As experts in our own subjects we are all aware of the common misconceptions and misunderstandings that students make. In history for example, when working with dates, some students might mistakenly think for that 400 BC is more recent that 300 BC – the misconception being that the larger the number, the more recent it is.

Using our knowledge of these common misconceptions, we can anticipate where they will hold students back in our curriculum and plan for them accordingly.

Daisy Christodoulou in this blog post compares it to the planning for injury in high performance sport. She points out that a sport will have injuries that are more common than others. Coaches then establish training plans that mitigate the effects of that sport and reduce the frequency of that type of injury. Effective teaching, she argues, is the same principle.

It is perfectly possible to spend time identifying the common misconceptions that occur in a subject then planning activities that directly address these misconceptions just as these maths examples show.

The video below (although it is essentially a criticism of the Khan Academy science videos) suggests that addressing misconceptions at the start of the topic has a much greater positive impact on student understanding.

if you only present the correct information to students, five things happen:

  1. Students think they already know it
  2. They don’t pay full attention
  3. They don’t recognise that what was presented differs to what they were already thinking
  4. They don’t learn a thing
  5. They get more confident in the (incorrect ideas) that they already held

Don’t be put off by the fact that this is about explanations in science – the principle can be applied to any information we expect students to learn.

If you want to take your reading on misconceptions further and see how it links with formative assessment, this research paper by Dylan Wiliam gives a particularly good example of misconceptions in algebra on page 6.


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