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Research School Network: Challenging misconceptions in science


Challenging misconceptions in science

by Research Schools Network
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Lauren Stephenson, Research Lead for Blackpool Research School, explores how the BEST resources can be used to help address misconceptions in science curriculum while teaching remotely.

Identifying and addressing students’ misconceptions is a key part of effective classroom practice. This is arguably even more crucial now that remote learning has become the norm and our students have found themselves navigating their way through key science concepts with degrees of independence. 

Preconceptions vs. Misconceptions

Students arrive to lessons with a whole variety of preconceptions. 

Science underpins many aspects of our everyday lives, so students will have built their own understanding of common scientific phenomena and it is important that we build upon these preconceptions to drive their learning forward. Unfortunately, it is also common for these to not align with scientific theory and, thus, lead to misconceptions. 

The first recommendation in the Improving Secondary Science (ISS) EEF guidance report focuses on the importance of preconceptions, before suggesting ways to challenge misconceptions and change our students’ thinking. The evidence informed strategies outlined as effective include the use of diagnostic questions, creating cognitive conflict and utilising group discussions.

Addressing misconceptions

While on our journey of adapting and improving our KS3 science curriculum, I came across the Best Evidence Science Teaching (BEST) resources. These are a collection of free evidence-informed resources developed by the University of York Science Education Group and the Salters’ Institute to help students tackle the key concepts in science. The resources include a research-informed progression pathway which supports you in sequencing a curriculum, diagnostic questions that complement the key ideas in the progression pathway and response activities to develop metacognitive skills. 

Diagnostic questions in particular are a great way get students to make their thinking explicit. They go beyond a typical multiple-choice question by offering answers which are also common misconceptions. The ISS guidance report identifies these as an effective tool to use at hinge points’ in lessons to inform the direction of the learning ahead. 

A really useful feature of the BEST diagnostic questions is that each one has an accompanying set of teacher notes. These go through the research evidence that underpins the question and relevant misconceptions, which is particularly helpful for science teachers who are teaching outside of their specialism.

Implementation

For evidence informed resources or strategies to have the greatest impact, their implementation is key. 

Initially, I used the diagnostic questions with my own classes so that I could see how they fit into the flow of a lesson. This also gave me an idea of where in the sequence of learning they would be most effective. Next, we searched through the BEST diagnostic questions to find ones which would work well with our KS3 curriculum. Although it may have been quicker to just point staff in the direction of the resources on the BEST website, I felt that for them to be used effectively and consistently across all classes we needed to take the time and signpost specific questions within our schemes of learning. 

Through my role as a Research Lead for the Blackpool Research School I have worked with our science staff over the last couple of years to review various aspects of evidence-informed practice. Therefore, when I was planning a short CPD session to share the BEST resources and launch how they would be used with our KS3 classes, staff were already familiar with the recommendations and research from the ISS guidance report. 

I believe a big part of implementing resources like this is to share the underpinning research and rationale with staff. This hopefully means that staff feel more invested and that it is less likely to be a flash in a pan’ moment, where the resource is used for a week but then forgotten.

Diagnostic questions and remote learning

As we look ahead and try to adapt to our new normal, traditional teaching practices need to evolve to integrate a remote learning environment with more typical’ teaching in the year ahead. 

Due to the multiple choice nature of diagnostic questions, they can easily be adapted to use online. The diagnostic questions and answers can be inputted into programs, like google forms or Socrative, to virtually assess students’ preconceptions of new concepts. The teacher notes can also support staff in creating short summaries to address the misconceptions that have been highlighted and future teaching can be adapted accordingly. 

The BEST resources would also be effective for when we embark on face to face teaching. As well as the diagnostic questions, the response questions provide a great starting point for class or group discussions. Misconceptions can then be identified through these discussions and additional support can be provided to help close any gaps that remote learning could have created. 

A careful and staged approach to implementation that incorporates evidence informed resources like these provided by BEST can be used within both traditional and virtual teaching. By drawing upon the best available evidence, we can help our students better manage their misconceptions.

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