13 — Illustrated Guide: How Your Brain Solves Problems

A break from blogging has been required for work on the second edition of Calculations In Chemistry – An Introduction.  We will be back to blogging when the chapter deadlines have finally passed. Meanwhile, at the link below is posted a presentation that might be titled:

An Illustrated Guide to How the Brain Solves Problems


Why Science and Engineering Major Enrollments Have Fallen

and How We Can Fix Them

at       www.chemreview.net/pdfs/ChemEd2015Post.pdf

A question from the slides:  For 80,000 Virginia 9th-grade students each year taking the Stanford 9 standardized test, as shown in the graph below, scores in math reasoning went way up.  Why did skills in solving calculations go way down?

Ponder!  Then check the link above to see what science says.

Microsoft Word - WordPlosIowaLand.docx


12 – Help for Students in Mental Math

Do your students know their “arithmetic facts” perfectly, without hesitation? Is it important that they do?

In our text Calculations In Chemistry, we included a review of math and algebra fundamentals — just before they were needed for chemistry topics. Working initially with students in engineering chemistry, compared to past semesters, success was pretty spectacular. But in subsequent experiments with “mostly bio-major” general chem and “prep for general chem,” though averages improved notably, more students struggled with quantitative problems than we thought should.

Our diagnostic testing found that strugglers tended to have trouble doing simple math “in their heads.”  Searching the academic literature, we found:

  • In chemistry education journals, others had observed a high correlation between “mental math” skills and general chemistry achievement.
  • Cognitive science emphasized:  Quantitative reasoning depends on  quick, automatic recall of math facts.
  • Math education journals noted that about 10 years ago, when current chemistry students were in 3rd grade, “math standards” in about 40 states required teachers to prepare students to use calculators on 3rd grade state math tests. As a result, many students had essentially never been required to “memorize their math facts.”

For students lacking math automaticity, cognitive research suggested that strengthening mental math would help more students succeed in courses in the quantitative sciences.

To assess and sharpen mental math at the start of chemistry:

  1. We have prepared a 15-minute quiz at  www.ChemReview.Net/MentalMathAssessment.pdf  that will identify students who need help in mental math.
  1. For students lacking fluency, we have written homework assignments that practice mental math, with an online quiz added to encourage practice completion. The activities in this Mental Math packet may be downloaded at  http://www.ChemReview.Net/pdfs/MentalMath.PDF

(click and check your PDF downloads).

Researchers say that if during a course, students are given a mix of calculator and “no calculator” problems that keep their mental math sharp, they will better understand quantitative examples and proportional reasoning.

In different populations, skills will vary, but the 15-minute quiz should tell you quickly which individual students will benefit from “Mental Math” homework.

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11 – “Do we need to memorize that?”

The article

“Do we need to memorize that?” Or Cognitive Science for Chemists

has been published by the journal Foundations of Chemistry. This paper is a summary of recent scientific research on “best practices” for instruction and learning in the physical sciences, engineering, and math.  A pre-print has been posted at


The form below may be used for comments or questions on the article.

In the case of questions from readers, we (article co-authors Dr. JudithAnn R. Hartman and Eric Nelson) hope to be able to compare notes with interested readers on what the cognitive literature has to say.   Opposing and/or additional viewpoints are most welcome!

10 –Willingham’s Columns: Cognitive Science for Educators

In the past two decades, thanks in part to new technologies such as fNMI, PET, and MEG, science’s understanding of how the brain works, learns, and solves problems has increased dramatically. This new knowledge can be of great assistance to instructors and students — after it is translated out of its technical terminology and mined for import to the classroom.

Thankfully, someone has done much of this work — with the aim of helping educators.

Since 2002, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has sifted the gold standard, controlled variable, peer reviewed scientific research (as opposed to less rigorous “educational” research). In jargon-free columns in the American Educator, a quarterly professional journal (with free online access provided by the American Federation of Teachers), Willingham  shares the nuggets most useful to instructors.

What science has discovered is different in some areas from what has been claimed by various educational philosophies. Frankly, the science is not necessarily what we wanted to hear. A summary might be: “Evolution has given humans a brain designed to help children learn a language naturally, but other learning is hard work.”

The good news is that science has identified what does work to make study and instruction more effective and efficient. Willingham presents both the findings and the science that supports them. Most of his examples reference K-12 instruction, but for college-level and high school instructors, combining Willingham’s research summaries with the practical tips in the book Make It Stick (see the Read Recs tab above) provides a marvelous summary of the new scientific consensus on learning.

A full listing of Willingham’s articles is available at  http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/authors5.cfm

Of the 26 columns published to date, below are brief summaries of 9 that I believe are especially relevant to chemistry. Trust me: the summaries below do not do the articles justice. The hope is to entice you to clink the link to the column and explore topics of interest.

To focus on a “science-instruction” perspective, I have “re-titled” the questions addressed by each article as follows:

  1. Making Learning Enjoyable
  2. Why Knowledge In Memory Is Important
  3. The Value of Spaced Study – and Frequent Quizzes
  4. Helping Students Build Effective Study Habits
  5. Why Learning Is Concrete First, then Conceptual
  6. How To Help Students Construct Memory and Understanding
  7. Why Practice Beyond Mastery Is Necessary
  8. Can Critical Thinking Be Taught?
  9. Teaching and Learning Factual, Procedural, and Conceptual Knowledge

I’d suggest: pick a numbered topic above, check the summary below, then try a column or two. For topics in addition to what is in the articles, see Willingham’s book:  Why Don’t Students Like School? available in paperback for under $12.

Article Summaries:

  1. Making Learning Enjoyable

The article is Why Don’t Students Like School? at:


Willingham diagrams the interaction of working and long-term memory. In a human brain which evolved to support the “fluent remembering” required for speech, successful problem solving favors remembering how a similar problem was solved in the past. One welcome finding is that “solving problems brings pleasure” if a problem somewhat challenging but solvable with guidance.

In the age of the internet and calculators, why is it important to memorize? Being a scientist, most of Willingham’s descriptions of research are carefully qualified, so his response here is noteworthy:

“Data from the last 30 years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most—critical thinking processes like reasoning and problem solving—are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just in the environment).”

He also cites recent studies indicating “that children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.”

  1. Why Knowledge In Memory Is Important

The article How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking is at: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/spring2006/willingham.cfm

In learning, Willingham documents the Matthew Effect: “Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more—the rich get richer.” When listening or reading, being able to fluently recall knowledge in memory helps in making inferences that improve comprehension. In addition, when students have more background knowledge, space is more likely to be available in working memory to identify and process for long-term memory the conceptual implications: “Whereas novices focus on the surface features of a problem, those with more knowledge focus on the underlying structure of a problem.”

Also noted are studies in science education showing that, to improve students’ problem solving abilities, teaching “problem-solving strategies” was less effective than “improving students’ knowledge base.”

  1. The Value of Spaced Study – and Frequent Quizzes.

The column is Allocating Student Study Time: “Massed” versus “Distributed” Practice  at: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2002/willingham.cfm

Is “cramming” a smart way to study? In research comparing students who studied for 8 sessions in one day to those who studied in 2 sessions a day for 4 days, those who spaced their practice were able to remember more than twice as much on a quiz a week later. Other studies showed positive effects of spaced practice on vocabulary retention on tests eight years later.

Willingham suggests:

  • Let students know how “spaced practice” will help on final exams and in recalling information when it is needed in future courses.
  • To encourage spaced study, schedule frequent graded quizzes that require recall from memory.
  • Space topics to include a review of early fundamentals at later points in courses.
  1. Helping Students Build Effective Study Habits

The article is What Will Improve a Student’s Memory? at   https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/willingham_0.pdf

What science-based advice can we offer students on how to study? Willingham reviews

  • How memory is the residue of thought: you remember what you think about.
  • How to focus on thought about meaning.
  • Identifying and remembering what is important during self-study.
  • Learning “distinctive cues” that assist in memory retrieval.
  • Why re-copying notes and highlighting is less efficient than “self-quizzing.”
  • The value of mnemonics and visual imagery.
  • The need to “overlearn” fundamentals.

The book Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (see the Read Recs tab) does a more detailed review of study strategies such as self-quizzing (including flashcards), summary sheets, interleaved practice, and elaboration, but Willingham’s explanation of the cognitive principles sets the stage for understanding why those strategies work.

  1. Why Learning Is “Concrete First,” then Concept

Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise is at:  http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/winter2002/willingham.cfm

Willingham notes that much of what is deprecated as “rote learning” is actually “inflexible knowledge:” knowledge with a narrow meaning that is not tied to a deeper conceptual structure. While organizing knowledge by its deeper structure is the goal in learning, he cites extensive evidence that during initial moving of information into memory, “the mind much prefers that new ideas be framed in concrete rather than abstract terms.”

His advice for teachers?

“If we minimize the learning of facts out of fear that they will be absorbed as rote knowledge, we are truly throwing the baby out with the bath water…. What turns the inflexible knowledge of a beginning student into the flexible knowledge of an expert seems to be a lot more knowledge, more examples, and more practice.”

  1. Helping Students Construct Memory and Understanding

Students Remember … What They Think About is at: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2003/willingham.cfm

How do we move students from “shallow” learning of facts to seeing the deeper structure that conceptually organizes facts and procedures? The brain tends to remember what it thinks about and elements of the context in which content is encountered.  That context is a key to meaning, and the context is tagged to the knowledge in memory if the context is also thought about.

One consequence of this rule is that while students are more likely to remember what they “discover,” such learning must be done carefully. ”Students will remember incorrect ‘discoveries’ just as well as correct ones.”

Willingham describes how “study guides” for text assignments can be especially helpful if questions steer students toward linkages that construct deeper understanding.

  1. Why Practice Beyond Mastery Is Necessary

The article is Practice Makes Perfect—but Only If You Practice Beyond the Point of Perfection at: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/spring2004/willingham.cfm

In order to minimize forgetting what has been learned, cognitive studies recommend spaced overlearning: practice to perfection in recalling new content, repeated over multiple days. “Regular, ongoing review … past the point of mastery” is necessary to gain expertise.

Willingham notes that experts generally attribute their success not to talent, but to extensive practice in a domain, and that experts generally must practice extensively “for at least 10 years” before they make substantive contributions to their field.

In introductory courses, what knowledge and skills are most important to practice? “Core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again.”

  1. Can Critical Thinking Be Taught?

The article Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard To Teach is at https://www.readingrockets.org/article/critical-thinking-why-it-so-hard-teach

Willingham’s summary: “Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really.”

He explains that critical thinking is not, for the most part, a generalized skill. Though students can and should be taught to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives,” or “estimate to check a calculator answer,” to do so requires content knowledge that can be recalled from memory. Most critical thinking strategies are “domain specific:” different, for example, between Pchem and organic synthesis. Though critical thinking strategies can be taught, they nearly always can be explained quickly. In learning, the slow, rate determining step is moving new information into long-term memory, and, via practice, tagging the information with meaning.

In a final section, he describes why scientific thinking in particular depends on scientific knowledge in memory.

(An 2020 update on this issue by Willingham is at https://www.aft.org/ae/fall2020/willingham  )

  1. Teaching and Learning Factual, Procedural, and Conceptual Knowledge

Is It True That Some People Just Can’t Do Math?  is at https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/willingham.pdf

Despite the title, this article contains an excellent review of how to structure instruction in both math and the physical sciences. After a few math-specific topics, starting on article page 3, Willingham discusses how math and science instructors can help students learn factual, procedural, and conceptual knowledge.

To start: students need fluent recall of fundamentals. Why? “Complex problems have simpler problems embedded in them…. Students who automatically retrieve the answers to simple… problems keep their working memory (the mental space in which thought occurs) free to focus on the bigger… problem.”

Willingham cites the value of illustrating concepts with plenty of familiar concrete examples when they are available, and familiar analogies when they are not. On the question of what is more important learning: facts, procedures, or concepts? Studies say they are intertwined and reinforce each other.

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Were any of these articles controversial? Surprising? Feel free to express your views in the Comments below.

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9 – The Limits of Reasoning

When students try to solve problems by “thinking like a scientist,” what happens?   Let’s try an experiment (adapted from a suggestion by University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham).


You will need a sheet of paper and pencil or pen.


  1.  Try multiplying 68 x 87 “in your head.” Do not use fingers, toes, pencil, paper, computer, or calculator. Set a 2-3 minute limit. Pick up the pencil only when you are ready to write your 4-digit answer.
  1. Now multiply 68 x 87 using pencil and paper (but no calculator).

Discussion Questions:

On each of these, spend 2 minutes max to jot down answers.

  1. Were you able, without the pencil, to successfully reason the answer? What happened mentally when you tried?
  1. How difficult was solving with pencil and paper?   Did you use a procedure memorized long ago? Why was “using pencil and paper” easier than “solving in your head?”
  1. Given 3 ways to solve a simple task (2 digits times 2 digits): reasoning, applying a memorized algorithm, or using a calculator/computer – for you, which one measurably does not work?
  1. For fundamental tasks, if students must “use a computer” to solve, will they be prepared for higher level courses in the sciences?

What Studies of the Brain Predict:

  1. You will have considerable difficulty solving “in your head.” Even when your “times tables” are very well memorized, trying to keep track of the problem goal, your strategy, where you are in the process, and middle step numeric answers that are not well-memorized will likely exceed the “3-5 chunk limit” of your working memory.

The confusion you encountered is similar to what students experience when they try to solve a science problem by reasoning with information that is not well-memorized.

  1. Allowed the pencil, you were able to apply an algorithm (a step-by-step procedure) recalled from your long-term memory. The algorithm broke the problem into “one at a time” steps to avoid overloading working memory at any step.
  1. Nearly always, we solve problems with more than two steps by fluent, intuitive recall of memorized algorithms or procedures.
  1. Computers can solve some problems, but for probems with several steps, if students do not have in memory the facts and algorithms that solve problems when the numbers are simple, they will not have the skills in memory needed to choose the right programs to use or keep straight the order in which to push buttons on the calculator..

If instructors cannot use “reasoning without memorized algorithms” to solve 2 digits times 2 digits, is it fair to expect our students to use that kind of reasoning to solve problems of any complexity?

No single experiment proves a theory, but any scientific theory on reasoning should be able to explain the results of experiments such as the one above.

In our own scientific specialty, when judging proposed theories, we are taught to set aside our preferences and beliefs and to ask dispassionately:  “what do the data say?”

Outside of our specialty, we judge theories by asking, “What do the experts in that sub-discipline agree the data say?” As chemists, we say “evolution is correct” not because we dig up fossils or sequence species DNA. In science, we accept that “science” is what the experts in that sub-discipline agree it is.

But science must also allow for change. In 1920, chemists taught the Bohr model as our best explanation for atomic structure. When measurements found some predictions of the Bohr model to be incorrect, experts including Schrödinger and Heisenberg proposed an improved model — which other scientists accepted because the model predicted the data observed.

The model for cognition proposed by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was widely-accepted for a time, but some predictions of Piaget’s model are not in agreement with recently measured limits on reasoning (see post #2 references). In response to this anomalous but verified data, the model accepted by cognitive science for how the brain solves problems has changed.

What experts in cognition are now telling us (in detail in posts #2 and #11) is this:

When trying to solve a problem, if even small amounts of needed information cannot be automatically recalled from long-term memory, the brain is likely to become confused, because working memory has very little space for knowledge that has not been previously moved into, and linked within, long-term memory (LTM).

For this reason, in science courses prior to graduate school, a primary focus for students must be learning to recall from LTM the core facts and algorithms of a discipline.

If we guide our students based on improved scientific understanding of how the brain works, are they likely to be more successful in STEM courses and careers?

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8 – The AP Chemistry Reforms

The new 2013 AP Chemistry Framework and its 2014 Exam asked students to solve problems by de-emphasizing factual recall/memorization and practicing inquiry/reasoning. Recent studies in cognitive science have proven that those strategies simply do not work for students in first-year college-level science courses. The result was a 2014 AP Chemistry Exam in which 73% of students received a 3 or below.  Directing students to use problem-solving methods that science has proven do not work was profoundly unfair to students and their instructors.

The College Board (CB) is evaluating the 2013/14 changes to the AP Chemistry program over the next several months. Below are findings from cognitive research that during that review hopefully they may consider.

The 2013 AP Chemistry reforms focused on 4 areas:

  1. Limiting content but improving understanding.
  2. Decreasing reliance on memorization/recall.
  3. Increasing reliance on reasoning and guided inquiry in learning, and
  4. Applying knowledge to new contexts.

Over the past 4 years, researchers in cognitive science (the field of how the brain works and how it learns) have agreed on recommendations for how students can best be taught to solve problems in math and the physical sciences. Unfortunately, in 3 of the 4 areas above, the AP Curriculum Framework gives direction that is the opposite of the recommendations of cognitive science.

Going forward, to be in agreement with science’s understanding of how the brain solves problems, the AP Chemistry Framework will need to change. Let’s examine the “reforms” above one at a time.

1.  The new AP framework (p. 8) calls for “balancing breadth of content coverage with depth of understanding.” Cognitive research supports this finding. During initial learning, the primary goal is to increase knowledge in a student’s long-term memory (LTM). To build LTM requires repeated practice spaced over multiple days. If students are asked to learn too much new information at once, they tend to “cram” and learning does not “stick.” Limiting, mastering, and focusing on the connotations of new content is change consistent with cognitive science.

2.  The new AP framework (p. 8) advocates that students “spend less time on factual recall” and disparages “mere rote recall” (p. 16). A “Course Planning and Pacing Guide” on the CB website states: “The framework emphasizes moving students beyond formulaic algorithms and focusing instead on conceptual reasoning.”

Cognitive scientists are in agreement that students must devote years to moving facts and problem solving algorithms into memory before that can “reason conceptually” in the way experts in science can do.  In pre-graduate-school math and science, students must be able to recall, quickly and automatically from LTM, nearly all of the facts and algorithms needed to solve a problem. This is because working memory (WM), where the brain solves problems, can “conceptually reason” with essentially all information recallable from LTM, but with very limited amounts of non-memorized knowledge.

At this link, on pages 8-12, leading cognitive scientists document these findings.

 Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction, at:


As of  2014, the strengths and weaknesses of working memory, among scientists who study how the brain solves problems, are undisputed facts. In disparaging factual recall, the College Board was advising students based on outdated understandings no longer in agreement with what experts in how the brain works say is true.

In the book Make It Stick and articles by Daniel Willingham (see the Read Recs tab above), researchers in cognition advise instructors on ways to help students gradually construct both memory and understanding.

For AP teachers, the message from cognitive science is that memorization is even more important than we thought.

3.  The AP framework advises instructors and students to “spend more time on inquiry-based learning.” The website’s “AP Science Inquiry Statement” (4/21/11) advocates both “guided” and “open inquiry” using “student-designed procedures.”  The first three pages of the Clark summary document the overwhelming evidence that for the learning of new content to be efficient, students need to be clearly informed of what experts over centuries have found to be true.  These studies show that “Open inquiry,” in which students’ formulate their own questions and study procedures, is particularly inefficient.

As Clark, et. al. note (page 7):

 “Researchers…   tested whether those who had learned through discovery were better able to transfer their learning to new contexts…. Direct instruction involving considerable guidance … resulted in vastly more learning than discovery.”

That said, as the Clark authors note, guided inquiry can be a way to practice the application of newly acquired knowledge. In addition, inquiry can “prepare students for learning,” spark curiosity, and foster essential motivation. To the extent that explaining and committing content to memory can be done during study time, cognitive studies indicate that inquiry guided by instructors can be a good use of class time.

Again, these research conclusions are likely not surprising to AP instructors.

4.  The CB staff explanation of the 2014 Exam Results, posted on the AP Chemistry bulletin board on June 16, states (p. 6):

 The redesigned AP Chemistry Exam questions each require students to go beyond factual recall and calculations …, demonstrate a clear understanding … and apply that understanding to new scenarios, just as they will be required to do in science majors and careers.

How well students can transfer  facts and procedures to new situations has been found to be dependent on the number of elements of a situation that are familiar in memory. That expert knowledge takes years of study to acquire (Clark, p. 9-11). “Far transfer” is a key skill for professionals, but to find employment in chemistry generally requires at least 30 college chemistry credits, not 8. If we push students to use strategies which do not fit what their brain at that point can do, many aspiring science students will be handicapped, discouraged, and frustrated (Clark, p. 8).

Additional evidence that the type of instruction now being advocated by the CB does not work is provided by the 2014 AP exam results. The AP framework (page 3) states that questions are reviewed to ensure they are “fair and that there is an appropriate spread of difficulty.” That’s the right goal. However, on the 2014 free response questions, the score average ranged from 11% to 42%, with a median 33%. Is that “an appropriate spread of difficulty?”

The percentage of students scoring 4 or 5 was 40.4% in 2013 but  26.7% in 2014:  73% this year were given scores of 3 or below. Do the 2014 scores, for an academically select group with special interest in chemistry, indicate a fair test of what students should be able to do?

NSF data show that the percentage of U. S. college graduates who received bachelor’s degrees in chemistry fell from 1.61% in 1969 to 1.07% in 1990 to 0.74% in 2010. That’s a 54% decline since 1969, a serious concern for our nation. Will the 2014 AP results encourage more students to major in chemistry?

Five years ago, when CB leaders first proposed these reforms, many educational philosophies proposed that students could be spared the hard work of memorization if they instead learned reasoning skills. Those proposals were well-intended, but science is about what is true.  Those who study the brain scientifically have proven that those hopes were wishful thinking. As a result of new measurements of working memory, many past learning theories are being re-examined.

Cognitive science says that students can learn to solve problems by inquiry the way an expert can, but it requires constructing the memory of a scientist, which takes many years of effort.

In designing the new framework and exam, the CB cited the expectations of college professors — who are experts in chemistry. When shown the new data from cognitive science, it is likely that those professors will say, “Respect the domain expertise of those who study the brain. Don’t deny the science.”

Some without credentials in cognitive science continue to advocate for their philosophies, but in making decisions that decide the welfare of young people, the findings of experts in a scientific domain must prevail over beliefs.

For our best high school students, seeking to learn chemistry, willing to take a demanding AP course,  the CB has given 73% of those students a 3 or below – what the world calls a C or below – because students could not learn in one course what science has proven takes years of intense study. That is profoundly unfair.

The CB is using its Curriculum Framework and  exam to pressure teachers to teach in a certain way.   The methods the CB is pressuring teachers to use cognitive science has found do not work.

But the cognitive science findings are recent, and the CB deserves the opportunity to make this right.  An easy way to do so is for the CB to reverse its decision to tell teachers how to teach.

Until 2014,  the College Board provided a fair test of the range of problems that students can be taught to solve in a first course in college chemistry. That rigorous external standard motivated instructors to find ways to improve achievement.  To return to providing such a test would continue the College Board’s substantial heritage of service to students, instructors, and the nation.

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7 -Automaticity For Elements Encountered Frequently

“In each field, certain procedures are used again and again. Those procedures must be learned to the point of automaticity so that they no longer consume working memory space. Only then will the student be able to bypass the bottleneck imposed by working memory and move on to higher levels of competence.”

 —    UVa. cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in Practice Makes Perfect. Am. Educator 2004, 28(1), 31-33

In Post #2, we examined the bottleneck that cognitive science has discovered when students try to solve problems in science and math: the severe constraints on working memory when reasoning with information that has not previously been well-memorized.

When solving a problem, if a student mustlook up” the symbol for a potassium ion, the answer takes up one of the “3-5 slots” in working memory (WM) available for non-memorized elements of knowledge. If a student must look up any fact or procedure, for the other data that must be held in WM to solve the problem, the “30 seconds or less” limit on WM retention  ticks away.

In contrast, when knowledge is well memorized,  slots in WM open up that allow the student to focus on the characteristics of facts and procedures: the associations (cues) that assist in recalling background information needed to solve a problem.  When knowledge elements in LTM are accessed at the same time during problem solving, connections grow between neurons storing those elements (‘neurons that fire together, wire together”). Cues which activate one neuron activate others in the framework, and activated  elements  can be recalled into WM to guide problem solving.  Those links are the physical substance of conceptual frameworks.

For instructors, what are the implications of this research? If we identify for our students at a gradual pace the relationships used most often in chemistry, and encourage self-testing until they can recall these fundamentals automatically, their success in problem solving should significantly improve.

Here’s an experiment applying this research.  First-year problems generally involve about 40 elements: those in the first 3 rows and first and last two columns of the periodic table, plus those elements “known to the ancients” with symbols based on latin names.

“Memorizing to automaticity” the “name/symbol correlation” for these elements will free capacity in WM during problem solving. Knowing element location in the periodic table will speed finding atomic numbers, molar masses, and predicted monatomic charges, and during problem solving in WM, speed is important.

To promote automaticity in recall of fundamentals, in our tutorials we ask students to memorize the name, symbol, and (for most) the location of the “top 40” elements. An example one of these assignments is on page 49 (pdf page 55) of our “preparatory chem” sample chapters at


The 40 elements are assigned in 4 batches in our prep chem lessons and 3 in gen chem, with a short quiz on the assignments to encourage completion. A typical quiz is posted here: www.ChemReview.Net/pdfs/PeriodicQuiz.pdf .  and blank practice forms are posted at www.ChemReview.Net/pdfs/BlankPeriodicTable.pdf .

You may want to hand out a “blank table” copy with each element assignment, and let them know that the same blank table will  be part of an upcoming quiz.  The last quiz might be scheduled just before the names and symbols are needed for compound nomenclature.

Does fast recall of fundamentals help during problem solving?  We look forward to hearing your observations and results.

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6 – Finding Time For A First Day Activity

In Post #1 we asked:

 On your first day with a section, if you were free of pressure to cover content, what demonstration/discussion/inquiry would you recommend — or like to try?  What would your “first-day dream lesson” be?

In this post, we’d like to suggest a way to find time for an activity of your choosing on Day One without falling behind in a tight schedule for covering content.

“Exponential Notation” and “The Metric System” are covered near the beginning of most courses. Our recommendation would be: ask students to complete online tutorials that cover those two topics as homework. To do this, the following procedure has been used with success in a variety of first-year settings.

  1. Review the tutorials posted for free student use at http://www.chemreview.net/pdfs/ChemFreeCh1and2.pdf . Decide which topics you would like students to complete during single or multiple assignments.

If access to computer printers is an issue for some of your students, you may want to print and hand out a packet of the small number of “printed pages” that are needed for topics you assign.

  1. A key to encouraging completion of the homework is a short, announced “closed notes quiz.” Quiz options on this assignment are posted at www.ChemReview.Net/word/Mods1and2Quiz.docx in a format that allows you to select, add, and edit questions.

One or two “online homework” questions due each class may also encourage students to work at the steady pace that promotes long-term retention of learning in memory.  However, online homework is inherently “open notes.”  In our experience, a “closed notes” quiz on content is also necessary to convey that the goal is quick recall from memory of  fundamentals (see Post #2).

  1. Try your favorite Day One activity. On the day before the quiz on the homework tutorials, you might put up a problem or two covering the topics for the class to do and discuss. Or you might hand out one of the 3 quiz versions as a practice quiz to then go over, with opportunity for questions.

The intent of the tutorials is not to replace discussing a topic in class, but to permit coverage more quickly as a review of homework, freeing time in lecture for additional higher-level activities.

Review copies of additional tutorials for preparatory and general chemistry are available to instructors (see the Resources tab above). Editable quizzes on all of the tutorials are provided to instructors using the lessons with classes.

(Additional “First Week” activities were posted 8/8/2018, see WeekOneFiles ).

In the Comments, we’d like to hear:

 If you tried the above experiment, what were student outcomes?  Next time, what would you do differently?

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5 – Discussion of Our Flipping Paper

During May 2014, the ACS DivChEd Committee on Computers in Chemical Education (CCCE) is hosting an online conference (a “ConfChem”) on flipping chemistry:  the moving a part of traditional lecture content to student study time, to allow more time in class for demonstrations, discussions, and problem solving.

In the ConfChem format, authors submit papers and for a one week period, readers submit questions online which the authors answer (other readers may contribute as well). The Q&A period moves to new papers each week, but each paper and its week-long discussion remain online for future reference.

The Hartman/Dahm/Nelson group was invited to discuss the results of our experiments in shifting lecture content to homework in first-year chemistry — without videotaping lectures.  Our paper with comments and discussion is posted at

http://confchem.ccce.divched.org/2014SpringConfChemP2 .

The period for CCCE comment is closed, but if you wish to submit further questions or comments on the paper or its discussion, please submit a Comment for this blog post.

 All of the conference abstracts and papers are posted at http://confchem.ccce.divched.org/2014SpringConfChem.  Readers interested in exploring flipped instruction will find quite a few innovative ideas in the papers and their discussion.

We wish to thank Jennifer Muzyka, Chris Luker, Bob Belford and all of the CCCE volunteers for their many weeks of work to promote discussion of these issues.

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4 – Comprehension and Cognition

 … much of the information needed to understand a text is not provided in the information expressed in the text itself but must be drawn from the language user’s knowledge…..

— Van Dijk and Kintsch, Strategies of Discourse Comprehension

The previous post included 4 short experiments. If you have not yet tried those, please do so and return here.

In this post, interpretations of the results of the experiments in post #3 will be proposed. In the Comments, you will be invited to agree or disagree with those views.

The model in cognitive science that explains comprehension includes the following:

  • We talk and write in code. Often subconsciously, whether speaking or writing, we leave out detail and assume that the background knowledge of our audience will be able to fluently fill in gaps. When reading a science text, comprehension is heavily dependent on the reader’s ability to fluently recall domain fundamentals.
  • To gain background knowledge, an individual must construct long-term memory: a slow process involving physiological changes in the brain. For most topics, persuading the brain to build initial memory requires substantial effort and practice.
  • Experts can fluently construct “mental models” of problem scenarios because they can fluently recall linkages among the facts and rules of their field: just a few words can cue linked memories that allow technical text to be understood (see Experiment 4), but expertise across a scientific domain takes years of study to achieve.
  • Scientific reading and problems that experts find easy, non-experts often find nearly impossible, even if they have good reasoning skills, because they lack fluent recall of assumed background knowledge.
  • Standard general chemistry texts are an incredible resource for interesting problems, 4-color diagrams, fascinating sidebars, and “refreshing the memory” when content is later needed. However, those reference texts generally proceed at the fast pace appropriate to refresh prior memory, rather than the slower pace required to construct initial memory.

To find more time in lecture for activities that build both interest and conceptual understanding, we will need to find ways to explain the “code” of chemistry during study time – using materials designed to promote initial building of memory.

In upcoming posts, we’ll talk about how that challenge might be met – without massive demands on limited instructor time.


At the “Read Recs” tab at the top, for more on memory, see the short Clark article. On oral and reading comprehension, The Knowledge Gap by E. D. Hirsch (who suggested the sports scenarios in Post #3 and epigraph above) is superb.

For Comment:

  • Is the analysis above consistent with your experience as an instructor?
  • What are the best ways to help students learn new content from general chemistry reference texts?   Are “study guides” useful?  Is an “introduction to the topic in lecture” enough so that most students can read their text with the comprehension needed to gain additional learning?

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