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What are the predictors of performance in higher-level cognitive and problem solving skills for an introductory interdisciplinary course, such as biochemistry? 

Didem Vardar-Ulu Department of Chemistry, Wellesley College, Massachusetts 02481 

Anecdotal evidence indicates that students have conceptual and reasoning difficulties comprehending complex concepts in science. They can memorize and recite definitions without understanding the underlying principles. While the identification of student difficulties in individual scientific disciplines, i.e. physics, chemistry and biology has been a major area of research for many years, very little has been reported on the underlying reasons for the challenges students face tackling interdisciplinary areas, such as biochemistry. With recent advances in the life sciences, both the research fields and the job market have seen an increase in activities in areas at the boundaries of traditional disciplines. Therefore, it is no longer obvious how to prepare students for changes in the workplace. However, it is clear that if we, as instructors, are to improve interdisciplinary education, we must first understand the sources of difficulties that students experience in making sense of the disciplinary information they have been learning in an interdisciplinary context. As the initial step towards this goal, this research is focused on identifying reliable predictors of performance in higher-level cognitive and problem solving skills for students enrolled in the introductory biochemistry courses offered at the Wellesley College. The information collected for this work involves data on students’ past performance on individual disciplinary preparation as indicated by their course grades from prerequisite courses, their quantitative reasoning abilities at the time of college admission, their learning styles, their attitudes and preconceptions towards either discipline, as well as how they perceive and process non-scientific information.   This data is going to be analyzed to determine how these parameters correlate with student performance both at the final course grade level, as well as at different components of the course that specifically focus on higher-level cognitive and problem solving skills. Early identification of these predictors would allow for specific customized academic advising and the implementation of effective institution-wide instruction and support strategies that could be extended into other interdisciplinary courses.