Contrary to students' experiences in primary and secondary schools, postsecondary education demands students be proactive, maintain motivation, and put into effect goals and learning strategies (e.g., study strategies) to succeed academically (Bembenutty, 2011). Many students enter postsecondary institutions lacking basic skills such as goal setting and failing to engage in appropriate studying strategies (Bembenutty, ibid). For nearly three decades, the self-regulated learning (SRL) framework has been used to examine study activities and academic success across various levels of education (Karoly, Boekaerts, & Maes, 2005; Pressley, 1995). However, few investigations have focused on SRL strategies among ethnically diverse students and academic success in science. This is especially important when considering the increasing ethnic diversity in college classrooms coupled with the National importance of science and technology. We pursue this important line of inquiry by drawing from the SRL literature to investigate diverse students' study activities and their relationship to key course outcomes in first-semester organic chemistry.
What Is Self-Regulated Learning?
There are a variety of definitions that have been used to describe SRL that vary depending on the theoretical perspective one uses. We apply Zimmerman's definition of SRL, which states that SRL is “the degree to which students are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning process” (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001, p.5). According to this definition, students take a proactive role in monitoring their learning, maintaining motivation, and engaging in behaviors (e.g., study strategies) that lead to academic success. For the purposes of this study, we focus on one particular aspect of self-regulation—the use of SRL study strategies—and its relation to course outcomes.
Self-Regulated Learning Strategies and Academic Success
Several studies have shown unique differences between high- and low-achieving students in the specific strategies they engage in to achieve academically (Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1990). Researchers have noted the benefits of metacognitive strategies such as self-monitoring and regulation of thinking on problem-solving in chemistry—a crucial skill (Rickey & Stacy, 2000; Sandi-Urena, Cooper, & Stevens, 2012; Schraw, Crippen, & Hartley, 2006). Sandi-Urena et al. (2012) applied a mixed methods design to study the effects of cooperative problem-based instruction on general chemistry students' problem solving ability and metacognitive activity. Using the IMMEX assessment instrument, findings indicate that students who were given the collaborative metacognitive intervention treatment significantly outperformed the control group on solving non-algorithmic chemistry problems of higher difficulty. The authors concluded that providing an environment where students can engage in social interactions and reflection allows students to develop critical problem-solving skills.
Engaging in SRL study strategies has also been shown to benefit student understanding and course achievement, above and beyond prior knowledge (Azevedo, Moos, Johnson, & Chauncy, 2010; Plant, Ericsson, Hill, & Asberg, 2005). For example, Plant et al. (2005) examined the relationships between undergraduate Psychology and Education students' SRL activities and overall course performance. University records, study time allocation, academic performance questionnaires, and weeklong study diaries were analyzed using correlations and hierarchical regression modeling. After controlling for previous achievement (e.g., high school GPA and SAT scores), findings show that higher achieving students, as measured by course grades, studied in quiet environments and showed higher frequencies of time management and goal setting strategies. The authors concluded that SRL activities are an effective means of improving academic performance above and beyond prior knowledge. Studies incorporating the use of interviews and study diaries have shown similar results among more and less successful undergraduate bioscience students (Nandagopal & Ericsson, 2012).
Other researchers have investigated the use of technology as a vehicle to train students on SRL strategies. Azevedo and Cromley (2004) applied a pre- and post-test experimental design to examine the impact of SRL training on students' (n = 131) understanding of the circulatory system. Findings revealed that participants in the experimental condition (SRL training) showed a significant shift towards more scientific views in their mental models (as measured by written essays) compared to the control group (no SRL training).
These studies have shown the positive benefits of engaging in specific SRL strategies and informed academic interventions aimed at increasing students' achievement in gatekeeper courses such as organic chemistry. Academic interventions have reported significant and positive relationships between SRL strategies and student understanding, retention, and attitudes towards science (Sandi-Urena et al., 2012). Although these interventions may not directly apply the SRL framework in their interventions, the study activities implemented are well within the bounds of self-regulated study strategies. For example, the Science Gateway Workshop Program was developed to increase student performance and retention across many science disciplines. Students attended a 2-hour workshop sessions per week where they engaged in peer-learning strategies to solve complex problems in their respective domains (biology, chemistry, and physics). After controlling for prior achievement (SAT scores and prior GPA) findings show that workshop participants earned higher final grades and increased retention compared to non-participants in biology and chemistry. Effect sizes were greatest among underrepresented students.
Specifically in organic chemistry, similar interventions such as the Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) intervention has used small group peer learning opportunities (seeking assistance from peers) and explicitly encouraged students to reflect and monitor their problem-solving processes (self-evaluation and keeping records and monitoring understanding). Researchers found that PLTL participants show a significant improvement in course performance, retention, and attitudes towards the course compared to students in a traditional lecture course (Tien, Roth, & Kampmeier, 2002).
SRL Strategies Across Ethnic Groups
Despite the demonstrated benefits of SRL strategies on students' learning and performance, few investigations have examined study strategies across ethnic and cultural groups. Paul Pintrich, a leading figure in the development of SRL, pointed out that much of the research on self-regulation has been conducted in North American settings, which can be problematic when generalizing to non-Western cultures and ethnicities (Schunk, 2005). Indeed, researchers have posited that SRL skills and strategies are acquired through social processes, and therefore potentially vary across ethnic and cultural groups (McInerney, 2011).
The few investigations published in this area have shown both similarities and differences in SRL strategies across ethnic groups (for a review, see McInerney, 2011). Overall, research suggests that engaging in specific SRL strategies is positively related academic achievement (typically measured by grades and/or standardized exams). Second, a mastery orientation towards learning is a consistent predictor of self-regulation, regardless of ethnicity. SRL differences have been found in the specific types of strategies (e.g., use of memorization) between ethnically diverse students and have been attributed to the cultural context in which students are immersed (e.g., Eastern Asians collectivism and Westerners individualism orientations; McInerney, 2011).
Before proceeding, it is important to define culture. The definition of culture used in this article is borrowed from cultural anthropologist (D'Andrade, 1995) who defines culture as a socially inherited body of past human behavioral patterns that serves as the resource for a social group. We view ethnicity and culture as inseparable constructs. The important aspect of this definition is that culture is passed on from generation to generation (inherited) and manifests itself in behavioral patterns (e.g., use of specific study strategies).
Although not explicitly using the SRL framework, Treisman (1992) informally compared the study activities of Chinese and African American students enrolled in calculus at the University of California, Berkeley. Findings revealed that 18 out of 20 African American students studied in isolation and were more likely to keep their academic and social lives separate. Conversely, Chinese students formed an “academic fraternity” (p. 366) where students would complete homework assignments, check each other's answers, and engage in discussions. The author concluded that peer learning activities and the opportunity for feedback were the keys to Chinese students overall success in college calculus.
Purdie and Hattie (1996) investigated cultural differences in the use of SRL strategies between secondary school Australian students, Japanese students studying in Australia, and Japanese students studying in Japan. Self-report survey data revealed similarities and differences in the pattern of SRL strategies. Findings indicate that all three groups displayed a similar range in strategy use, but patterns of strategy use varied between groups. Japanese students in Japan placed significantly greater importance on memorization and reviewing strategies, while Australians placed greater emphasis on strategies such as goal setting/planning and self-checking. The authors suggest the growing multicultural nature of our classrooms requires the need to test Western models of learning.
More recently, Chiu (2007) examined the relationship between 15 year olds uses of SRL strategies (memorization, elaboration, and metacognition) and academic achievement in math, science and reading domains across 34 countries based on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data. Using multi-level regressions, the authors found that metacognitive strategy use (e.g., reflection, planning, and evaluation) was positively related to students' academic achievement in math, science, and reading domains. The strength of this relationship varied by cultural dimensions. In individualistic cultures, the relationship between metacognitive strategy use and academic achievement were strongest. In contrast, the relationship between schoolmates' reported use of metacognitive strategies and academic achievement were strongest in cultures that placed a higher value on community. These findings suggest “that students in individualistic cultures rely more on individual learning strategies while students in collective cultures rely more on group learning strategies” (p. 360). Engagement in memorization-type strategies was negatively correlated with students' academic achievement in math, science, and reading domains, regardless of culture. In contrast to Purdie and Hattie (1996), Asian cultures did not report using memorization strategies more frequent than other cultures.
These studies highlight both similarities and differences in the uses of SRL strategies across ethnic and cultural groups. The few studies explicitly investigating strategies among diverse groups underscore the importance of considering students' ethnicity when examining the relationships between study strategies patterns and academic performance. It remains to be seen what similarities and differences in SRL strategy use exists between ethnically diverse students enrolled in a critical gatekeeper course such as organic chemistry. The increasing ethnic diversity of college classrooms and research demonstrating lower STEM graduation rates among URMs (National Academy of Sciences, 2011) emphasizes the importance of pursuing this line of inquiry. We build on previous investigations by not only identifying the influence of SRL strategies on students' academic achievement (as measured by course grades), but also focus on the relationships between specific strategies and performance on problem solving and conceptual understanding measures. Specifically, this study addressed the following research questions:
What types of studying strategies do students use in organic chemistry?
Are commonly used strategies related to measures of conceptual understanding, problem-solving performance, and course grades?