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How to Deal with Students’ Naive, Inaccurate Prior Knowledge

posted Jan 14, 2016, 10:31 PM by HSD Principal

    “Teachers are well aware that education is at least partly a matter of informing students that some of what they think they know just isn’t so,” say Annette Taylor and Patricia Kowalski (University of San Diego) in this chapter in Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum. “From the belief that Columbus fought against those who claimed the earth was flat to students’ certainty that increasing self-esteem causes better school performance, inaccurate prior knowledge exists in every domain. Not only are these beliefs pervasive, they can be particularly (and frustratingly) resistant to instruction… Over time, students are apt to revert to their prior misconceptions, if they ever truly gave them up.” Studies at the college level have found students initially have only a 41 percent level of accuracy on a test of basic facts in biology and 30 percent in psychology – and there is as little as 5 percent improvement after instruction.

“Clearly just ‘telling’ students the authoritative view doesn’t work to change their misconceptions,” say Taylor and Kowalski. “Even if students pay attention to the new information they may just add the new claim on top of the old, or they may retain both pieces of information independently.” For example, when young children who believe the earth is flat are told it’s actually round (without a good explanation), they sometimes form an image of a pancake-shaped earth (it’s still flat) or of two earths, one that people live on and another that looks like a two-dimensional upright circle.

How do misconceptions form and why are they so tenacious? All new knowledge builds on and attempts to integrate with existing knowledge. Sometimes this is straightforward, as when an adult learns how to use a smartphone after using a previous-generation cell phone. But if new knowledge contradicts prior knowledge, integration is more difficult than if one has no knowledge at all. “If teachers are unaware of how students are using their prior knowledge,” say Taylor and Kowalski, “then students may incorporate new information into a faulty knowledge base and create additional inaccurate information.” For example, students learning about plant growth may assume (based on their understanding of how animals grow) that plants use soil for food and breathe CO2. Another example from physics: students may have difficulty understanding that when an object is pushed, it stops moving because of the unseen dissipating force of friction, not because it’s no longer being pushed. Misconceptions that are based on this kind of categorical misclassification are particularly difficult to dislodge.

Students’ misconceptions in psychology, the behavioral sciences, and history are more commonly based on folk wisdom, social interactions, nonscientific sources, flawed instruction, and media misinterpretation. “With the array of uninformed sources, it’s no wonder that students enter psychology class with a great amount of inaccurate information,” say the authors. “Often such misconceptions are strengthened by their connection with other misconceptions. For example, the claim that one cannot simultaneously believe in God and in evolution is connected with the misconception that the major religions reject evolution. The intertwining of beliefs results in students becoming deeply committed to their misconceptions and resistant to change.”

What are the best strategies for changing deeply rooted misconceptions? First, say Taylor and Kowalski, teachers need to understand the roots of incorrect beliefs and use hands-on approaches to reveal them, discuss them, and suggest alternatives. Then, “students need to experience dissatisfaction with their prior conceptions. To accept an alternative conception, however, the learner must comprehend the new concept, see it as plausible, and believe the new concept will be more useful than the prior conception.” For example, to let go of the misconception that “opposites attract” in love relationships, students need to understand how successful matches are mostly driven by similarities. It helps if students externalize their beliefs, visualize the links between concepts, and evaluate the differences.

Another approach is using refutational pedagogies – readings and presentations “that call students’ attention to their misconceptions and present scientific evidence in a way that is designed to lower the status of the old view while raising the status of the new view.” For example, addressing the myth that humans use only 10% of our brains, the teacher draws students’ attention to that claim, discusses its origin and how it attained urban legend status, and then shows how the claim is untrue using evidence of much more widespread brain activity. The refutational approach doesn’t always work – sometimes people tune out as soon as they realize their previous beliefs are being questioned.

Of course students’ individual characteristics are an important variable – how open they are to change, how skilled they are at critical thinking, basic cognitive ability, whether they view knowledge as fixed or malleable, and whether they’re willing to commit the effort to change established beliefs.

The bottom line, say Taylor and Kowalski: Misconceptions don’t change unless they are “directly, repeatedly, and actively addressed.”


“Student Misconceptions: Where Do They Come From and What Can We Do?” by Annette Taylor and Patricia Kowalski in Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum, Society for the Teaching of Psychology, 2014 (p. 259-273), http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php; Taylor can be reached at taylor@sandiego.edu.


Excerpt taken from Marshall Memo 572, Feb. 2, 2015
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