Knowing Student Misconceptions
Key to Science Teaching, Study Finds

By Erik Robelen, From Education Week, May 28, 2013

This study examined the relationship between teacher knowledge and student learning in middle school physical science..

All the teachers (181 in the study) and their nearly 10,000 students were tested (20 multiple choice items). For those items that students did not exhibit misconceptions, teacher subject matter knowledge alone accounted for higher student gains. But for each item on the test that had a very popular wrong answer, the teachers who could identify that misconception had even larger classroom gains, much larger than if the teachers knew only the correct answer.

What this suggests is that students will make better progress if their teacher assesses for common misconceptions about the upcoming topic, and notes which misconceptions are most common in that class. An efficient way to do this is to give a short pre-test survey carefully constructed to reveal the more common misconceptions for that topic. An item analysis can quickly expose those more common misconceptions. Most experienced teachers will probably already be aware of those misconceptions - it comes with experience. It is suspected that the teachers knowing those misconceptions in the study probably made a special effort to clarify the often-misunderstood concepts, perhaps even showing why certain common misconceptions are wrong, or (even better) providing experiences where students discover that their own misunderstandings don’t work.

Constructing and using carefully designed multiple-choice tests probably work best if you have the electronic means for doing an item analysis showing how many students selected each choice for each item. Otherwise, develop carefully worded “agree/disagree” or “true/false” tests that should reveal those misconceptions. See for example the ENSI Science Knowledge Survey and the Evolution Survey. Item analysis nicely shows how many students missed each item, from which you can determine the most common misconceptions in your class. The next step is to provide experiences for your students that will show how and why those misconceptions don’t work.

The ENSI lessons are designed to do that. They are interactive, which means that the students are expected to discuss specific questions about each lesson, first within collaborative teams, then in a teacher-guided class-wide discussion and summing up. Those lessons are also classroom-tested and very engaging. Studies have shown that the most effective way for understanding to grow and be retained is not from lecture, reading, or writing about it, but from vocally explaining the concepts to others. That way, others quickly recognize possible errors and can be taught to carefully listen and tactfully point out possible mistakes, or attempt to rephrase for clarification (“Do you mean x?”)

Also see Dealing With Misconceptions for additional resources.