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Understanding Conceptual Change

(pp. 70-71) from How People Learn

Because learning involves transfer from previous experiences, one's existing knowledge can also make it difficult to learn new information. Sometimes new information will seem incomprehensible to students, but this feeling of confusion can at least let them identify the existence of a problem (see, e.g., Bransford and Johnson. 1972; Dooling and Lachman, 1971). A more problematic situation occurs when people construct a coherent (for them) representation of information while deeply misunderstanding the new information. Under these conditions, the learner doesn't realize that he or she is failing to understand. Children's interpretations of the new information are much different than what the adults intend.

The Fish is Fish scenario is relevant to many additional attempts to help students learn new information. For example, when high school or college physics students are asked to identify the forces being exerted on a ball that is thrown vertically up in the air after it leaves the hand, many mention the "force of the hand" (Clement, 1982a, b). This force is exerted only so long as the ball is in flight. Students claim that this force diminishes as the ball ascends and is used up by the time the ball reaches the top of its trajectory. As the ball descends, these students claim, it "acquires" increasing amounts of the gravitational force, which results in the ball picking up speed as it falls back down. This "motion requires a force" misconception is quite common among students and is akin to the medieval theory of "impetus" (Hestenes, et al., 1992). These explanations fail to take account of the fact that the only forces being exerted on the ball while it is traveling through the air are the gravitational force caused by the earth and the drag force due to air resistance. (For similar examples, see Mestre, 1994.)

In biology, people's knowledge of human and animal needs for food provides an example of how existing knowledge can make it difficult to understand new information. A study of how plants make food was conducted with students from elementary school through college. It probed understanding of the role of soil and photosynthesis in plant growth and of the primary source of food in green plants (Wandersee, 1983). Although students in the higher grades displayed a better understanding, students from all levels displayed several misconceptions: soil is the plants' food; plants get their food from the roots and store it in the leaves; and chlorophyll is the plants' blood. Many of the students in this study, especially those in the higher grades, had already studied photosynthesis. Yet formal instruction had done little to overcome their erroneous prior beliefs. Clearly, presenting a sophisticated explanation in science class, without also probing for students' preconceptions on the subject, will leave many students with incorrect understanding (for review of studies, see Mestre, 1994).

For young children, early concepts in mathematics guide students' attention and thinking (Gelman, 1967; we discuss this more in Chapter 4). Most children bring their school mathematics lessons the idea that numbers are grounded in the counting principles (and related rules of addition and subtraction). This knowledge works well during the early years of schooling. However, once students are introduced to rational numbers, their assumption about mathematics can hurt their abilities to learn.

Consider learning about fractions. The mathematical principles underlying the numberhood of fractions are not consistent with the principles of counting and children's ideas that numbers are sets of things that are counted and addition involves "putting together" two sets. One cannot count things to generate a fraction. Formally, a fraction is defined as the division of one cardinal number by another: this definition solves the problem that there is a lack of closure of the integers under division. To complicate matters, some number-counting principles do not apply to fractions. Rational numbers do not have unique successors; there is an infinite number of numbers between two rational numbers. One cannot use counting-based algorithms for sequencing fractions: for example, 1/4 is not more than 1/2. Neither the nonverbal not the verbal counting principle maps to a tripartite symbolic representations of fractions - two cardinal numbers X and Y separated by a line. Related mapping problems have been noted by others (e.g., Behr et al., 1992; Fishbein et al., 1985; Silver et al. 1993). Overall, early knowledge of numbers has the potential to serve as a barrier to learning about fractions - and for many learners it does.

The fact that learners construct new understandings based on their current knowledge highlights some of the dangers in "teaching by telling." Lectures and other forms of direct instruction can sometimes be very useful, but only under the right conditions (Schwartz and Bransford, 1998). Often, students construct understandings like those noted above. To counteract these problems, teachers must strive to make students' thinking visible and find ways to reconceptualize faulty conceptions.

(pp. 179-180) from How People Learn

Before students can really learn new scientific concepts, they often need to re-conceptualize deeply rooted misconceptions that interfere with the learning. As reviewed, people spend considerable time and effort constructing a view of the physical world through experiences and observations, and they may cling tenaciously to those views -- however much they conflict with scientific concepts -- because they help them explain phenomena about the world (e.g., why a rock falls faster than a leaf).

One instructional strategy, termed "bridging," has been successful in helping students overcome persistent misconceptions (Brown, 1992; Brown and Clement, 1989; Clement, 1993). The bridging strategy attempts to bridge from students’ correct beliefs (called anchoring conceptions) to their misconceptions through a series of intermediate analogous situations. Starting with the anchoring intuition that a spring exerts an upward force on the book resting on it, the student might be asked if a book resting on the middle of a long, "springy" board supported at its two ends experiences an upward force from the board. The fact that the bent board looks as if it is serving the same function as the spring helps many students agree that both the spring and the board exert upward forces on the book. For a student who may not agree that the bent board exerts an upward force on the book, the instructor may ask a student to place her hand on top of a vertical spring and push down and to place her hand on the middle of the springy board and push down. She would then be asked if she experienced an upward force that resisted her push in both cases. Through this type of dynamic probing of students’ beliefs, and by helping them come up with ways to resolve conflicting views, students can be guided into construction a coherent view that is applicable across a wide range of contexts.

Another effective strategy for helping students overcome persistent erroneous beliefs are interactive lecture demonstrations (Sokoloff and Thornton, 1997; Thornton and Sokoloff, 1997). This strategy which has been used very effectively in large introductory college physics classes begins with an introduction to a demonstration that the instructor is about to perform, such as a collision between two air carts on an air track, one a stationary light cart, the other a heavy cart moving toward the stationary cart. Each cart had an electronic "force probe" connected to it which displays on a large screen and in real-time the force acting on it during the collision. The teacher first asks the students to discuss the situation with their neighbors and then record a prediction as to whether one of the carts would exert a bigger force on the other during the impact or whether the carts would exert equal forces.

The vast majority of students incorrectly predict that the heavier, moving cart exerts a larger force on the lighter, stationary cart. Again, this predictions seems quite reasonable based on experience -- students know that a moving Mack truck colliding with a stationary Volkswagen beetle will result in much more damage done to the Volkswagen, and this is interpreted to mean that the Mack truck must have exerted a large force on the Volkswagen. Yet, notwithstanding the major damage to the Volkswagen, Newton’s Third Law states that two interacting bodies exert equal and opposite forces on each other.

After the students make and record their predictions, the instructor performs the demonstration, and the students see on the screen that the force probes record forces of equal magnitude but oppositely directed during the collision. Several other situations are discussed in the same way: What if the two carts had been moving toward each other at the same speed? That if the situation is reversed so that the heavy cart is stationary and the light cart is moving toward it? Students make predictions and then see the actual forces between the carts displayed as they collide. In all cases, students see that the carts exert equal and opposite forces on each other, and with the help of a discussion moderated by the instructor, the students begin to build a consistent view of Newton’s Third Law that incorporates their observations and experiences.

Consistent with the research on providing feedback, there is other research that suggests that students’ witnessing the force displayed in real-time as the two carts collide helps them overcome their misconceptions; delays of as little as 20-30 minutes in displaying graphic data of an event occurring in real-time significantly inhibits the learning of the underlying concept (Brasell, 1987).

Both bridging and the interactive demonstration strategies have been shown to be effective at helping students permanently overcome misconceptions. This finding is a major breakthrough in teaching science, since so much research indicates that students often can parrot back correct answers on a test that might be an erroneously interpreted as displaying the eradication of a misconception, but the same misconception often resurfaces when students are probed weeks or months later.


National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000.