Of Mental Models, Assumptions and Heuristics: The Case of Acids and Acid Strength
AuthorMcClary, LaKeisha Michelle
Committee ChairTalanquer, Vicente
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractThis study explored what cognitive resources (i.e., units of knowledge necessary to learn) first-semester organic chemistry students used to make decisions about acid strength and how those resources guided the prediction, explanation and justification of trends in acid strength. We were specifically interested in the identifying and characterizing the mental models, assumptions and heuristics that students relied upon to make their decisions, in most cases under time constraints. The views about acids and acid strength were investigated for twenty undergraduate students. Data sources for this study included written responses and individual interviews.The data was analyzed using a qualitative methodology to answer five research questions. Data analysis regarding these research questions was based on existing theoretical frameworks: problem representation (Chi, Feltovich & Glaser, 1981), mental models (Johnson-Laird, 1983); intuitive assumptions (Talanquer, 2006), and heuristics (Evans, 2008). These frameworks were combined to develop the framework from which our data were analyzed.Results indicated that first-semester organic chemistry students' use of cognitive resources was complex and dependent on their understanding of the behavior of acids. Expressed mental models were generated using prior knowledge and assumptions about acids and acid strength; these models were then employed to make decisions. Explicit and implicit features of the compounds in each task mediated participants' attention, which triggered the use of a very limited number of heuristics, or shortcut reasoning strategies. Many students, however, were able to apply more effortful analytic reasoning, though correct trends were predicted infrequently. Most students continued to use their mental models, assumptions and heuristics to explain a given trend in acid strength and to justify their predicted trends, but the tasks influenced a few students to shift from one model to another model. An emergent finding from this project was that the problem representation greatly influenced students' ability to make correct predictions in acid strength.