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How Can Misconceptions Hold Us Back?

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Some of us start an education in a new subject with a blank slate. But most of us have some preconceived ideas, usually from previous education or private reading. This can be frustrating for teachers and students alike, because these preconceived ideas can be misleading, or just plain wrong. Sometimes students have preconceived notions from daily experience, or private reflection, that seem intuitively right, but that are soon seen as misleading. It can be difficult, frustrating, or just plain disheartening to get past, and effectively unlearn, these misleading ideas.

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It helps to have students write down their pre-existing ideas and expectations at the start of a subject. This helps the teacher find and address any error as the beginning.

Consider whether the misconceptions can be beneficial to the learning process, as something to get past. For example, most people initially believe that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. But a physics demonstration can show this is a misconception, that the air resistance causes the object to fall quickly or slowly.

Show students that there can be a few alternate hypotheses about a subject, and that experiments can show which explanations are valid, and which are misconceptions. And show that in some cases the matter is still unresolved.

Do not rely solely on textbooks or lectures, or even demonstrations. Use all of these together with practical experience that involves the students and their different perspectives. Show situations where there are multiple interpretations, and perhaps conflicting results. Does an experiment work in all situations, or only under normal atmospheric pressure. Why is one novel better written in first person, and another better written in 3rd person omniscient?

Show how a students understanding has radically altered from the beginning and end of a course.

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Education is a long process that continues through life. Part of this process is unlearning misconceptions. Tutoring can help students develop the right approach to learning.

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