Misconceptions as Distractors in Assessment Items

In his seminal article, “Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching,” Lee Shulman emphasizes that teachers must help students break down their misconceptions and preconceptions during the learning process. Shulman argues that effective teachers must possess a very specific kind of knowledge: pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). According to this thinker, “(PCK) goes beyond knowledge of subject matter per se to the dimension of subject matter knowledge for teaching. I still speak of content knowledge here, but of the particular form of content knowledge that embodies the aspects of content most germane to its teachability.” (p. 9)

misconception as distractor

Shulman further writes, “Pedagogical content knowledge also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific topics easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning of those most frequently taught topics and lessons.” (p.9) According to Shulman it is the responsibility of educators to help students overcome these faulty understandings. During the learning process students must come to recognize why faulty notions are wrong. If they do not grasp this, students have not really understood the topic.

One way to think about effective learning is to consider it as the negation of misconceptions and addition of true conceptions. If a learner retains erroneous comprehension of a particular topic under study, he obviously has not mastered the concept. Consequently, if an educator wants to assess a student’s mastery of an objective it makes sense to see whether or not she has retained erroneous understandings.

This is exactly what assessments are designed to do, measure student mastery of specific objectives.

Anybody who has considered the art and science of writing quality assessment items knows that multiple choice distractors must be plausible. In order to meaningfully evaluate a student’s mastery of a specific objective with a multiple choice assessment item, the distractors within the item must logically answer the question, yet be wrong.

Our Chief Instructional Officer, Sarah Bierman, effectively explained this concept of plausible distractors when she told a group of A Pass associates that plausible distractors tap into common misconceptions that an individual might hold about a particular topic. For example, many young children studying multiplication for the first time could confuse the multiplication symbol with the addition symbol. Therefore, if students were presented with an item that said: 3 * 3 = ?, the number 6 would be a plausible distractor. The number 107, for example, would not be plausible. There are no common misconceptions that would lead students to think that this is the answer to the math problem.

Another example: Many people think that the president of the United States makes laws. Consequently, if an assessment item asked, “What is the primary responsibility of the president of the United States?” a plausible answer would be, “to make laws.” Another plausible answer would be, “to set tax rates.” A plausible answer would not be, “to create state budget plans.” Most students know that the president works at the level of the federal government, not the states.

Of course, as Bierman points out, when considering logical misunderstandings, it is important to think about the world experience of students. What is plausible for kindergarteners would be different than for fifth graders, and what is plausible for fifth graders might be different than for older students.

So, to sum it up, in order to ensure that students master specific learning objectives it is crucial to determine that they do not possess misconceptions. An excellent way to determine this is to include the misconceptions as distractors on well written assessment items.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-31.

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