Misconceptions, inaccurate or incomplete ideas about a concept or a process, are common (Savion, 2009); indeed, they can arise in any discipline. Our theories about the world and everything in it are based on our experiences, which are woefully incomplete. Thus, we have a rather narrow basis from which to reason about why things work the way they do. Literature that documents misconceptions, and discusses how to combat them, is heavily concentrated in the sciences (e.g., Cakir, 2008); but in addition to biology (Lazarowitz & Lieb, 2006; Nazario, Burrowes, & Rodriguez, 2002), chemistry (Kerr & Walz, 2007), physics (Clement, 1982; Madhyastha & Tanimoto, 2009; Wrinkle & Manivannan, 2009), evolution (Robbins & Roy, 2007), astronomy (Zeilik & Bisard, 2000), engineering (Miller, Streveler, & Yang, 2011) and computer science (Madhyastha & Tanimoto, 2009), literature on misconceptions in sociology (Goldsmith, 2006), mathematics (Confrey, 1990; Scheuermann & van Garderen, 2008), and on the importance of addressing the misconceptions of pre-service teachers also exists (Longfield, 2009; Yip, 1998).
Our initial beliefs about the world, prior to receiving any formal education, are called naïve theories (Savion, 2009). Based on our particular life experiences, we develop naïve theories about everything we come into contact with. But our brains take lots of shortcuts along the way—we look for patterns and quickly jump to conclusions, and this emphasis on efficiency costs us accuracy. Learned early, naive theories are incredibly hard to extinguish; even in the face of conflicting information that we may later be exposed to. The theoretical basis for this phenomenon, which is called belief perseverance (Savion, 2009), can be understood in terms of Piaget’s (1971) writing on cognitive disequilibrium (Longfield, 2009). According to Piaget, cognitive disequilibrium is such an uncomfortable state that we strive to stay in equilibrium by not taking on any new information that conflicts with our present worldview. Consequently, we are highly motivated to avoid, misunderstand, or discredit information that conflicts with our naïve conceptions of a topic.
Piaget’s (1971) concept of assimilation helps us understand why misconceptions persist. New information is more easily learned when it can be related to something that is already known (Longfield, 2009). Assimilation describes the type of learning that occurs when information can be taken on board without revising our existing cognitive frameworks. This stands in contrast to accommodation, which describes learning where we must revise what we already know (or thought we knew) to accommodate a new idea. We have a natural tendency to overemphasize information that supports our current theories and discount information that would throw us into disequilibrium (Longfield, 2009).
Two issues are paramount when it comes to misconceptions and education: First, how do we identify when students have them? Second, having identified them, how should we deal with them? Utilizing fewer lectures and prompting students to engage in in-class activities allows instructors to identify students’ misconceptions and assess how pervasive they are (Savion, 2009). One benefit of the “flipped” classroom approach, wherein students watch videotaped lectures at home and engage in problem-based learning activities in class, is that students’ misconceptions are more likely to arise while they are with the instructor and the instructor can more readily respond to them (Berrett, 2012). Clickers and personal response systems (Sevian & Robinson, 2011), and the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IFAT; Cotner, Baepler & Kellerman, 2008) are all ways that the instructor can quickly assess students’ understanding of a topic, even in a large, lecture-style class. Cakir (2008) advocates assessing students’ misconceptions through a quiz-style assessment both before and after a unit, pointing out that instructors need to be aware that misconceptions often persist even after explicit instruction. Instructors should begin a new unit prepared to address commonly-held misconceptions that often arise (Longfield, 2009).
Having identified students’ misconceptions, the question then becomes how to deal with them. The consensus in the literature is that adopting a student-centered pedagogy is the best way to address misconceptions (Cakir, 2008; Longfield, 2009; Savion, 2009). In contrast to traditional, teacher-centered methods, which position the teacher at the literal and figurative center of the room, student-centered methods aim to place students at the center of their learning process, and to empower them as agents of their own learning. Goldsmith (2006) describes Problem-Based Learning and Exploratory Writing activities, and introduces a new teaching method (roughly based on the former techniques) called Writing Answers to Learn. What these methods have in common is that, in placing students at the center of the learning process, they engage them in an authentic process of discovery. Research shows that when students are presented with compelling and authentic learning problems, they become more motivated and engaged. Activity-based methods also heighten the likelihood that students will challenge each other’s, or their own, misconceptions, which is thought to have a more transformative effect compared to having one’s ideas challenged by the teacher (Goldsmith, 2006). Longfield (2009) describes how presenting students with discrepant events, those whose outcomes are unexpected given the students’ initial misunderstandings, prompt students to reason through their misconceptions, which results in more lasting learning compared to when students are simply told what to think or given the right answers.
In spite of spending years in formal educational settings, misconceptions abound! In a documentary entitled, A Private Universe, Schneps and Sadler report that graduates of Harvard College were no more likely than middle school students to correctly answer questions such as, Why do we have seasons? (as cited in Gooding & Metz, 2011). As educators, it seems unlikely that we will be able to eliminate misconceptions entirely—the normal ways in which the brain functions supports them. However, by combating students’ misconceptions with student-centered, activity-based learning methods, instructors not only quell students’ particular misconceptions, they also teach students to take ownership of their learning.
Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education
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