Advancing the Cognitive Science of Instruction

Advancing the Cognitive Science of Instruction: Testing the Role of Pedagogical Sequences, Scaffolding, and Prior Knowledge


This project investigates learning in the biological sciences among introductory and advanced undergraduates. Undergraduate biology instructors place importance on deep conceptual understanding and problem solving, yet they suffer from a lack of consensus in instructional science on the best way to facilitate this. Researchers do not know whether explicit instruction should precede or follow problem solving, nor do they know whether the optimal pedagogical sequence depends on students’ level of prior knowledge. It is also likely the case that conventional assessments fail to capture the full impact of different pedagogical approaches on students’ application of learning, also known as transfer. These unknowns are important because currently thousands of students leave science with inert knowledge, unprepared to use scientific concepts and practices in subsequent courses, critical day-to-day decisions about healthcare, public health, and the environment, and ultimately their professions. The goal of the project is to resolve these fundamental questions concerning when and how to provide instruction and opportunities for problem solving about a challenging fundamental concept in the biological sciences.

Big Ideas:

  • How should problem-solving be taught in undergraduate biology courses?
  • Should explicit instruction precede or follow problem solving?
  • Does the optimal pedagogical sequence depends on students’ level of prior knowledge?
  • How do students who learn from instruction-first and problem-solving first approaches apply their knowledge of learning to subsequent transfer problems?


  • Compare the impact of different pedagogical sequences on students’ conceptual understanding of a core life sciences concept.
  • Compare the impact of different pedagogical approaches on students with different prior knowledge.
  • Characterize the learning that is transferred from each lesson type at each level.
Strategies for Accomplishing Project Goals:

We will investigate the role of pedagogical sequence and prior knowledge through a quasi-experimental study. Students enrolled in introductory biology (low prior knowledge students) and biochemistry (high prior knowledge students) will be randomly assigned to experience instruction that involves either instruction followed by problem solving or problem solving followed by instruction. We will assess student learning using a posttest that includes constructed-response transfer problems that closely mimic the lesson or those that extend the lesson. We will compare student outcomes to determine whether there is a differential impact on learning based on pedagogical sequence and whether the answer depends on students’ level of prior knowledge. These experiments will be performed for lessons that focus on structure-function relationships and transformations of energy and matter.

We will investigate the learning that is transferred for each lesson type using student interviews where we probe the connections students identify among the lesson materials and various types of problems.

Team Members:

Logan Fiorella and Paula Lemons, PIs
Nuby He

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2055117. Any opinions findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.