Helping Organic Chemistry Students Develop Metacognitive Problem-Solving Skills

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Katherine Blackford, Chemistry

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

Each time I have taught organic chemistry, students have come to me wondering why, even after memorizing all of the necessary content, they still struggled to solve exam problems. They have mentioned running out of time after realizing too late that they had made a mistake at the beginning of a problem, making “silly mistakes,” and having no idea how to start a problem. One possible reason is that instruction in organic chemistry is usually focused on transmitting large amounts of content and little time is spent explicitly teaching students how to approach a challenging problem. Beyond working through practice problems with students or giving them general tips, I did not have many concrete ideas about how to fix this issue until I was introduced to research on the topic of metacognition in a pedagogy course I took in Fall 2019.

Metacognition is commonly defined as thinking about one’s thinking. A key component of metacognition is self-regulation: managing one’s time and effort through planning, monitoring, and evaluating one’s problem-solving process and products. Poor self-regulation can result in “wild goose chases” where students continue down incorrect paths without considering whether what they are doing is leading them in the right direction (Schoenfeld, 1987). Based on techniques for teaching metacognition described by Schoenfeld, I was inspired to design a series of workshops focused on metacognitive problem-solving skills. I piloted these workshops during a typically peer-led discussion section for Chemistry 12B (Organic Chemistry II) in Spring 2020 and adapted elements when I taught Chemistry 12A (Organic Chemistry I) in Fall 2020. My goal was to use explicit modeling to teach students the importance of self-regulatory skills and to encourage students to practice these skills with their peers using metacognitive prompting.

During the first workshop in Spring 2020, I started by asking students to work individually on a difficult problem. I then modeled how I would approach the problem, including intentional dead ends and ideas for how I might get back on track. The purpose was to illustrate the utility of metacognitive problem-solving strategies. Next, I introduced a series of questions students could ask themselves while working on a problem, such as “what am I doing right now and why?” and “is there a better way I could be solving this?” Students then worked on problems in pairs with assigned roles. One student worked on the problem while thinking aloud, making their thought process more apparent to both their partner and themselves. The other observed and helped by prompting them using the suggested questions as needed. The students then switched roles and gave each other feedback. I held three follow-up workshops over Zoom later that semester focused on planning, monitoring, or evaluation, and I used similar prompting questions and modeling of self-regulatory skills when I taught review sessions for Chem 12A in Fall 2020.

I assessed the effectiveness of the Chem 12B workshops using feedback surveys after the first workshop and at the end of the semester. Nearly every workshop attendee agreed that each workshop component was useful for them and that they had used or planned to use the prompting questions when working on homework and exams. Students felt that thinking aloud and getting feedback from their partner were the most helpful parts of the first workshop, which was held in-person. However, during follow-up lessons, students reported that watching me model my thought process was more useful than working with partners. I received similar comments on my Chem 12A midterm and final course evaluations. This is consistent with my observation that students collaborated more during the in-person workshop than in Zoom breakout rooms in subsequent lessons. Based on positive student feedback and my observations of students using strategies that I introduced during the workshops and review sessions, these workshops were successful overall. I plan to continue developing these lessons for use in my future teaching positions.


Schoenfeld, A. H. (1987). What’s all the fuss about metacognition? In A. H. Schoenfeld (Ed.), Cognitive Science and Mathematics Education (pp. 189–215). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.