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Fostering Student Metacognition and Personal Epistemology in


the Physics Classroom Through the Pedagogical use of
Mnemonic Strategies.
Michael Paul Lukie1
1

Department of Secondary Education, The University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

Abstract
Students can use memorized mnemonic strategies taught to them by their physics teachers as a
way to assist remembering complicated formulas. However, many students might not develop a
deep conceptual understanding of physics as a result of the use of such strategies. This
theoretical paper proposes that physics teachers can use the teaching and understanding of
mnemonic strategies, as one form of cognitive strategy, to foster students' metacognition and
their personal epistemology by focusing their attention on what it 'means' to understand and to
solve physics problems. Research suggests that "many students exhibit a surface learning to
physics, as a result of a predominantly textbook based and lecture style of teaching" (Prosser,
Walker & Millar, 2000, p. 47) and that "they do not understand the requisite procedures
required to learn and understand that material" (Thomas, 2012b, p. 33). The mnemonic device
would be presented as such a requisite procedure, providing the physics teacher with an
opportunity to teach students about their metacognitive knowledge, control, and awareness
(Flavel, 1979; Prosser et al., 1996) about when, why, and how to use the mnemonic device. To
further such an understanding of the nature of physics and physics problem solving, it is
important that students develop their personal epistemology, or what Hofer (2001) defines as
"knowing about knowing" (p. 363). This is because epistemological understanding is
fundamental to students' understanding and critical thinking development. It is proposed that
teachers can use mnemonic devices to develop their students' epistemological sophistication by
elucidating and promoting the epistemological assumptions that underlie their critical thinking.
If the teachers promote a strictly objective absolutism by providing the student with a mnemonic
device to memorize and apply narrowly then knowledge is seen by students as simply
accumulating from textbook like facts and is disconnected from the human mind. However, if
teachers promote a constructivist epistemology such that the student, after initial exposure to
mnemonic devices, is encouraged to develop their own mnemonic device(s) then knowledge may
be seen by students as a "theory of mind that recognises the primacy of humans as knowledge
constructors capable of generating a multiplicity of valid representations of reality" (Kuhn,
1999, p. 22). Since many physics students also concurrently study mathematics, the transfer and
durability of the mnemonic device is important for other domains and metacognition is seen as a
"potential mediator of improvement" (Georghiades, 2000, p. 119) for this transfer. As a result of
students developing mnemonic devices, they will develop their metacognitive skills, personal
epistemological sophistication, and the "knowledge about when and why to select and apply
strategies that are most appropriate for a problem" (Taasoobshirazi & Farley, 2013, p. 448).
Keywords: High School Physics Education, Metacognition, Epistemology, Mnemonic Strategies

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Introduction
This theoretical paper proposes that physics teachers might use the teaching and understanding
of mnemonic strategies, as one form of cognitive strategy, to foster students' metacognition and
their personal epistemology by focusing their attention on what it 'means' to understand and to
solve physics problems. Since students who are more adaptively metacognitive are typically
more successful learners than those who are less adaptively metacognitive (Thomas, 2013, p.4),
it is important for physics teachers to promote metacognition as part of their pedagogical
practice. Further, students are typically unaware that there are different ways of knowing and
many students fall into an objectivist epistemology, where knowledge is considered by them to
be contained in textbooks, and "independent of a thinking being" (Lorsbach & Tobin, 1992, p.
1). Objectivism, according to Roth (1994) is the "default epistemology" (p. 26) predominate in
most schools and Lorsbach & Tobin (1992) agree, writing that the objectivist epistemology is
"dominant in most educational settings today" (p.1). Many physics students are accustomed to
learning the truths found in textbooks and science teaching has traditionally focused on the direct
transmission of these science truths (Roth, 1994).
Many physics teachers provide students with mnemonic strategies as a way to assist them when
remembering complicated formulas but many students might not develop a deep conceptual
understanding of physics as a result of the use of such strategies. However, if teachers promote a
constructivist epistemology such that the student, after initial exposure to mnemonic devices, is
encouraged to develop their own mnemonic device(s) then students may replace the "notion of
truth" (Roth, 1994, p.7) with the "notion of viability" (p. 7) since there are many alternative
constructions of reality that may exist, "none of which can ever claim truth for itself" (p. 7). Roth
(1994) contends the "constructivist position is a more mature form of knowing" (p. 7) and many
educators "have accepted constructivism as a more appropriate set of beliefs to direct teaching
and learning" (p. 7).
I have been teaching high school physics at the University of Winnipeg since 2003 but have only
recently begun to incorporate metacognition and student epistemology into my regular teaching
practice. I have begun teaching students about metacognition and their personal epistemology
when I have been teaching mnemonic strategies within the physics kinematics unit, and have
found that my students report a greater understanding about their thinking and the way they
know how they know. This paper is being written for physics teachers who teach mnemonic
strategies to their students and the suggestion is made that the teaching of mnemonic strategies
may be an opportunity to also teach students about metacognition and epistemology. A brief
review of the literature related to metacognition and epistemology is presented. The mnemonic
device is then examined and the extent to which the literature reports how students use these
devices as cognitive strategies to assist their learning and how metacognition may assist students
in retaining these strategies for longer periods of time. Finally, I present how the mnemonic
device may be used by a physic teacher in a classroom setting to facilitate the instruction of
metacognition and student personal epistemology.

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Mnemonic Devices
The evidence for the effectiveness of mnemonic devices to support metacognitive skills is
supported in the literature. Thomas (2012b) writes that "an effective science learner will possess
cognitive strategies for memorizing science material that they consider to be important" (p. 32),
and that "these strategies may include the use of acronyms and mnemonics" (p. 32). Kolenick &
Hillwig (2011) write that mnemonic devices may be used to assist students in remembering
content information that would be otherwise difficult for students to recall because the
mnemonic helps students to connect, to construct, and to relate their thinking to the content.
Further, Kolenick & Hillwig (2011) add that "the key idea is that by coding information using
vivid mental images, students can reliably code both information and the structure of
information, thus, using a type of metacognitive process" (p.58). Levin & Levin (1990) suggest
that when mnemonic devices are used to help acquire information, the information is more easily
applied when mnemonic devices are employed. In addition, Wolfe (2001) explains that the
mnemonic device assists the learner by helping to link information stored in long-term memory
with new information the brain is receiving. Students who have created their own mnemonic
devices have outperformed comparison students as reported by Mastropieri & Scruggs (1998)
and Markowitz & Jensen (1999) indicate the use of mnemonic devices may increase student
learning by two to three times. Research with respect to how teachers should use mnemonics in
the classroom indicates that "the important thing to remember is to explain to the students why
the mnemonic device is being used and why it will work" (Kolenick & Hillwig, 2011, p. 63).
What is Metacognition
Metacognition is the thinking about one's thinking and it may be defined as one's knowledge,
control, and awareness of one's thinking and learning (Thomas, 2012a). It is the process of taking
thinking and making it the object of one's consideration and manipulation so that the thinker may
potentially control their cognition. Cognition refers to thinking skills, processes, and strategies
while metacognition refers to the metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive control, and
metacognitive awareness of these cognitive skills, processes, and strategies (Flavel, 1979;
Thomas, 2013). Metacognitive knowledge is knowledge about the thinking and learning
processes and this knowledge can be either declarative, procedural, or conditional. For a given
cognitive skill, process or strategy, declarative knowledge refers to knowing that a given
cognitive strategy may potentially be used to solve a certain type of problem. Procedural
knowledge is knowledge about how to use the strategy to solve the problem and conditional
knowledge refers to what class of problem the strategy is applicable to. Metacognitive awareness
is the self-awareness the thinker possesses in using a cognitive skill, process or strategy, and
metacognitive control is the control and regulation of the learning process. Finally, as a result of
the thinker making cognition the object of their consideration, the thinker may have a
metacognitive experience (Flavel, 1979).
Metacognition and Instruction
A mnemonic device is a thinking skill, process, or strategy used to assist students with
information retention where the mnemonic device facilitates the translation of complicated
information into a form that may be more easily retained by the student. The mnemonic device

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becomes metacognitive when the student is able to differentiate between the declarative,
procedural, and conditional metacognitive knowledge necessary to help solve a physics problem
i.e., about when, why, and how to apply the mnemonic device. The student demonstrates
declarative metacognitive knowledge when they recognize that the mnemonic can be used to
solve a certain type of problem, the student demonstrates procedural metacognitive knowledge
when they are able to understand the mechanics of how the mnemonic is used to help solve a
problem, and the student demonstrates conditional metacognitive knowledge when they are able
to demonstrate what class of problem the mnemonic is applicable to. As a result of students
designing their own mnemonic device to help them remember formulas and help them solve
kinematics problems for example, it is envisaged that students' metacognitve awareness of their
thinking will increase. Upon students reflecting about the thinking processes they attended to in
designing their mnemonic device, many students should report a metacognitive experience
resulting from having been stimulated by their teacher to think about mnemonics in a way they
had not done so previously.
Since many physics students also concurrently study mathematics, the transfer and durability of
mnemonic devices is important and metacognition is seen as a "potential mediator of
improvement" (Georghiades, 2000, p. 119) for this transfer. Georghiades asserts that
metacognition makes students more actively involved in the learning process, makes them more
responsible for their learning, and has a positive impact on students abilities to both retain and
transfer conceptions over a longer duration. According to Georghiades, metacognition allows
students to maintain a deeper understanding of the subject material because the learning process
is revisited, students are encouraged to be reflective, students compare their prior and current
conceptions, and students analyze and have an awareness of their difficulties. Although
metacognition instruction is important for physics teachers to provide to their students,
Georghiades does caution that the metacognitive feedback provided by the teacher to the
students should be appropriate, compatible and accessible.
Student Physics Learning
The research related to student physics learning indicates that the mathematical representation of
physics concepts was a real barrier to student understanding and many students had difficulty in
using models and relationships (Albe, Venturini, & Lascours, 2001). Saglam & Millar (2006)
agree that the introduction of formulas and other mathematical notations may impede rather than
promote the understanding of basic physics principles. Students are often overwhelmed by a
large number of physics equations and they cannot conceptually understand the relationships
between the variables but they are able to algebraically manipulate them. To mitigate these
student problems, Willms, Friesen, & Milton (2009) suggests that effective teaching should
include learning tasks that are thoughtfully designed and that require and instil deep thinking
while immersing the student in disciplinary inquiry. Thomas (2012b) suggests that current best
practices in science teaching should enhance students' conceptual understanding of scientific
concepts through teaching approaches that promote scientific knowledge as a process of inquiry
rather than with students as passive learners. The suggestion is made that metacognition is one of
these best practices and "to improve student's science learning, there is a need to develop and
enhance their adaptive metacognition so that they can learn science more effectively, efficiently,
and with increased understanding across science learning contexts." (Thomas, 2012b, p.30). In

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addition, Thomas also suggests that the science learning environment should be more
metacognitively orientated. Prosser et al. (1996) reported that "students exhibit a surface learning
to physics, as a result of a predominantly textbook based and lecture style of teaching" (p.47),
since students do not make connections between ideas and representations and focus on
memorization with little permanence for what has been learned. The use of mnemonic devices
for helping students solve physics problems should therefore provide students with an alternative
to simply memorizing equations and should help provide students with a more logical conceptual
solution framework.
Epistemology
Epistemology is a theory of knowledge that explains how we know what we know. When
thought becomes aware of itself and under the individual's control, the thinker is put in charge of
their knowing. When the thinker is put in charge of their knowing the thinker is then able to
decide what to believe and is able to update and revise those beliefs as warranted (Kuhn, 1999).
It is very important for students to know what they know and to be able to justify why because
the student's skill in the "conscious coordination of theory and evidence also put them in a
position to evaluate the assertions of others" (Kuhn, 1999, p. 23), their teachers, and societal
influences. According to Kuhn, the development of a student's epistemological understanding is
a fundamental component of their critical thinking because students must first recognize the
point of thinking before they engage in thinking.
Different Levels of Student Epistemologies
There a number of epistemological levels that are typical to students and the complexity of the
levels may progress from simple realism to more advanced constructivism, but a student may
retain a given level through time. Students who possess a realist epistemology believe that
assertions are direct copies of some given external reality and this reality is directly knowable.
The absolutist understands assertions as facts, either true or false, and they represent a reality that
can be directly knowable. The multiplist believes that assertions are freely chosen opinions only
accountable to the holder of the opinion and therefore reality cannot be directly knowable. The
evaluative epistemology believes assertions are judgements that can be evaluated by criteria
evaluating argument and evidence, suggesting reality is not directly knowable. The objectivist
epistemology contends that external reality can be objectively known and objective and
unconditional truth statements can be made about this reality. The conceptualization of science in
this way is then a search for truths and science is considered as a way of discovering the laws,
principles, and theories associated with reality (Lorsbach & Tobin, 1992). Finally, the
constructivist epistemology is a "theory of mind that recognises the primacy of humans as
knowledge constructors capable of generating a multiplicity of valid representations of reality"
(Kuhn, 1999, p. 22) where science is seen as the process that assists us in making sense of the
world.
Epistemological Understanding
Epistemological understanding is fundamental to a student's understanding and critical thinking
development. Therefore, the teacher has the responsibility to develop within their students a

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sophisticated epistemology that promotes such critical thinking. If the teacher promotes a strictly
objective absolutism then knowledge is seen by students as simply accumulating from textbook
like facts and is disconnected from the human mind. If the teacher promotes a strictly subjective
multiplism then students will conceive knowledge as subject only to the tastes of the knower
where no truth is ever knowable (Kuhn, 1999). What is required is a pedagogy where teachers
promote, especially in physics and science, a form of constructivism where students are allowed
to construct their knowledge to advance their epistemology allowing for multiple representations
of reality. Students should be given the opportunity to try and understand their conception of
reality based upon experience so their conception of reality may progress into a more
sophisticated epistemology where theories and laws arise out of the students attempt to
purposefully achieve this understanding (Roth, 1994).
The Dafit Kinematics Acronym
I became interested in investigating the application of metacognition and student epistemology to
the study of mnemonic devices because I was never satisfied with the level of my students'
understanding with the DAFIT kinematics acronym I have previously given to them. There are
many different mnemonic or memory devices used to assist students when solving physics
problems and the acronym is a commonly used mnemonic where a word is formed from the
initial letters of words in a series of words. Students are able to apply the acronym to
successfully solve kinematics problems but they may not exhibit a deep level of conceptual
understanding when doing so. Since there are five physics formulas required to solve kinematics
problems, students often find it difficult in determining which formula to select for a given set of
parameters and the DAFIT acronym facilitates the ease of this selection process. The DAFIT
method for solving kinematics problems involves memorizing a single kinematic formula for
each of the five letters D,A,F,I, and T and memorizing the word DAFIT. The letters represent the
variables for displacement, acceleration, final velocity, initial velocity, and time and they
correspond to one of five specific physics formulas, see Table 1. The way the DAFIT method is
used is that for a given kinematics problem, if the student does not have information about a
certain variable then they select the corresponding formula for that variable associated to the
corresponding letter in the acronym. If for example the problem provides no information about
displacement then the formula vf=vi+at is selected because it is the formula that corresponds to
the letter D, the displacement.
Table1. The DAFIT Acronym for Kinematics Formulas
Acronym Letter

Variable

Variable Name [units]

Formula

D
A

d
a

vf

displacement [m]

acceleration [ 2 ]

vf = vi+at
1
d = 2(vi+vf) t

vi

initial velocity [ ]
time [s]

d = vft-2at2
vf2 = vi2+2ad

final velocity [ ]

d = vit+2at2
1

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When the DAFIT acronym becomes metacognitive for the student, the student has control and
awareness of the acronym cognitive strategy and is able to differentiate between the declarative,
procedural, and conditional metacognitive knowledge necessary to help solve a physics problem
i.e., about when, why, and how to apply the acronym, see Figure 1.
Figure 1: The Metacognitive Application of the DAFIT Cognitive Strategy
METACOGNITION

COGNITION
DAFIT
acronym

Knowledge
Declarative
-the DAFIT acronym
can be used to solve
kinematics problems
Procedural
-what are the
procedures necessary
to use the DAFIT
acronym?
Conditional
-when and why the
DAFIT acronym may
be appropriate to use

Control
-the awareness
that one can
control their
thinking when
using the DAFIT
acronym

Awareness
-self monitoring
-regulation of the
acronym
-is the DAFIT
acronym
working?

Fostering Student Metacognition and Personal Epistemology in the Physics


Classroom
To foster student metacognition and epistemology in the physics classroom a lesson may include
the following series of steps.
Fostering Student Epistemology
1)

To initiate a discussion about epistemology the teacher may begin by asking students the
question. How do you know what you know about physics? Some students may report
that they know physics based upon what they have learned from what their teacher has
told them or from memorizing textbook facts, an objectivist epistemology. Other students
may explain that they know physics from experiments or from experiencing how nature
works through their senses, a constructivist epistemology. When I have asked this
question however many students claim that they know physics from what their teacher
tells them and through the memorization of text book facts.

2)

The teacher could then explain that there are many different ways of knowing but that
using experiments and the senses is a more sophisticated way of knowing physics. In
promoting a constructivist epistemology then, it is important that students are not given
mnemonic devices to memorize but it is important that they create them for themselves.

Fostering Student Metacognition

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1)

To initiate a discussion about metacognition the teacher may begin by asking students the
following questions. Have you ever thought about how you think? and What are some of
the thinking strategies you use in school to help you think.

2)

The teacher could then describe the acronym as one way to organize thinking, explaining
that there are many different thinking strategies. The metacognition instruction will
consist of the teacher describing how to use the acronym as a cognitive strategy and will
seek to develop students' knowledge, control, and awareness about how to organize their
thinking when using them. The teacher will instruct students on the use of the acronym
indicating that they can also be used to organize information in physics just as has
already been done in their mathematics classes.

3)

The teacher will now describe two acronyms from mathematics that students are already
familiar with and the teacher will provide a description of how acronyms work in these
contexts. The FOIL (first, outer, inner, last) acronym for multiplying out brackets will be
analyzed first and then the trigonometric acronym, SOH, CAH, TOA, for remembering
the formulas for right angle triangles, will be analyzed next. The teacher will explain that
the five formulas involved in solving kinematics problems are difficult to remember and
that just as in mathematics, an acronym may be used to help remember the five
kinematics formulas. In addition, the teacher will suggest to students that a good acronym
for kinematics is one that will also help them decide which of the five formulas to pick
when solving problems. Emphasis will be made that the kinematics acronym should
operate similarly to the way the SOH, CAH, TOA acronym operates in mathematics
because it both assists in remembering the formulas and for selecting the correct formula

4)

The teacher will now challenge students to create their own DAFIT acronym. Students
will be made aware that the acronym is simply a tool to help their thinking and additional
thinking processes are involved when they determine when, why, and how to apply the
acronym to solve physics problems.

5)

Finally, once the students have solved some kinematics problems with their own
acronyms the teacher will reveal the DAFIT method and similarities and differences
could then be discussed.

Conclusion
This paper suggests that mnemonic devices such as acronyms may be used as a pedagogical
opportunity to teach students about metacognition and their personal epistemology. As a result of
students developing mnemonic devices, they will develop their metacognitive skills, personal
epistemological sophistication, and students will be given the requisite metacognitive tools to
facilitate their deeper conceptual understanding when solving problems. Upon students reflecting
about the thinking processes they attended to in designing acronyms, many students should
report a metacognitive experience resulting from having been stimulated by their teacher to think
about acronyms in a way they had not done so previously. By challenging students to think
about how they know what they know about physics, student critical thinking may be promoted

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as they attend to a more sophisticated constructivist epistemology rather than the objectivist
epistemology many students currently exhibit.
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