Overcoming misconceptions

Table of Contents

Along with notebooks and pencils, students bring some common misconceptions to science class. It’s hard to tell where students learn these misconceptions: from their friends, parents, television, movies, the Internet, or other media. They may not realize that their ideas are incorrect, and simply telling the students that their ideas are wrong won’t help them learn the correct ones. As the editor of this month’s issue notes, “Teaching is easy; by comparison, unteaching is extremely difficult.”

From Misconceptions to Conceptual Change provides insights into how students develop misconceptions and how teachers can help students to change their thinking. I’ve often used thought-provoking articles such as to stimulate discussion at workshops—teachers read the article independently and underline a few sentences they found especially relevant or interesting to discuss with a larger group. With this article, I would have underlined “…the brain files new data by making connections to existing information. If this new information does not fit the learner’s established pattern of thinking, it is refashioned to fit the existing pattern.” So misconceptions can actually become stronger and more resistant to change. Some common misconceptions include “THE scientific method” (implying that all scientists use a single problem-solving strategy) and the idea that hypotheses become theories and theories eventually become laws. The authors include a list of other misconceptions and strategies for overcoming them.

Follow this article with Active Learning Strategies: The Top 10. What struck me about the list is that none of the strategies required special materials or hours of professional development (e.g., using discrepant events to awaken curiosity, using concept maps, writing to learn). Two that I would have underlined here are “demystify diagrams” and “watch your language.” Some diagrams, while trying to explain or summarize information, actually contribute to misconceptions for students. Every year that I taught life science, I had to contend with two big misconceptions: the blood in our veins is blue and plants use minerals from the soil as food. Textbooks often show diagrams of the circulatory system with the veins colored blue, and commercials on television talk about fertilizer as “plant food.”

Fire and Ecological Disturbance looks at a specific misconception: the role of fire in ecological succession. (Perhaps Smokey the Bear inadvertently contributed to the misconceptions that all fires are bad.). This 5E lesson includes teaching suggestions, assessments, and key vocabulary. [SciLinks: Ecosystems, SuccessionEnergy Flow, Conservation of Resources, Competition, Niches]

The Reasons for the Seasons is the classic science misconception. From elementary students through adults, people seem to have internalized misinformation. This lesson uses temperature data to challenge what students think they know. And you may want to review the original video, A Private Universe [SciLinks: Reasons for the Seasons]

Even though students can solve word problems, they may not have a complete understanding of the concept. Get in the Game with Team Density addresses common misconceptions about density, using a lesson around the discrepant event of a floating bowling ball (Talk about an attention-grabber: this reminds me of the Late Night with David Letterman recurring sketch “Will it float?”) [SciLinks: Density, Cartesian Divers]

Teachers are sometimes hesitant to try something different for fear that it won’t work. In the New Teacher’s Toolbox column, Piloting New Ideas: The Brown-Bag Friday Seminar, the author shares his experiences with an idea that needed some tweaking. The process of developing and refining the seminars was an example of action research. The author notes several issues: students may need some modeling in how to participate in a seminar, students have to have some ownership in the process, and it took a while to get students comfortable with the sessions. (For more on the Action Research process, see these previous Science Scope and Ms Mentor blogs.)

With Earth Day in April, the Green Room What’s in Your Trash has resources to get students thinking about resource consumption and waste production/disposal [SciLinks: Recycling, Composting]. And don’t forget to look at the Connections for this issue (April 2011). Even if the article does not quite fit with your lesson agenda, this resource has ideas for handouts, background information sheets, data sheets, rubrics, etc.

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One Comment

  1. kingsley
    Posted March 14, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I want an outline on how to change a student’s misconception. Please reply asap

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