Cognitive Reflection Predicts Science Understanding

Andrew ShtulmanOccidental College
Kate McCallumSam Houston State University

Abstract

Understanding scientific theories like evolution by natural selection, classical mechanics, or plate tectonics requires knowledge restructuring at the level of individual concepts, or conceptual change. Here, we investigate the role of cognitive reflection (Frederick, 2005) in achieving conceptual change. College undergraduates (n = 184) were administered a 45-question survey probing their understanding of six domains of science requiring conceptual change – astronomy, evolution, geology, mechanics, perception, and thermodynamics – as well as (a) their ability to analyze covariation-based data, (b) their understanding of the nature of science (NOS), and (c) their disposition towards cognitive reflection. Cognitive reflection was a significant predictor of science understanding in all domains, as well as an independent predictor, explaining significantly more variance in science understanding than that explained by covariation analysis ability and NOS understanding combined. These results suggest that cognitive reflection may be a prerequisite for changing certain cognitive structures, namely, concepts and theories.

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