The Scando Review
The Scando Review
How prior knowledge impacts learning

How prior knowledge impacts learning

Part 3

In the previous parts of this article series on prior learning, we saw that prior knowledge will not help new learning if it is inappropriate or insufficient for the task. In this part, we will discuss the impact of inaccurate prior knowledge on learning.

Various research studies conducted by experts – including Dunbar, Fugelsang and Stein in 2007, Chinn and Malhotra in 2002, and Brewer and Lambert in 2000 – found that inaccurate prior learning can distort new knowledge by predisposing students to ignore, discount, or resist evidence that conflicts with what they believe to be true. Some psychologists explain this distortion occurs as a result of human beings striving for internal consistency.

Let us take an example. A study conducted by Vosniadou and Brewer in 1987 found that children reconcile their perception that the Earth is flat with the instruction from the teachers that the Earth is round. The children conceive the Earth as a pancake – circular with a flat surface. Here, children try to make sense of information by fitting into the schemes of what they already know or believe.

According to the book How Learning Works, written by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele Di Pietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norma, inaccurate prior knowledge can be easily corrected if not embedded in larger conceptual models. For example, if a child believes that Pluto is still a planet, we can correct it easily by stating the facts that contradict their belief. Research conducted by Broughton, Sinatra and Reynolds in 2007 indicated that these beliefs respond to refutation. Students will generally revise it when they are confronted with evidence. However, the refutation process is not as simple when it comes to flawed conceptual models. According to a study by Chi and Roscoe in 2002, children respond to refutation over time if the individual inaccuracies are refuted systematically.

Some kinds of inaccurate prior knowledge called misconceptions are remarkably resistant to correction since misconceptions are models or theories embedded deep in students’ thinking. Examples of these misconceptions include ‘folk psychology’ myths (blind people have more sensitive hearing than sighted people or that a good hypnotist can command total obedience), naïve physics theories (the notion that objects of different masses fall at a different rate), and stereotypes about groups of people.

Deeply embedded misconceptions often persist even when confronted with evidence.

Misconceptions are difficult to refute. Many of them have been reinforced over time and across multiple contexts. They often include accurate and inaccurate elements that the students may not recognise as their flaws. In many cases, misconceptions may allow for successful explanations and predictions in a number of everyday circumstances.

In studies conducted by Allport in 1954 and Brewer in 1988, it was found that though stereotypes are dangerous oversimplifications, they fit aspects of our perceived reality and serve an adaptive human need to generalise and categorise.

According to the book How Learning Works, deeply embedded misconceptions often persist even when confronted with evidence. For example, Stein and Dunbar conducted a study among college students. They asked students to write about why seasons changed. They found that 94% of the students had misconceptions about the topic, including the belief that the shape of the Earth’s orbit is responsible for seasons. The researchers showed them a video that explained that the tilt of the Earth’s axis is responsible for seasonal changes. Then they asked students to revise their essays. However, their explanations did not change fundamentally.

Similarly, studies conducted by McCloskey, Caramazza, and Green in 1980 found that deeply held misconceptions about the physical world persist even when they are refuted through formal instruction.

Studies conducted by Brown and Clement in 1989 and Clement in 1993 found that a process called bridging can be used to wean students from misconceptions.

Let us discuss bridging using an example. In his study, Clement found that students had trouble believing that a table exerts a force on a book placed on its surface. However, the students believed that a compressed spring can exert force. So, Clement designed an instructional intervention. Clement and other researchers were able to analogise from the spring to foam, then to pliable wood and finally to a solid table. The intermediate objects helped bridge the differences between a spring and the table and enabled the students to extend their accurate prior knowledge.

Similarly, research conducted by Minstrell in 1989 showed that students could be guided away from misconceptions through a process of reasoning that helps them build on the accurate facets of their knowledge as they gradually revise the inaccurate facets.

Teachers should use the process of reasoning and bridging to help students to refute inaccurate facts. It may take time to revise the misconceptions that are deeply embedded in their minds, but teachers can play a significant role to help wean them away from inaccurate prior knowledge.

Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.

How do you describe the term “inaccurate prior knowledge” to your students?

Can you think of how teachers could help students avoid making errors due to their inaccurate prior knowledge?

Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children, and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.

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Happy Teaching!