18 – Working Memory Limits and Chemistry and Physics Instruction

Dr. JudithAnn Hartman and Eric Nelson have a new research summary:

“A Paradigm Shift: The Implications of Working Memory Limits for Physics and Chemistry Instruction” 

We hope it may be helpful to instructors in courses for majors in the sciences or engineering.

The intent of this “preprint” is to invite critical feedback — which may be left in the comments section of this post.

This article is an update of our 2014 paper “‘Do We Need to Memorize That?’ Or Cognitive Science for Chemists.”  In the past six years, extensive new research has been published by cognitive neuroscientists on issues in science instruction.

One key finding: According to the consensus of cognitive experts, students in introductory courses for science majors can only reliably solve the kind of problems at the end of the chapter in most textbooks by applying well-memorized algorithms  that apply well-memorized facts.

This is likely not what any of us wanted to hear, but science is not required to heed our preferences.

Cognitive experts say conceptual understanding is the right goal, but it takes quite a bit of thorough memorization to achieve.

And, even if concepts are understood, because of the brain’s working memory limits, to solve problems of any complexity, students still must memorize the fundamental facts and algorithms that their instructors recommend they overlearn — which means memorize so they can be recalled perfectly, repeatedly.

Chem ed journals often deprecate memorization and algorithmic problem solving, but on questions of how the brain works, it may be wise to defer to those whose scientific expertise is the study of how the brain works.

The cognitive experts say, to learn each new topic, students must start with initial and thorough memorization of fundamental vocabulary, facts, and relationships identified by their instructors, followed by problem solving using their new recallable fundamentals to solve problems in a variety of distinctive contexts, including word problems, demonstrations, labs, and simulations.



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