One primary goal of many science courses is for students to learn creative problem-solving skills; that is, integrating concepts, explaining concepts in a problem context, and using concepts to solve problems. However, what science instructors see is that many students, even those having excellent SAT/ACT and Advanced Placement scores, struggle in the introductory science courses. As faculty work to adopt more evidence-based teaching methods, the question arises of how to determine early on who may have difficulty in these introductory courses.

Recent basic cognitive science research suggests that there are individual differences in how learners approach conceptual tasks: some learners tend toward rote concept-learning (exemplar learners), whereas other learners tend to use abstraction concept-learning. The authors explored the possibility that this individual difference in concept-building might have consequences for classroom learning. In the current study, using an online concept-building task, they differentiated students based on their concept-building approach and then tracked their exam grades in general chemistry and organic chemistry courses. Abstraction learners demonstrated advantages over exemplar learners even after taking into account preparation via ACT scores and prior chemistry performance. Further, these performance differences grow even more pronounced in Organic Chemistry 2. Results suggest that individual differences in how learners acquire and represent concepts persist from laboratory concept learning to learning complex concepts in introductory chemistry courses.