Learning counter-intutitive science concepts

iStock_000016869784XSmallEducators recognize that students come to school with prior ideas that either facilitate or impede learning. This is especially true for science.

Research has demonstrated that students at all grade and ability levels do not easily give up their scientific misconceptions. Traditional forms of instruction such as lectures, textbooks, or science lab activities seem ineffectual in permanently changing students’ prior ideas.

Scientists in 10 countries have conducted research for a decade to determine the effectiveness of alternative strategies to change students’ misconceptions.

A meta-analysis of this quantitative research was followed by qualitative research to explore how and why conceptual change occurs. Barbara J. Guzzetti, Arizona State University, presents findings from these studies that have direct implications for classroom practice.

What’s effective?

Research provides consistent evidence that cognitive conflict strategies, particularly “refutational text,” are the most powerful means currently known to correct students’ misconceptions. Refutational text is writing that states a common misconception and directly refutes it while providing the scientifically sound explanation, for example:

“The most popular belief about ostriches is that they bury their head in the sand in the hope that enemies will not see them. Ostriches may well listen intently for sound with their heads near the ground. They may even lower their heads to rest their neck muscles. But if they buried their heads in the sand, they would not be able to breathe.”

Refuting the misconception at either the beginning or end of the passage appears equally effective in changing students’ ideas. Refutational text can be narrative or expository in form. Research shows, however, that students prefer expository text, finding it less confusing than a story and more efficient in refuting misconceptions.

Teacher-led discussions are important

Studies also demonstrate that while cognitive conflict is necessary for conceptual change, it is not sufficient. Refutational text, by itself, may not produce conceptual change in all students. Students with ineffective reading strategies may actually use the text to confirm their misconceptions and students who tend to skim texts may also be unable to draw the correct inferences. Such students need to have their reading supplemented with teacher-led discussions.

Teachers can help students by ensuring that the refutation in the passage is not only direct, but also emphasized. An effective way to help them modify their incomplete and inaccurate understandings of complex science concepts is to lead discussions that require students to articulate and support their views with evidence from the text.

Studies show that cooperative learning groups can be counterproductive to correcting misconceptions. Research with all age groups demonstrates that the most powerful and persuasive group members are able to convince others of their misconceptions. Findings from these investigations show that students need guidance from the teacher.

While traditional instructional strategies like demonstrations, cooperative discussions, and science texts can be successful in producing conceptual change for some students, these effects are usually temporary. In studies, only those students who read refutational texts did not return to their alternative conceptions when tested a month or more after instruction.

In conclusion, the most effective way we know of changing students’ misconceptions is by reading and discussing refutational texts. This appears to be true for elementary, secondary and adult students. Discussion that requires students to support their opinions with evidence from refutational text is the best way to ensure that most students in a class will experience long-term conceptual change. This form of structured discussion is best conducted by the teacher rather than left to small student-led groups.

Textbook publishers are increasingly including refutational sections, but many teachers are good at creating their own. Posing simple questions like “How do seasons change?” and listing students’ responses exposes misconceptions quickly.

Teachers can write short paragraphs that directly refute the common misconceptions stated by students in their class as well as provide the correct science concept to explain the phenomenon. Guzzetti recommends further classroom-based research in this area.

“Learning Counter-Intuitive Science Concepts: What Have We Learned from Over a Decade of Research?” Reading and Writing Quarterly, Volume 16, Number 3, June 2000 Pp. 89-98.

Published in ERN, September 2000, Volume 13, Number 6.

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