Research School Network: Science at Meols Cop: Our Misconception Mission

Science at Meols Cop: Our Misconception Mission

by Meols Cop Research School
on the

Holly Walsh, a science teacher and Research Lead from Meols Cop Research School, describes the strategies the science department has previously used to diagnose and address misconceptions, how this now looks using remote learning, and possible steps for the future.

I’d rather not open with yet another description of the situation schools find themselves in, our fears about the future, and the ever-widening gaps in our pupils’ knowledge due to home learning. We are educators; we get it. So now what?

Let me take you through our science department’s Past, Present & Future; our story behind our Misconception Mission.

The Past

The Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report was released by the EEF, setting out seven evidence-based recommendations on effective secondary science teaching. As a department we looked at the accompanying audit tool and using support from the Implementation Guidance Report, we opted to focus on one recommendation: preconceptions and misconceptions.

Sec science poster

All pupils, regardless of subject, walk into your classroom with preconceptions. Children build their own understanding about the phenomena that they meet daily. These preconceptions are built through sensory experiences and social interaction. These self-constructed ideas may or may not align with scientific understanding and, if they do not, are called misconceptions. According to the guidance report, the evidence suggests focusing on:

Understanding the preconceptions that pupils bring to science lessons
Develop pupils’ thinking through cognitive conflict and discussion
Allow enough time to challenge misconceptions and change thinking

Firstly, we wanted to create a departmental culture of openly discussing our own misconceptions (to remove The Fear”). As we teach out of specialism, we wanted to create a safe, supportive environment where we all, regardless of experience, could improve our subject knowledge. The idea evolved that misconceptions are absolutely everywhere, in all age groups, enveloping many different topics. General science misconceptions were casually discussed at lunch times. During departmental meetings more topic-specific misconceptions were shared. By keeping the chats informal, we avoided pressure or judgement on the other person’s subject knowledge. We spoke openly about our weaknesses and admitted when we needed help from a specialist. We showed excitement when we, as teachers, had the lightbulb moment”. Staff became comfortable with giving and receiving critique, knowing it was never personal. We had an open-door policy during lessons – not to check up, but to learn from each other. Whilst this may sound a little abstract, we had to get solid staff buy-in before implementing anything with the pupils. We knew the entire department were on board when our WhatsApp group lit up with notifications sharing misconceptions during exam marking!

Stage 2: our lesson PowerPoints.

We became very critical of the scientific language used on the slides, knowing how important it was not to create or embed misconceptions based on our explanations. Subject specialists re-designed the PowerPoints and accompanying resources to specifically support non-specialists; anything a specialist might say ad hoc was made explicit. The Note to Teacher” slide at the start of the lesson listed any common misconceptions, nuisances, links to other topics, and key phrases the teacher would need to affiliate themselves with to ensure a successful lesson. Emphasising only’ when defining a hydrocarbon (“hydrogen and carbon only”) may be obvious to an experienced chemist, but we wanted all teachers to have access to that expertise and knowledge. Teachers still had full autonomy for their lessons but had the support to refer to when needed.

Now what to do about the pupils?

Teaching is tough because learning is invisible. Pupils may appear engaged. Pupils may be performing as expected. But are they learning? We need to know if a pupil really understands… are they thinking? So, we had to make the invisible visible.

With key stage 3
, we came up with the idea of a Misconception and Modelling (M&M) lesson every fortnight. The first half of the lesson was a diagnostic multiple-choice quiz based off the current learning topic. A diagnostic question is when each possible incorrect answer is a common misconception. Look at the screen shot below: if the pupil picked the wrong answer for A, you immediately know what their misconception is – their thinking is visible! The questions were marked by the pupil as either correct or incorrect. The overall score was not collected, instead the teacher tracked the most common misconception for that class. The second half of the lesson – the modelling – involved metacognitive talk (recommendation 5) regarding the incorrect thinking behind each answer. Pupils found it fascinating that we could predict’ their flawed thinking – But Miss, how did you know that’s what I thought?!”.

Misconceptions image 2

The pupils then corrected their biggest’ misconception with comments like, I got this wrong because I thought… This is the right answer because…”. This misconception was then readdressed in a slightly different way a fortnight later, and the pupils could track whether they had fixed’ their mistake. In department meetings we discussed the M&M lessons and we were able to compare whether there was a common mistake across the entire year group, or whether different classes held different misconceptions and discuss possible reasons as to why.

For key stage 4
we opted for a slightly different path. After assessments we had a Dash It lesson. At the start of the lesson, there is a whole class feedback sheet projected on the board (template below) and the teacher discusses common mistakes the pupils have made on their assessment. Dash It” comes up when the pupil makes a silly mistake, normally linked to exam technique, and usually accompanied by a groan! We call the oh but I knew that!” grumble, those cries of I didn’t read that part of the question”, and let’s admit it, the hushed swear words Dash it” marks. The pupils make a tally of their Dash It marks. They knew these were the marks they could have got, with no extra revision, just with more experience of answering exam questions. We tracked their Dash It” score alongside their real score; we found certain pupils became more motivated seeing their could have” Dash It score, especially if their real score disappointed them. The rest of the feedback lesson is spent drilling down into the misconceptions that have arisen in the class. Pupils annotate their assessment paper, acknowledging their incorrect thinking and correcting their mistakes.

Feedback and marking CRIB sheet

Examples of misconceptions collated after assessments (there are many, many more!)

- Anaerobic respiration only occurs during strenuous exercise
- Plants only photosynthesise (they do not do cellular respiration)
- Vaccinations contain antibodies
- HIV turns into’ AIDs
- Large marble chips have a greater surface area
- If an atom loses electrons it becomes a positive ion
- Transfer by heating and a thermal store are the same concept

As you can see on the whole class feedback sheet, common misconceptions that arose in the assessments are saved. All members of the department have access to each other’s feedback sheets, and they are reviewed in departmental meetings. This isn’t to name and shame, but rather to compare and support. If there is a common misconception across the year group, we discuss how to improve our planning of that topic. If it is a certain cohort of pupils, or a certain class, we work together to unpick where the misconception came from and how to address it.

Did we ever get to the point where we identified a misconception, tracked it, then re-tested it in a later assessment to see if it had been fixed”? No, we are not there yet. Our plan was to use these whole class feedback sheets to guide our Year 11 revision before their GCSEs, but…

The Present

After the initial let’s just carry on and attempt to deliver normal lessons” knee jerk reaction had subsided, we had to make some decisions. We did not want to sacrifice our Misconception Mission and start to simplify work; however we understood something had to give. We divided our lessons in half – what we would normally expect an hour’s worth of learning to look like, we slimmed down to half an hour. This did not mean we lowered our expectations, but rather tried to avoid cognitively overloading our students. We tried a live lesson that wasn’t effective (relief came when the EEF found there is no benefit in carrying out remote teaching via live lessons over teaching via materials that have been prepared in advance).

Whilst we are thoroughly committed to providing high quality learning to our pupils remotely, we also want these resources to be recyclable for The Future. Reading that teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered, we trialled two different styles of home learning (booklets with carefully crafted content and questions, or PowerPoints with voice note explanations). Currently, we are assessing the merits of the two different styles, still a little tentative as to which one to proceed all in” with. Both follow the same routine: retrieval questions at the start to secure fundamental knowledge, chunks of learning, then lots of questions (with answers provided) for self-assessment. The lesson then culminates in a diagnostic multiple-choice quiz on Microsoft Teams. When the pupil submits their quiz, for each incorrect answer their feedback is automatically generated. It contains feedback about the misconception” and what their correct thinking should have been. Teachers can then give additional feedback or provide a video / live stream to further support. See below for examples.

Misconceptions image 2 2020 10 06 100145
Misconceptions image 3

To finish each week’s learning, pupils complete a quiz marked by their teacher. This gives another opportunity for feedback, but also the chance for teachers to record the misconceptions pupils might have, so we can review them when the time is right…

The Future

We shall use our monitoring of pupil’s work during home learning to guide our initial lessons when back in school. We will have compiled new misconceptions that have arisen during marking and common misconceptions selected during the Microsoft Teams quizzes. We will not underutilise the experience of home learning for our pupils, but rather safely point out the mistakes they made and address these as learning opportunities for us to build on together.

Very low stakes quizzes to give feelings of success and build confidence will be necessary at first, alongside plenty of diagnostic multiple-choice questions. Misconceptions will be shared rather than hidden and we will continue with our high expectations of using correct scientific language. Moving forward, home learning content will need to be secured by interleaving where possible into lessons… paying particular attention to those sneaky misconceptions!

Meols Cop Research School is always happy to support other schools. If you would like to talk to a member of the science department about this work, please email walsh‑ or tweet @HollyWalshSci

Further reading:

Websites for diagnostic questions:

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