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Misconceptions—the inaccurate or incomplete ideas or understanding of a concept, process, or phenomenon—are common in every discipline and aspect of life. We are likely familiar with common historical misconceptions such as that bloodletting can cure a variety of illnesses, the world is flat, and the sun rotates around the earth. We also experience misconceptions in the current world of teaching and learning. For example, many still believe that students have a specific learning style that drives their learning and that intelligence is assigned at birth and cannot be grown. Some students believe that highlighting text is the most effective way to retain what is read and that cramming is good way to learn. A list of possible misconceptions could extend to every area of learning and life.

Of course, some misconceptions have political associations. Some parents and community members may have concerns about the discussion of particular issues, and in some states, discussion of selected conceptions or misconceptions is not permitted. Our considerations regarding whether to address specific misconceptions need to include an awareness of community and policy sentiments and implications, their status in the adopted curriculum, and the relative importance of the concepts involved.

The question is, how can we help students to dispel misconceptions that can interfere with their learning and success in life? We know that simply telling students that they are wrong can invite resistance and lead them to choose not to listen. Instead, we need a process to help us understand where misconceptions may exist, expose students to correct information, and lead them to reexamine and shift their assumptions and beliefs to become consistent with facts and reality. Here is a five-step process to consider.

Step one: Determine where misconceptions exist. We might pretest students in areas that are susceptible to misconceptions. To do this, we can tap our own experience with students, common assumptions, frequent fallacies in the media, and often cherry-picked information to develop assessment prompts. Or we might ask students to write about their assumptions, beliefs, understandings, and other conceptions related to the topic they are about to study. Their responses are likely to contain accurate conceptions as well as any misconceptions that can guide our planning. This strategy will also permit students to see how far they have come once they complete the unit of study.

Step two: Begin with correct conceptions. We can share fact-based, credible, complete information about the topic or concept we are teaching, but we need to avoid arguing or pointing out misconceptions before we share correct information. We might support the information we share with models, graphic representations, and other visual content to clarify and verify information. Another option is to create activities and design experiences that demonstrate the correct conception for students.

Step three: Address existing misconceptions. We can use information from the preassessments to understand where students hold misconceptions. We might also provide comparisons, examples, case studies, and demonstrations to provide further clarity. Our intent is to build on the information we shared about correct conceptions in order to counter the existing assumptions and beliefs. Our purpose is to cause manageable cognitive conflict between what students have assumed or believed and new information they are encountering. However, we need to be careful not to make the misconception the sole focus. Rather, it needs to be part of the larger discussion of what is correct and why it is important. Our goal is to help students to understand why we want them to change their assumptions and beliefs.

Step four: Emphasize the importance of correct understanding. We might discuss with students how correct conceptions can help their future learning. We can contrast their new understanding with how misconceptions can create challenges and interfere with future learning and actions. Additionally, this is a key time for students to have their questions answered and to test implications of what they now know.

Step five: Protect students from backsliding. Even though students might be clear about a correct conception now, over time they can forget and fall back on previous misconceptions. We need to give students “memory tags” to recognize when they hear people state the misconception or when they may be tempted to return to the misconception. To accomplish this goal, we might have students explain how their thinking has evolved and describe their new understanding. For example, we might ask students to complete this sentence: I used to think…, but now I know… Depending on the topic and maturity of our students, we can even have students present arguments to defend their new understanding. The key is to give students experiences that are strong enough to trigger recognition when they encounter the misconception in the future.

Misconceptions are normal, common experiences in learning. They can have many sources such as mishearing information, exposure to misinformation, or making false assumptions as they try to make sense of experiences. Misconceptions are opportunities for us to correct and build understanding. However, we need to be careful not to create defensiveness and rejection before we have an opportunity to teach.

Thought for the Week

When we understand another person’s perspective, what they are thinking and feeling, we are better able to relate to them and understand their needs.

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