I Taught It—So Why Don’t They Get It?


Some colloquium participants’ examples of their students’ misconceptions


·      Heart rate is directly controlled by the brain. The brain fires a neural impulse and the heart beats.

·      Living species are descended from other living species (e.g., humans evolved from apes).

·      Poor or low self esteem causes most children’s problems in school.

·      The role of government in the economy—students believe the government sets prices or heavily influences price in most markets.

·      Personal experience is an adequate source of evidence about why humans behave as they do.

·      Correlation between two things implies that one causes the other. (Tendency not to consider alternative influences.)

Some major points about misconceptions


·      Misconceptions are a natural consequence of trying to make sense out of new information and ideas.

·      Some misconceptions may be trivial and inconsequential; others may pose stubborn obstacles to new learning.

·      Misconceptions can form a mis-interpretive framework that interferes with new learning. For example, Bryan showed how students’ rigid adherence to the Five Paragraph Essay Model can limit their ability to analyze ideas through writing.

·      Research indicates that some misconceptions are tenacious. Studies of college engineering students showed that soon after successfully passing a mechanics course, 70% of the students reverted back to misconceptions they had prior to taking the class.            

·      In our classes we do not know whether and how misconceptions interfere with student learning unless we investigate the matter. So . . .


Some ways to learn more about our students’ misconceptions


Consult the research literature. See the handout, “Recognizing and Changing Students’ Misconceptions,” by Debra Meyer. For a summary of misconceptions across the disciplines see The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner. Basic Books.


Explore student misconceptions in your classes. A  Brief Guide to Classroom Inquiry (colloquium handout) describes a number of strategies for identifying student misconceptions. The examples by Bryan Kopp and Scott Cooper illustrate two key parts of the inquiry process.


Making students’ thinking visible during the learning process. Both Bryan and Scott showed how they gain access to students’ thinking. Bryan's students work through an involved composing process for each paper, producing a written record of their thoughts as they develop a response to research, collaboration and feedback. In Scott’s large lecture, students reveal their thinking during problem solving episodes in which they create graphic representations of their understanding. For additional strategies see part 5, “Making Students’ Thinking Visible During the Learning Process,” in A Brief Guide to Classroom Inquiry.


Making sense out of students’ thinking. Gaining access to student thinking is one thing; making sense of it is another. Bryan’s handout, “Student Preconceptions and Misconceptions: The Case of the Five-Paragraph Essay,” identifies assumptions behind the five-paragraph essay. These comprise a theory of writing that can explain many decisions students make in writing. In Scott’s case, the students’ drawings of phylogenetic trees reveal misconceptions about evolution. One of these—that living species evolved from other living species—may perpetuate the popular belief that humans evolved from apes.   


Next colloquium presentation Friday, November 7, Noon-1:30 Ward Room, Cartwright Center.

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