This is the second in a series of posts unpicking the Top 20 Principles From Psychology For Pre-k–12 Teaching And Learning. This time it’s the turn of Principle 2 – What students already know affects their learning to come under the microscope. You can see the other principles here.

Students’ minds are not a blank slate; when they arrive at school they already know stuff. According to Nuthall, whenever teachers begin a new topic, students already know about half of what they’re told – it’s just that they each know a different 50%. Obviously enough, this prior knowledge affects how students acquire new knowledge and skills; what is already known interacts with the material being learned. Nuthall’s research suggests that when students are given new information: they hold it in working memory as they connect it to other new information and experiences and evaluate it against known concepts. If the new information is sufficiently integrated then it will be ‘learnt’, that is, retained in long-term memory. Nuthall says that, “learning does not come directly from classroom activities; learning comes from the way students experience those activities.”

Since the acquisition of new knowledge and skills depends on establishing pre-existing knowledge and skill, knowing what students know and can do when they come into the classroom or before they begin a new topic of study, will help us design lessons that build on student strengths and acknowledge and address their weaknesses. Daniel Willingham says, “students come to understand new ideas by relating them to old ideas. If their knowledge is shallow, the process stops there.”

There are two related processes at work here:

  • Conceptual growth – the acquisition of new information which is consistent with what is already known.
  • Conceptual change – transformation or revision of what was known where misconceptions are challenged by a new understanding.

Conceptual growth is relatively straightforward, conceptual change is not. Many misconceptions are widely held, predictable and therefore easily anticipated by a teacher with good pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). But they can still be difficult to shift for several reasons. Firstly and most obviously, students are generally unaware that the knowledge they possess is erroneous. Why else would they believe it?These misconceptions can become deeply entrenched in students’ thinking and as new information is embedded into their faulty schemas the belief in bad ideas is further entrenched. Most problematically, misconceptions tend to be resistant to instruction as whole rafts of students’ prior knowledge needs to be replaced or radically reorganised.

This leads to a discussion of threshold concepts. These are the conceptual areas where students routinely get stuck but upon which further understanding depends. Meyer and Land suggest a threshold concept will most likely possess certain important qualities. Some of the adjectives we could apply to these concepts are:

  • Integrative: Once learned, they are likely to bring together different parts of the subject which you hadn’t previously seen as connected.
  • Transformative: Once understood, they change the way you see the subject and yourself.
  • Irreversible: They are difficult to unlearn – once you’ve passed through it’s difficult to see how it was possible not to have understood before.
  • Reconstitutive: They may shift your sense of self over time. This is initially more likely to be noticed by others, usually teachers.
  • Troublesome: They are likely to present you with a degree of difficulty and may sometimes seem incoherent or counter-intuitive.
  • Discursive: The student’s ability to use the language associated with that subject changes as they change. It’s the change from using scientific keywords in everyday language to being able to fluently communicate in the academic language of science.

Here’s my attempt to identify threshold concepts in English.

Until a student has passed through a particular threshold, they will be in a state of liminality. Moving from knowing to not knowing is a lot less straightforward than we think. Often, when it appears that someone has made rapid progress they are merely mimicking what they think we want them to do. Knowing requires that we integrate new information into our schema of pre-existing knowledge. It is this process of integration that leads to retention and the ability to transfer between contexts.

If we want students to truly understand anything more than the superficialities of our teaching then we need to stop trying to rush them through liminal space. The false certainty of easy answers – successful in-lesson performance – might actively be retarding learning. But we have a problem: we’re genetically predisposed to avoid uncertainty. In our primitive ancestors, if it looks like a duck or, more to the point, if it looks like a snake, we’re better off assuming it’s a snake rather than having an ontological debate. It’s easy to see how a preference for dithering might quickly have been selected out of the gene pool.

This really is a challenge. Rushing to certainty is the problem but we hate the cognitive conflict caused by uncertainty. The reason it’s so problematic is that the rush to certainty leads to maximising short-term performance, which leads to mimicry, with acts to reduce learning.

This puts us in the tricky position of needing to bring about significant conceptual change. However, there are strategies that have some evidence of proving effective in achieving conceptual change. Here are ten suggestions for tackling misconceptions made by the American Psychological Association:

  1. Ask students to write down their pre-existing conceptions of the material being covered. This allows you to overtly assess their preconceptions and provides them with an opportunity to see how far their understanding has come after learning the new concepts.
  2. Find conceptions which are correct and build bridging analogies to the new concept or theory to be learned.
  3. New concepts or theories should be presented in such a way that students see them as plausible, high-quality, intelligible and generative.
  4. Use model-based reasoning, which helps students construct new representations that vary from their intuitive theories.
  5. Use diverse instruction, wherein you present a few examples that challenge multiple assumptions, rather than a larger number of examples that challenge just one assumption.
  6. Help students become metacognitively aware of their misconceptions.
  7. Present students with experiences that cause cognitive conflict. Experiences that can cause cognitive conflict are ones that get students to compare misconceptions alongside, or at the same time as, correct concepts.
  8. Use case studies – “real world” scenarios with accompanying references – as teaching tools to deepen understanding of new material and reduce misconceptions.
  9. Help students self-repair their misconceptions. If students engage in a process called “self-explanation,” then conceptual change is more likely. Self-explanation entails prompting students to explain text aloud as they read.
  10. Once students have overcome their misconceptions, engage them in debate to strengthen their newly acquired understanding.

Although it’s possible to gain an understanding of students’ current understanding of a specific subject area by conducting a diagnostic assessment prior to instruction on a topic, in practice these reveal relatively little. Unless such assessments are very well designed, the availability bias tends us to be able only to recall what is foremost in our minds; just asking students to record what they know will not be enough. Even if we carefully craft the kind of hinge questions which can reveal faulty thinking, we will only ever have a very rough guide as to what students actually think. That said, we will at least be able to see if some grosser, more obvious misconceptions are being made and address them accordingly.

As we’ve already said, diagnostic assessment doesn’t have to just be a test. Direct measures like tests, concept maps, interviews etc. are all useful but so, sometimes, are more indirect methods like student self-assessment, reports and inventories of topics that have already been studied.

Novak and Canas describe concept maps as “graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts indicated by a connecting line linking two concepts. Words on the line, referred to as linking words or linking phrases, specify the relationship between the two concepts.” So, essentially they’re a more structured mind map (and not under copy write by Tony ‘mindmap™’ Buzan!) Concepts are represented hierarchically according to the structure for a particular domain of knowledge and also on the context in which that knowledge is being applied or considered. Constructing concept maps with reference to particular questions you want students to focus on. This ‘focus question’ can be broad or specific depending on what you’re planning on teaching – the key is to keep students focussed on identifying concepts that answer the question and then rank them in order of importance. These concepts are then used to construct the map. It’s important for students to realise the map is never finished; it should expand to fit in new concepts they learn along the way.  (More on concept maps here.)

However we go about assessing what students’ know, some sort of benchmark allows us to have a rough idea how much they’ve learned at the end of the teaching sequence.

In summary, the evidence supporting this principle is robust and the advice given to teachers, while limited, is along the right lines. We should certainly try to find out what students know before we start teaching, and since this is an impossible job, we ought to focus on exposing misconceptions.

The report references various papers but I haven’t been able to read most of them beyond the abstract. as they’re behind paywalls.

Eryilmaz, A. (2002). Effects of conceptual assignments and conceptual change discussions on students’ misconceptions and achievement regarding force and motion.

Holding, M., Denton, R., Kulesza, A., & Ridgway, J. (2014). Confronting scientific misconceptions by fostering a classroom of scientists in the introductory biology lab [behind a paywall]

Johnson, M., & Sinatra, G. (2014). The influence of approach and avoidance goals on conceptual change [behind a paywall]

Mayer, R. E. (2011). Applying the Science of Learning

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K. R., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing instruction and study to improve student learning [This is really worth reading]

Savinainen, A., & Scott, P. (2002). The Force Concept Inventory: A tool for monitoring student learning [behind a paywall]