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Existing research has investigated student problem-solving strategies across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; however, there is limited work in undergraduate biology education on how various aspects that influence learning combine to generate holistic approaches to problem solving. Through the lens of situated cognition, we consider problem solving as a learning phenomenon that involves the interactions between internal cognition of the learner and the external learning environment. Using phenomenography as a methodology, we investigated undergraduate student approaches to problem solving in biology through interviews. We identified five aspects of problem solving (including knowledge, strategy, intention, metacognition, and mindset) that define three qualitatively different approaches to problem solving; each approach is distinguishable by variations across the aspects. Variations in the knowledge and strategy aspects largely aligned with previous work on how the use or avoidance of biological knowledge informed both concept-based and nonconcept-based strategies. Variations in the other aspects revealed intentions spanning complete disengagement to deep interest with the course material, different degrees of metacognitive reflections, and a continuum of fixed to growth mindsets. We discuss implications for how these characterizations can improve instruction and efforts to support development of problem-solving skills.


This article was originally published in CBE—Life Sciences Education, volume 23, issue 2, in 2024.


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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.



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