From last week’s blog, Prior Knowledge: Impacts on Student Learning, we know that prior knowledge can help students learn, which is why teachers often use analogies and everyday examples for difficult concepts and abstractions. We also know that inaccurate prior knowledge and misconceptions are so durable and robust that they interfering with learning. Why is this?
Debunking Misconceptions & Discredited Beliefs
In Clinging to Discredited Beliefs: The Larger Cognitive Story, Leah Savion contends that as humans we rely on generalizations, analogies, and stereotypes to survive and maintain our sense of well-being: These shortcuts allow us to process large amounts of information rapidly without significantly increasing cognitive load, and they also allow us to protect our “fragile ego from injury.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in this opening sequence of A Private Universe: At their graduation, Harvard students were asked to explain the causes of the seasons. The results were not promising. The video voiceover notes: “Regardless of their science background, 21 of 23 randomly selected students, faculty, and alumni of Harvard University revealed misconceptions when asked to explain either the seasons or the phases of the moon.” While some may dismiss this result (thinking, perhaps, “they likely interviewed mostly humanities majors”), there is substantial evidence that students retain incorrect prior knowledge even though they may do well in a course. As Harvard’s Eric Mazur notes, despite being a highly rated physics professor whose students could solve complicated problems, his students actually did no better (and sometimes worse) on an independent test designed to assess their conceptual understanding of classical physics, a field that often contradicts common sense beliefs about motion and force.
What Not to Do
Before commenting on what should we do about incorrect prior knowledge, let me first address the one option we should not select, which is to ignore it and simply provide students with correct information. This doesn’t work, Savion notes, because students will do one of the following:
- Discard the new information wholly or partially, deeming it “incomprehensible” or totally irrelevant: for instance, skeptics will dismiss climate change evidence by contending that there’s an absence of scientific consensus.
- Alter the new information so that it is given an interpretation that fits their own understanding with a resulting mix of the old and the new is entirely unrecognizable, as seen in this video clip from the Private Universe project After a student has been taught that the earth’s tilt causes the seasons, she combines this new information with her own prior knowledge to demonstrate that the “earth travels in a bizarre, curly cue orbit.”
- Reluctantly adopt the new theory as a “school bound explanation,” while retaining the incompatible familiar knowledge as more reliable and relevant outside of the classroom. The new formal knowledge is perceived as confined to what is required in school, but as not applicable in daily life. Mazur’s teaching experience exemplifies this as his students’ prior knowledge overrode what they had learned in his classroom.
Strategies to Pursue
Now, let’s look at scenarios and options that teachers can usefully pursue in addressing incorrect prior knowledge:
- 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.
- Plan ways to Debunk 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 last week’s blog posting. 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. Below is an example responding to climate change skeptics claiming no scientific consensus
about climate change exists because of a signed petition stating that there is no evidence for human-created climate change.
- Use formative assessment strategies. In the aforementioned article, Savion 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.
Finally, all of these approaches assume that teachers know that their students have particular misconceptions. It is therefore important to assess students beforehand to know what those misconceptions are. To close this post, look at this video of a professor talking about how he discovered his students’ misconceptions about basic terminology. While their misconceptions were easily corrected, the tone of his response is particularly noteworthy because it reminds us that teaching is more than just methods, techniques and strategies. While many of us will rightly deliberate and fret about using the appropriate strategy to address a situation, we also need to remember the human(e) side of teaching, where honesty and humility can play often overlooked roles in motivating students to learn.