How to battle pupil misconceptions at GCSE and A-level 

When misconceptions pop up at GCSE or A level, Dr Niki Kaiser believes one bit of research in particular can help put them on the right course

GCSE and A-Level mistakes

We develop many beliefs, or naïve theories, during our childhoods, and some of these align with scientific theory (for example, steel is denser than foam). 

But we also start school and begin science lessons with intuitive ideas that disagree with scientific facts. We believe, for example, that the air around us is empty rather than full of matter, until we find out otherwise in chemistry lessons. 

Some of these misconceptions can still exist even into GCSE and A-level courses. So how best do we tackle them?

Correcting misconceptions at GCSE and A level

I found this paper thought-provoking. It argues that the best we can ever hope for, as teachers, is to help students to suppress their naïve beliefs; we are unlikely ever to extinguish them completely. 

And it implies that we must not only anticipate and confront misconceptions, but also review them repeatedly, reminding our students of what they previously learned.

Teaching at GCSE

For the study, researchers asked people to verify a range of statements, some of which were true, but some of which were not. Participants identified true statements significantly more quickly if they aligned with naïve beliefs than if they described science they had learned later in life.

So participants were quicker to verify true statements, such as "the moon goes around the sun", which they probably believed intuitively, than a true statement like "humans are descended from sea-dwelling creatures", which is not likely to be an instinctive belief.

This is not something confined to novice learners. Even professors of biology are quicker to agree with intuitive facts (animals are alive) than less intuitive ones (plants are living things), according to one previous study. So it is likely to be something our GCSE and A-level students will struggle with, too. 

Teaching reality

This doesn’t surprise me: my background includes atmospheric chemistry research, but I’m not sure I immediately picture the millions and billions of molecules dancing around me when I view the world.

So teachers must support students to "unlearn" long-held beliefs, as well as helping them to learn new things. However, this study’s findings imply that, even if our students’ understanding appears to have changed, this development is unlikely to be truly permanent. 

So what does this mean for teachers?

Firstly, we need to know the common misconceptions and naïve, intuitive beliefs that our students are likely to hold so we can anticipate and plan for them. 

You can find recommendations for where to find common misconceptions and how to support students to overcome them in the EEF Guidance Report: Improving Secondary Science

But, perhaps more importantly, this study suggests that we can’t expect it to represent "job done" once we’ve confronted these misconceptions.

We need to review students’ conceptual understanding regularly and repeatedly. They will also benefit from us re-checking even the most basic concepts at times, however briefly, rather than assuming they are understood, simply because they are well known.

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