When the “Best” Teaching Practices Don’t Work

brain on chalkboard

Dealing with student misconceptions

If you have ever worked hard to add something extra to your course but didn’t see the results you expected in student performance, you are not alone.  A well-executed 2011 research study called, “Active Learning Not Associated with Student Learning…” (and yes, you read that correctly), found that using active teaching methods, such as small group discussions, “clicker” questions, and reflective writing assignments in class, didn’t improve student learning for the college biology instructors in the study.  But it’s not the strategy’s fault, or really even the instructor’s.  The problem is the lack of educational training, which prevents instructors from using all of the recommended tools of the trade effectively.  For example, 83% of the study’s participants were implementing relatively simple Think-Pair-Share activities incorrectly.  This report found that in particular, most instructors are overlooking two very simple concepts that are vital to successful active learning strategies.  According to the data, student learning comes when instructors:  1) Identify students’ misconceptions about the content, and 2) Use teaching activities that specifically target these misconceptions.  Instructors who focused on finding and correcting misconceptions were the only ones in the study whose classrooms showed significant success, regardless of the length of the instructor’s career, years teaching the course, class size, or type of institution, among other variables.

What this study means for instructors:
  • If you’ve tried active teaching and haven’t gotten results, keep going.  Active strategies don’t produce worse results than lecturing, and even the ineffective practices used in this study were viewed more positively by students than lecture, so at least the students feel better about your class.
  • Many successful teachers use “concept inventory” assessments to guide their interventions with students.  In these, each incorrect choice is specifically designed to align with a certain misconception, and knowing what a student was thinking will help you intervene for each individual more efficiently and more successfully.  Is there a concept inventory for your content?  Google might know.  If it’s a science area, then almost certainly.  If not, you can develop your own, or…
  • … just ask students to share the reasoning for their answers (perhaps in Socratic fashion or modeling Ben Franklin’s Junto).  Do you immediately accept the correct answer that they have shared in class, or do you ask them to explain why they think that it is correct?  Ask classmates to evaluate a response before you accept it.  Constructive debates on accuracies and inaccuracies of an answer will lead to a deeper understanding for the entire class.  Unfortunately, our system and culture tend to look at incorrect answers as an embarrassing end to classroom investigation, rather than an opportunity to dig deeper into a topic.
  • Create scenarios, anything from a hands-on lab to a hypothetical business deal, in which students must predict the outcome of specific events.  Whether or not they fully understand the concepts will direct their answers, allowing you to see why they came to that conclusion and where they went wrong.
  • Give your students enough time to mentally engage your content in class.  If you pause your lecture and give students 30 seconds to write their own thoughts about the topic you just covered, is that long enough for them to consider it thoroughly and make deeper sense of it?  More reflection time might allow them to realize the question that they didn’t know they had.  Time to organize their thoughts before sharing with peers will greatly enhance the quality of your classroom discussions.
  • Demand questions.  Reward them for stumping you.  We want students to know that we expect them to think past their current level of understanding and break new ground.
  • Connect concepts through real application.  If you taught skills X, Y, and Z separately, that may be fine, but students only master the entire concept if they can use them all together to perform a novel task, whether it is to critique a musical performance or to analyze a stock portfolio.  This application solidifies the connections among topics and provides an experience that students can refer to when the next challenge comes along.

A lot of this boils down to the fact that students don’t come to you with a blank slate.  Hundreds of sources and experiences have filled students’ brains with incorrect or almost-correct ideas.  If students don’t see where they are wrong, they will try to incorporate your new content into their incorrect mindset.  This distorts your teaching and prevents them from learning.  Active learning methods help you show students their misunderstandings and help students tweak their existing frameworks to allow new information to be learned, but only when used intentionally with these goals in mind.

For more insight into the problems created by student misconceptions, check out this video:

(Then watch the rest of this guy’s videos, because they’re awesome.)


2 thoughts on “When the “Best” Teaching Practices Don’t Work

  1. I shared with my principals and with Debbie McGreevy.  She is very interested in your work.

    Love, Mom


  2. Pingback: A Retrofitted E-Book | Instructional Design @ ESU

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