Heuristic reasoning in chemistry: Making decisions about acid strength

La Keisha McClary, Vicente Talanquer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Scopus citations


The characterization of students' reasoning strategies is of central importance in the development of instructional strategies that foster meaningful learning. In particular, the identification of shortcut reasoning procedures (heuristics) used by students to reduce cognitive load can help us devise strategies to facilitate the development of more analytical ways of thinking. The central goal of this qualitative study was thus to investigate heuristic reasoning as used by organic chemistry college students, focusing our attention on their ability to predict the relative acid strength of chemical compounds represented using explicit composition and structural features (i.e., structural formulas). Our results indicated that many study participants relied heavily on one or more of the following heuristics to make most of their decisions: reduction, representativeness, and lexicographic. Despite having visual access to reach structural information about the substances included in each ranking task, many students relied on isolated composition features to make their decisions. However, the specific characteristics of the tasks seemed to trigger heuristic reasoning in different ways. Although the use of heuristics allowed students to simplify some components of the ranking tasks and generate correct responses, it often led them astray. Very few study participants predicted the correct trends based on scientifically acceptable arguments. Our results suggest the need for instructional interventions that explicitly develop college chemistry students' abilities to monitor their thinking and evaluate the effectiveness of analytical versus heuristic reasoning strategies in different contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1433-1454
Number of pages22
JournalInternational Journal of Science Education
Issue number10
StatePublished - Jul 2011


  • Acid-base chemistry
  • Chemistry education
  • College education
  • Heuristics
  • Intuitive thinking
  • Reasoning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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