Research School Network: Tackling a Mass of Scientific Misconceptions

Tackling a Mass of Scientific Misconceptions

by Research Schools Network
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Michael Adenekan has been teaching science for 8 years in East London, where he is Head of Science at St Bonaventure secondary school. 

My formative teaching years were spent ensuring that students understood How Science Worked”. Sometimes it worked well; often, it ended in embedding or reinforcing misconceptions. My students’ misconceptions repeatedly emerged: Anthony commonly referred to the nucleus as the brain of the cell”, while Kenneth believed The exposure to microwaves meant the food was now radioactive.” Too often I jumped to how the science worked” before fully ensuring students understood the science.

Misconceptions arise for a variety of reasons, from activity choice to teacher explanation. Science is difficult and broad, and often what appears straightforward to us experts are perplexing to our students. As Adam Boxer discusses here, there are well over 8000 articles pertaining to misconceptions, none of which have an agreed upon research-informed method for tackling them. Misconceptions can perplex even the busy science teacher.

My practice since my formative teaching years has developed to ensure I’m explicit about What the science is” and how to use scientific terminology”, to ensure I get to the root of my students’ misconceptions. Terminology is often a big barrier to that explicit knowledge. Knowledge of scientific vocabulary and background knowledge are, of course, the pre-requisite to application, with application aiding understanding.

The Education Endowment Foundation have shown, in both their improving secondary science guidance report and their improving literacy in secondary schools guidance, the need for specific vocabulary instruction for students. For example, how often is the word structure’ used instead of organelles’ in questions, PowerPoints and our explanations? Should we be surprised when a few students in your class encounter the term organelle in an assessment and are flummoxed? 

I was lucky enough to discuss Structure & Bonding, as part of the CogSciSci’s summer curriculum symposium, and the same is true for terms we may consider trivial or use frivolously. Students use terms such as molecules’, ions’ and particles’ interchangeably in answers. Are they, particularly students who aren’t novices, confident in defining and differentiating between them all? Or are we actually fostering more scientific misconceptions?

Teachers tackling scientific misconceptions

Science teachers are tackling this challenge. Tom Chillimamp’s blog builds on the work of Austin Dwyerto identify techniques that can be used to avoid writing and vocabulary hindering our understanding of student answers (see Pritesh Raichura for the entire symposium). Each approach is useful in trying to address the potential misconceptions in our student knowledge.

A careful use of scientific language matters. A simple slip of terminology, or a double meaning of a common scientific term, such as mass’, can develop a misconception that is hidden from view from the teacher. 

Learning (define it if you dare!) takes place over a long period of time. As such, assessment may occur after 15+ hours of teaching, if not more, depending on your curricular and assessment structure. In this timespan, misconceptions can grow from a misunderstood word in a teacher explanation. And so, trying to identify common misconceptions is key, both before and after diagnostic assessment. 

Before any A Level Chemistry diagnostic assessment, I often have a lesson where we review a homework assignment dedicated to non-examples. We correct student errors (we have our own student exams from 2018 – 2019 alongside Examiner’s reports too) and discuss common mistakes and misconceptions evident in the examination context. 

Departmental discussions have ensured we have mandated revision lessons prior to assessment, especially at KS3. As science teachers in our school often teach outside of KS3 specialism, from a planning perspective, these aide non-specialists in probing for common misconceptions students may have and issues within learning in that unit. After all, why proceed to the assessment if students simply aren’t ready for it?

Some would argue the role of the assessment is to spot these misconceptions. In part, I would agree; however, I’d argue what use the assessment has if student answers are completely wrong? What are we then assessing? And where would you proceed?

Looking back on my formative teaching years, my lessons may be less exciting but I now pay more attention to careful language use and well-crafted diagnostic assessments. Armed with the knowledge of how to address and act upon the gaps in my students’ knowledge, and their most common misconceptions, the current iteration of my teaching self is significantly better at ensuring students understand not only what the science is, but also how they can then apply it to how the science works.

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