Examining the Roles of Metacognition and Reasoning in the Demonstration of a Functional Understanding

We often argue that students possess a functional understanding of a given concept if they recognize, on their own, the need to apply that concept in a new situation and then are able to do so successfully.  (In essence, this is equivalent to the notion of transfer.)  At the same time, a collaborative investigation with Mila Kryjevskaia (North Dakota State University) revealed that, on pairs of questions targeting identical concepts/knowledge, a significant percentage of students who demonstrated the requisite conceptual understanding by answering the first question correctly failed to apply that knowledge on the second question; these students typically abandoned correct lines of reasoning in favor of more intuitive reasoning strategies.  Our paired-question methodology allowed for the disentanglement of student conceptual understanding and reasoning approaches; we then used Evans’ extended heuristic-analytic theory of thinking and reasoning (a dual-process theory of reasoning drawn from psychological research) to account for, in a mechanistic fashion, the observed inconsistencies in student responses.  As there is reason to believe that metacognition plays an important role in regulating the interaction between heuristic-based (or intuitive) reasoning and analytical reasoning, we (along with colleagues at two other institutions) have begun to develop methods to assess and promote student metacognition in physics.

Ultimately, however, students’ ability to demonstrate a functional understanding is also linked to their qualitative, inferential reasoning skills, and relatively little is known about how students construct the kinds of inferential reasoning chains that are required to solve qualitative physics problems and that are emphasized in research-based materials (e.g., Tutorials in Introductory Physics).  This has led to a new collaborative grant (involving a total of five PIs at five different institutions) to examine the development of student reasoning skills during scaffolded, research-based physics instruction.

Given that the successful demonstration of a functional understanding necessarily requires a productive interaction among conceptual understanding, metacognition, and reasoning, research in the areas of metacognition and reasoning in the context of physics (in addition to existing research on conceptual understanding) is critical to efforts aimed at improving physics instruction and further enhancing and refining research-based instructional materials.  The research outlined in this section has primarily been conducted in the context of introductory physics courses, but in principle can be conducted in physics courses at all levels and in special courses for the preparation and professional development of K-12 teachers of physics and physical science.

Researchers on project:

MacKenzie R. Stetzer

Thanh Lê (Ph.D. student)

Caleb Speirs (Ph.D. student)

William Ferm (M.S.T. student)

William Johnson (undergraduate student)

Joshua Medina (undergraduate student)


  • J. C. Speirs, W. N. Ferm Jr., M. R. Stetzer, and B. A. Lindsey, “Probing student ability to construct reasoning chains: A new methodology,” 2016 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings (Sacramento, CA, July 20-21, 2016), edited by D. L. Jones, L. Ding, and A. Traxler, 328-331 (2016). doi:10.1119/perc.2016.pr.077
  • W. N. Ferm Jr., J. C. Speirs, M. R. Stetzer, and B. A. Lindsey, “Investigating student ability to follow and interact with reasoning chains,” 2016 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings (Sacramento, CA, July 20-21, 2016), edited by D. L. Jones, L. Ding, and A. Traxler, 120-123 (2016). doi:10.1119/perc.2016.pr.025
  • M. Kryjevskaia, M. R. Stetzer, and T. K. Lê, “Failure to engage: Examining the impact of metacognitive interventions on persistent intuitive reasoning approaches,” 2014 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings (Minneapolis, MN, July 30-31, 2014), edited by P. V. Engelhardt, A. D. Churukian, and D. L. Jones, 143-146 (2015).
  • M. Kryjevskaia, M. R. Stetzer, and N. Grosz, “Answer first: Applying the heuristic-analytic theory of reasoning to examine student intuitive thinking in the context of physics,” Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 10, 020109 (2014). (Note:  Editors’ Suggestion.)
  • M. Kryjevskaia and M. R. Stetzer, “Examining inconsistencies in student reasoning approaches,” Proceedings of the 2012 Physics Education Research Conference, edited by P. V. Engelhardt, A. D. Churukian, and N. S. Rebello, AIP Conference Proceedings 1513, 226-229 (2013). (Note:  2012 PERC Proceedings Paper Award Finalist.)

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