So as I mentioned before, I have been taking part in bi-weekly pedagogical training as part of my IRACDA postdoctoral fellowship. This week we've been working on the science of teaching, that is, applying data from scientific research on the education process to improve the learning process. The first speaker was Dr. Russ Nehm, who has both a doctorate in Biology from UC Berkley as well as a Ed.M from columbia, who introduced us to some of the latest in theories on scientific teaching.
So most of us are familiar with the traditional lecture model of teaching, in which an wizened expert delivers the material to his students. Dr. Nehmo used the analogy of a students mind as a room; in this case the pontificating professor assumes the room is empty and waiting to be filled. In reality, the student mind, or room, is already partially filled, and we should be thinking about how to remodel this room, either by removing, replacing, or refinishing this furniture. We start to build models of the world from a very young age, and it is much easier to modify pre-existing models or conceptions then to try to remove and replace. An example of this is a classic misconception of what underlies the seasons. This misconception is so common, in fact, that after having various early studies conducted at less-elustrious universities, they decided to survey graduating harvard undergraduates for this very question, who as you can see in the following video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0wk4qG2mIg, had similar poor performance... with only 2 out of 23 students picked at random able to give the correct response regarding the earth's tilt (Schneps 1998).
So, what went wrong? At some point during almost all of our formal education, we have been taught that the earth's tilt relative to the sun impacts both the direction and length that the light rays throughout the year. However, through both formal and informal learning (e.g. our observations), most of us have gained various conceptions about the world around us; that the sun heats the earth, the earth revolves around the sun, and perhaps even some more detailed points such as planets having elliptical orbits. These nuggets of info lead to a very common, and unfortunatly incorrect, preconception that the reason the change in seasons is due to the sun being closer in the summer and further in the winter. So in going back to thinking about the students mind 'room', before we can add new furniture (e.g. the scientifically correct conception), we need to first deal with the furniture that is in there. In the traditional model where we just present the correct model without dealing with the old conception. However, this often results in a non-lasting redecoration, with the added model quickly thrown away or still superseded by our intuitive misconception. In order to be more effective, many education researchers are now pointing out that we need to first address the old furniture, and modify, as opposed to just add. First, they suggest addressing these partial truths, e.g. point out that yes, planetary orbits are eliptical, but in reality the earth's orbit is only very slightly so and not enough to result in the change. By addressing what is mistaken about these preconceptions, and then having learners weigh their old ideas against the new, results in an arguably longer lasting redecoration of the students minds.
Okay, so this is one example, but we are going to be faced with a wide number of previous misconceptions depending on the subject we are teaching. However, the NSF and HHMI, and other groups have been funding research into helping with this task, and for many aspects of core curriculum, have developed resources that can help, such as a concept inventory. These concept inventories are built via studies looking at what conceptions students are bringing to the material being taught, and then creating multiple choice tests containing both the correct and misconceptions. One way that these are suggested as being useful is to give these tests prior to teaching the subject (usually as participatory points but not for formative assessment), and then to confront what the commonly head misconceptions are head on in the class. Many of these have already been developed for various courses in biology, to read more see Klymkowsky and Garvin-Doxas 2008, or Smith et. al. 2008, or i've found similar concept inventories in quick web searches for other subject such as math, physics, and engineering. Or maybe consider building your own for your class and conducting your own study; there is funding available for this work, and can result in peer reviewed publications.