Date of Award

Summer 8-2017

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




MacKenzie R. Stetzer

Second Committee Member

Jonathan T. Shemwell

Third Committee Member

John R. Thompson

Additional Committee Members

Michael C. Wittman

Janet C. Fairman


Student reasoning on physics problems is often context dependent. A possible explanation is that salient distracting features (SDFs) in physics problems may cue students’ “spontaneous” reasoning. This cued reasoning is often accepted without question, even though it may be unproductive and may even preclude the use of relevant knowledge. One possible approach to address such reasoning difficulties is to strengthen students’ metacognitive skills, particularly their metacognitive knowledge. While metacognitive knowledge plays an important role in facilitating effective regulation, little is known about how to build student metacognitive knowledge. This dissertation explores the use of contrasting cases (e.g., a number of cases or instances having the same underlying knowledge across a range of contexts) to build transferable metacognitive knowledge.

The goal of this dissertation is to understand how students can build general metacognitive knowledge (GMK) related to SDFs using contrasting case instruction. In particular, the GMK targeted in this work involves reflection on how and why SDFs can impact reasoning. Multiple sets of contrasting cases, or contrast pairs, were designed to highlight the GMK via descriptive vignettes of fictional students as they answered physics questions.

In an experiment, in one condition (non-synthesis), college students compared each contrast pair separately. In the other condition (synthesis), students compared the same pairs together. All students received direct instruction on the potential value of reflecting on how SDFs could impact their reasoning, and then took a post-test. Results revealed that synthesis students could generate the GMK while no non-synthesis students did. Analysis also revealed that synthesis students demonstrated greater learning of the GMK on the post-test. Furthermore, no non-synthesis students could apply the GMK, even after being told the knowledge. Together, these findings suggest that synthesis may be an effective approach to building student GMK, while direct instruction on its own is not. More broadly, students may not generate GMK on their own without the appropriate instructional scaffolding.