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Why do some students struggle while others succeed in chemistry? A study of the influence of undergraduate student beliefs, perceptions, and use of resources on performance in introductory chemistry

  • Author(s): Sinapuelas, Michelle Leigh Shaver
  • Advisor(s): Stacy, Angelica M
  • et al.

This dissertation explores how student beliefs about the nature of science learning, beliefs in their academic ability, perceptions of the classroom environment, perceptions of external support, and use of resources contribute to success in introductory chemistry as measured by midterm and final exam scores. These factors were selected for study because they are susceptible to instructional intervention. A beliefs and perceptions survey and use of resources framework were developed, tested, and utilized to find predictors for student grades.

To measure beliefs and perceptions the Chemistry Beliefs and Perceptions Survey was developed and tested. A total of 428 introductory chemistry students responded to the survey measuring their beliefs and perceptions during Fall 2009. Factor analysis of student responses yielded four categories of beliefs and perceptions: nature of science learning, academic ability, classroom environment, and external support. A hierarchical linear model estimated the influence of student beliefs and perceptions on exam scores. There was a positive relationship between exam scores and (a) belief in academic ability and (b) belief that learning science involves understanding dynamic processes. There was a negative relationship between exam scores and perception of external support. Perceptions of the classroom environment were not strongly related to exam scores. These results were replicated with survey responses collected from students taking the course the following Fall (N=597).

To characterize student use of resources, a subset of survey participants (N=61) were interviewed at three time-points spanning the Fall 2009 semester. Interview responses were used to create a Use of Resources Framework. This framework described students as memorizers, procedural thinkers, critical thinkers, or researchers. Students characterized as memorizers or procedural thinkers view outside sources of information as the "authority," while critical thinkers and researchers evaluate information for themselves and generate explanations in their own words by using multiple relevant ideas. The four use of resource levels were shown to predict exam performance. There was a positive relationship between use of resources and exam performance.

Survey and interview measures were combined for the subset of 61 students to explore the joint contribution of use of resources along with beliefs and perceptions on exam performance. The influence of student beliefs in their academic ability on exam performance was found to be mediated by use of resources. That is, there was a positive relationship between belief in academic ability and use of resources. There was also a positive relationship between overall use of resources and exam performance.

To illustrate these relationships, three case studies are described. The case studies demonstrate the strong relationship between use of resources (for example the textbook, solving problems, interactions with peers) and understanding of chemistry as revealed on the exams. The cases illustrate how students use resources to understand the course material. Memorizers and procedural thinkers explain the idea of boiling based on connection of recalled information with little evaluation of these ideas. Critical thinkers and researchers explain their understanding in their own words, including evaluation of multiple explanations on the topic. These results suggest that it might be valuable to instruct students in productive ways to use resources so they can succeed in chemistry. This may be done by modeling effective strategies to become a more independent learner such as (a) evaluation or critique of information before accepting its accuracy, (b) translate information to create their own understanding, (c) work out problems on their own before confirming answers with others, (d) opportunities to exchange and evaluate ideas with others. Instructional interventions that improve student use of resources in chemistry could lead to better overall student performance.

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