Prior Knowledge: Misconceptions & Impacts on Learning

10 Jul

In keeping with our summer plan to re-run the series of posts linked to the Learning Science series created by the consultants from the University’s Center for Educational Innovation and Academic Technology Support Services offices, we feature below the pair of posts addressing Prior Knowledge.

Part 1 – Impacts on Student Learning

While prior knowledge can hinder learning, it can also help. In working to leverage prior knowledge, the examples and analogies we draw on do matter, presenters of our recent TeachingSupport workshop demonstrated. Consider these two aspects of our first post on Prior Knowledge.

Build Apt Analogies

Teachers in STEM fields often use analogies to draw on students’ prior knowledge and help them comprehend a topic. However, teaching with analogies has limitations: After all, telling someone the earth is round can be understood to mean that the earth is round and flat, like a pancake. Want to try this out for yourself to spark thinking about ways you could build better analogies and examples? The facilitators share this short slideset to illustrate analogy building, and UMinnesota professor Jay Bell notes his own experiences in reconsidering analogies in a Mistakes Happen video.

Be Prepared for Backfires

As a caution, the presenters note that simply supplying individuals with accurate information doesn’t work on its own, and link to a research study in which authors Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler address the “backfire effect” via an exploration of why many individuals believed even more strongly that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction after being corrected. As their article notes, students’ prior knowledge simply can neither be ignored nor dispelled by providing accurate information:

Part 2 – Debunking Misconceptions

We share here 3 options that teachers might adapt for addressing incorrect prior knowledge, each of which is further explore in the Part 2 prior knowledge post

Use Anchoring Examples

It is essential in science to understand difficult conceptual issues because analogies connect with students’ prior knowledge but, as John Clement observes in “Using Bridging Analogies and Anchoring Intuitions to deal with Students’ Preconceptions in Physics”, the students’ intuition often conflicts with the target theory that is being taught. So in addition to the usual demonstrations, labs, and problem solving, Clement recommends using anchoring examples – useful starting points that draw on the students’ intuition in ways that correspond to the concept being taught. Teachers can help students can understand that not all preconceptions are misconceptions but then use additional analogies and small groups to bridge and explain the ways that the anchoring example is connected to the target theory.

Create Plans for Debunking Misconceptions

When the knowledge has the potential to conflict with students’ personal or political beliefs (such as evolution and climate change), teachers need to be careful since there’s a possibility that simply presenting correct information could engage the “backfire effect”, which was mentioned in Part 1 of this pairing. While focused specifically on addressing the backfire effect, the Debunking Handbook also provides strategies for handling less controversial misconceptions. First, core facts must be emphasized in a simple, straightforward manner. Then, before the myth is mentioned, clear warnings with both textual and visual cues need to be made that the following information is wrong. If the debunking leaves gaps, alternative information must be provided about why the myth is wrong. Finally, if possible, the information should be presented graphically.

Use Formative Assessment

Leah Savion (author of Clinging to Discredited Beliefs: The Larger Cognitive Story) recommends student-centered learning strategies – from asking students to write down the “muddiest”/most unclear point about the day’s class to having students debate and field questions from their classmates – as ways to determine whether or not students have retained or moved beyond their misconceptions. She also recommends placing students in a teaching role because that compels them to prepare thoroughly, engage deeply and, most importantly, develop an awareness about their own learning, also known as metacognition.



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