level
or mental capacity. As part of the class final examination, a series of five
unbalanced chemical equations was presented and the students asked to balance
them. The reasoning required to balance the equations ranged in complexity from
essentially a single step required in the simplest case to at least five or six
steps needed in the most complex case. As predicted, the posttest revealed
significant correlations between developmental level and equation balancing
ability, for both simple and complex chemical equations. Also as predicted,
mental capacity correlated significantly with complex equations but not with
simple equations. Field dependence/ independence played no significant role in
INTEGRATED PROCESS SKILLS
Walkosz and Yeany (1984) compared the process skill achievement of college
biology students (n=107) completing traditional laboratory exercises with that
of students (n=127) completing the same exercises which had been modified to
include instruction in such integrated process skills as identifying variables
and stating hypotheses. The relationships among process skill achievement,
cognitive development, overall course achievement, sex, and attitudes were also
examined. The results indicated that emphasis on process skills in the
laboratory could significantly improve process skill achievement. Students with
lower levels of cognitive development had a lower level of process skill
achievement, but there was no difference in gain in process skill achievement
across levels of cognitive development. Females, on average, had a slightly
lower level of cognitive development than did males, but there was no sex
difference in process skill achievement overall. However, statistical
interactions indicated that females at the lowest level of cognitive development
scored higher than did males at the same level of development. In general, the
study indicated that, along with gains in content achievement, process skill
achievement can be improved in students at all levels of cognitive development
through reasonable modifications of existing laboratory exercises.
Readers interested in obtaining more information and additional research
related to the topics reported in this Digest might want to conduct a search of
the ERIC data base using the following terms:
College Science and Cognitive Ability or Cognitive Development or Cognitive
Mapping or Cognitive Measurement or Cognitive Processes or Cognitive
Restructuring or Cognitive Structures or Cognitive Styles or Cognitive Theory
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Boram, Robert D. and John W. Renner. "Measured Formal Thought and That
Required to Understand Formal Concepts in College Level Physical Science." Paper
presented at the 58th annual meeting of the National Association for Research in
Science Teaching. French Lick Springs, IN, April 15-18, 1985. ED 254 412.
Gipson, Michael and Michael R. Abraham. "Relationships Between
Formal-Operational Thought and Conceptual Difficulties in Genetics Problem
Solving." Paper presented at the 58th annual meeting of the National Association
for Research in Science Teaching, French Lick Springs, IN, April 15-18, 1985.
Niaz, Mansoor and Anton E. Lawson. "Balancing Chemical Equations: The Role of
Developmental Level and Mental Capacity." JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE
TEACHING 22(1) January 1985: 41-51.
Staver, John R. "Effects of Method and Format on Subjects' Responses to a
Control of Variables Reasoning Problem." JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING
21(5) May 1984: 517-526.
Staver, John R. and Ernest T. Pascarella. "The Effects of Method and Format
on the Responses of Subjects to a Piagetian Reasoning Problem." JOURNAL OF
RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING 21(3) March 1984: 305-314.
Walkosz, Margaret and Russell H. Yeany. "Effects of Lab Instruction
Emphasizing Process Skills on Achievement of College Students Having Different
Cognitive Levels." Paper presented at the 57th annual meeting of the National
Association for Research in Science Teaching, New Orleans, LA, April, 1984. ED