Metacognition in Introductory General Chemistry

Coe College, Steve Singleton


Can teaching metacognition strategies/behaviors mitigate the regression of student performance and attitudes in an introductory general chemistry course?

Analysis of historical grade data for my traditional courses shows a 1/2 to 1 letter grade decline in performance between the first and second semester general chemistry courses. This decline is particularly problematic for weaker students who often receive semester grades below C-, and develop a commensurate dislike for chemistry. My research question was formulated out of a desire to find effective teaching methods that can help these "at risk" students. Previous research and personal experience suggest part of the barrier to success for these students is a lack of metacognitive skills. Rarely are these skills explicitly taught in a traditional chemistry course.

Furthermore, national trends (as measured with the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey or CLASS) suggest a distressing regression in attitudes towards chemistry over a two-semester course sequence. Regression is defined as attitudes that align more closely with novice learners than expert learners.

In this project, the efficacy of a studio lecture/lab environment including explicit instruction in metacognition was examined using the CLASS and the American Chemical Society standardized general chemistry exam. Initial findings suggest this approach may help mitigate the performance decline of weaker students.


The teaching environment consisted of 12-15 introductory chemistry students learning in a studio environment. The pedagogy comprised POGIL (Process-oriented, guided inquiry) methods with specific attention to developing metacognition skills. Students were able to self-select between the studio course or a traditional lecture-based course. Rather than the traditional three 1-hr lecture periods and one 3-hr lab period per week, six contact hours were redistributed as three 2- hr periods. Daily class activities alternated between group problem solving sessions and lab experiments. Daily homework assignments required problem solving and reflection skills.

Teaching Practice

Attention to specific aspects of metacognition were incorporated into almost every assignment. For example, an assignment opens with a list of learning objectives or a statement of the purpose of the work. Students initially work alone to solve homework problems, take a position, or justify an experimental observation. At the next class meeting, they share and revise their responses with annotations indicating how their thinking changed as a result of the discussion. Upon completion of the assignment, students are asked a reflection question phrased to encourage them to assess their progress as related to to the objectives. In the reflection, they are encouraged to articulate connections between concepts and equations, or describe personal experiences related to the concepts covered in the assignment. In essence this is a work-share-revise-reflect sequence.

Other class assignments enhance the self-regulatory practices of students include reading reflections, knowledge surveys, and a course portfolio. This is the first time I have used a comprehensive learning portfolio. The portfolio serves two purposes: 1) Help students organize course content and capture artifacts that demonstrate their learning gains; 2) provide me and other experts examples of student work over a semester. The portfolios from each class will be retained and will inform future decisions related to teaching practice and efficacy.

Laboratory experiments were much more student-driven that in a traditional lecture-laboratory course. Students were given a prompt that required laboratory measurements to develop an acceptable response. With guidance, they were tasked with proposing, performing, and analyzing an experiment of their own design. Many students commented on the pleasures and frustrations of doing a "research-based" experiment rather than a cook-book experiment as in other lab courses. Again, frequent opportunities for self-assessment and regulation presented themselves demonstrating to students that metacognitive skills are not relegated to "book work" only.

Conclusions and Evidence

The initial intent of my research was to seek (and hopefully explain) differences in student attitudes toward chemistry that may have been related to the studio learning environment. Unfortunately, the number of students taking both semesters of the studio course was small (four), precluding meaningful comparisons. When this complication became apparent at the beginning of the second term, I looked at records of the incoming group of students and noticed a troubling trend in the academic profiles. Most of these students had (at best) mediocre grades in chemistry after one semester of traditional instruction. Reviewing the performance of students receiving a "C" in General Chemistry I, it is common to see a 1/2 to 1 letter grade decline in General Chemistry II. At the beginning of the General Chemistry II course, many of the incoming students had shown weak performance in General chemistry I, and therefore previous trends suggested about 25% of the incoming General Chemistry II class would likely receive a "D" or "F". In an effort to mitigate this grim prediction, I altered my research plan to examine whether teaching metacognitive skills could help these "at risk" students maintain passing grades in General Chemistry II.

At the end of the term, the lowest grade given was a "C-". To verify consistency in performance expectations between the studio and traditional sections, the American Chemical Society Standardized Exam was given to all chemistry students. The class averages for both the studio and lecture-based pedagogies were within a standard deviation of each other and well above national norms (65th percentile). This result suggests that the studio approach may help "at risk" students maintain better performance levels and does not hinder their mastery of chemistry content.

Despite the change in research question, I have continued to administer the CLASS, hoping to learn about changes in attitudes of all chemistry students irrespective of learning environment. Analysis of the survey results suggests that the Coe Chemistry program suffers slips in student attitudes similar to those of other institutions. As described below, these results have motivated discussions within the department about how to improve this situation.


The results of this work were presented on my campus to interested faculty. Though I won't claim this presentation was the cause, several faculty approached me for ideas and support in revising their courses to be more student-centered. They recognized that an emphasis on metacognition is an important component of success in these revisions and are incorporating it into their courses.

The work in this project has proved to be of interest to all members of the chemistry department because it helps us gather meaningful assessment data which can be used to evaluate our program. The CLASS results have been very useful in helping us identify regressions in student attitudes as they matriculate through the chemistry sequence and motivated a discussion within the department as to how we might enhance student learning in chemistry. There is also interest on the part of one department member to include more student-centered activities in his course.

Looking Ahead

I am continually refining current assignments and introducing new ones with an overarching question: How does this assignment help students develop their knowledge of both content and thinking? Prior to this project I had a vague, implicit understanding of how to evaluate assignments for these qualities, but now I do this explicitly in collaboration with the students. This approach has helped my understanding of the students' learning. Indeed, as a result of this work, my assignment design process has almost completely revised; now process and reflection, rather than content, are the foci of most assignments. A good understanding of metacognition is crucial to the design, implementation, and refinement of these assignments.

As a result of this work, I am currently collaborating with other physical chemists in a comprehensive redesign of the p-chem sequence. The revisions to the curriculum will incorporate the tenets of metacognition and learning learned in this project.

Additionally, I am helping design an integrated laboratory/classroom facility which will be a component of our upcoming building renovation. Having a physical space conducive to the pedagogy described in this document will enhance my (and others) efficacy in helping student learning.

More of my faculty colleagues are asking questions about the studio approach and considering how certain aspects of it might be incorporate in their instruction methods. The interactive nature of the studio is important, but logistically difficult to implement. Thus, I emphasize the importance of metacognition to all pedagogies and how these ideas lead to measurable improvements to student learning.

Lastly, I have new appreciation for the need to try to measure improvements in student learning. I have always believed in the necessity of data to confirm or refute anecdotal suppositions in teaching (just as in science), but felt uncomfortable with the methods and data obtained from SoTL research projects. The task was daunting, but I was encouraged by many people involved in the project to plow ahead. A good plan is needed to answer any question about teaching, and many useful ideas and strategies were communicated from both peers and experts in the Collegium. Hopefully the work of this group (and others) will continue to teach the teachers.


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