Once entrenched in a student’s mind, preconceived notions are difficult to shake and can lead to confusion down the road. Here are four common misconceptions, with ideas on how to address them, that can persist through adulthood.
- Theories are “Just Ideas”. Many people have the misconception that theories are simply ideas which are not based on facts. This leads them to dismiss critical knowledge that impacts society. It is our responsibility as science course writers to ensure students understand that a scientific theory is much more than an idea. In fact, to be labeled a theory, it is “proven time and time again in thousands of experiments and observational studies” UC Berkley
In some cases, students confuse scientific theories with hypotheses. Why is the distinction important? To politicians and unfortunately the public, calling something a theory leads to doubt. This can cripple societal attempts to mitigate the effects of large scale, politically charged processes like global warming.
How to avoid misconceptions about theories? Explicitly compare and contrast the definitions of theory and hypothesis. Give an example of each. Present historical and current facts that prove a particular theory that is relevant to your course—for example, evidence supporting modern atomic theory theory, global warming, and evolution.
- Science Facts Written In in Textbooks Do Not Change. In today’s world, where we’re bombarded with information, it’s important to teach your students that scientific facts are revised as new discoveries are made. Scientific knowledge BUILDS upon and adds to what we have learned previously. Include in your course concrete examples and student-oriented activities.
Concrete examples include theories that hold true over time, like Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and those that don’t, like The Theory of Spontaneous Generation Spontaneous Generation. Point out theories that have been disproven as new technology allows us to more fully explore frontiers. For example, the discovery of life in deep sea hydrothermal vents in the late 1970s overturned the theory that Life Requires Sunlight.
In your science course, include activities from which students can deduce or predict outcomes that change as new information is added. I’ve used a Nature of Science Puzzle to help students understand this process. Need more ideas? Visit Indiana University’s Nature of Science Lessons.
- Students Can’t Conduct Experiments Until They’ve Mastered the Content. In fact, students may not master content until they have proven it for themselves. Conducting an inquiry-based experiment enables students to better synthesize information and deepen their understanding. Save time by introducing lab concepts and practices BEFORE conducting an experiment. Try recording a prelab with apps like “show me” or assigning instructive videos like MIT Lab Techniques. Techniques like Flipping the Lab and Inquiry in Action provide more methods and ideas for mastering content through experimentation.
- Science is a Bunch of Unrelated, Boring Facts. Please include in your curriculum fun activities that show students science is NOT boring! Nothing is worse than a course which feeds students a list of facts that some of them will happily memorize and regurgitate, only to forget them the next day! Why is this so bad? Our A+ students can be left with the impression that science is just a bunch of meaningless trivia that has little to do with their daily lives.
Teaching science as a collection of facts risks creating a society of “educated” adults who don’t know how to weigh arguments for and against a scientific theory. In addition, they will be less prepared to to compete globally or to assess the risk versus benefit of medical treatments, engineering solutions, and ideas such as sustainable living.
How to make science more interesting for your students? Include lots of challenging activities that relate science to the students’ own lives. Include team-oriented, critical thinking games like “Escape the Room” or “Breakout”.
Great reviews of student misconceptions about science and how to address them are detailed in The Sourcebook for Teaching Science and online at UC Berkley’s Teaching Misconceptions Berkley’s Teaching Misconceptions. Balance your teaching of what Science is NOT with What Science IS and include good scientific “Habits of Mind”.
Get your teachers and their students off to a great start by including ways to address misconceptions in your course. This will help create scientifically literate adults who can compete globally, analyze scientific information, and are open to considering new information as it is discovered.