Yes, but can they construct the knowledge?


Like playing sports, reasoning is a skill that has to be learned and refined over time. The ability to think abstractly is not one that we are born with. Only after many years, do we have the ability to control and isolate variables, search for relationships, such as proportions, understand probability, and lastly, formulate hypotheses and test them with carefully designed experiments.

One measure of these cognitive skills is the Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning ("Lawson Test").


With the help of the chemistry department we have been able to test freshmen in introductory chemistry. We also have results for sophomore engineering majors in physics 201 and junior biology & natural science majors in physics 253.The following table shows some of the averages for these 350+ students.


  All students Phys 201 Phys 253 Chem 101
Total Lawson score 61% 65% 58% 60%


This is a chart showing the distribution of total Lawson scores among the freshmen.


Loosely, scores above 75% represent students who have the necessary skills to reason abstractly, and 40- 75% are only possess some of the skills.


Students who do not have the necessary cognitive skills, will not fully understand abstract concepts such as acceleration and energy.


The Lawson Test and FCI were administered to 297 high school and university students who were enrolled in interactive courses. (The teaching methods varied across the sections, but all went behind passive lectures.)


(297 high school and university students averaged within 17 bins)


Similar correlations are seen with the SAT.


(627 high school and university students averaged within 25 bins)



In addition to the cognitive skills, such as scientific reasoning, problem solving, and mathematical, there are metacognitive skills that are equally important. Thinking about thinking, or metacognition, is important in learning.

Where as cognitive skills are used to achieve a particular goal (e.g., understand forces), metacognitive skills help to ensure that the goal has been reached (e.g., quizzing oneself to evaluate one's understanding of forces).


May & Etkina observed a correlation between the amount of metacognitive activity and learning in their courses, in which students were asked to keep weekly journals. Those physics students who showed the greatest and most sophisticated reflection were the students who scored higher on conceptual diagnostic surveys, such as the FCI.1


By employing metacognitive skills, one engages in self-regulated learning, which can be divided into several sub-skills: planning, monitoring and adjusting.


  1. D. B. May and E. Etkina, "College Physics Students' Epistemological Self-Reflection and Its Relationship to Conceptual Learning" Am. J. Phys., 2002. 70(12): p. 1249-58.