Why biology students have misconceptions about science

July 8, 2015 by Thea Singer
Northeastern associate professor and cognitive scientist John Coley has helped unlock why misconceptions persist in science education—research that could change the way instructors teach science and improve how students learn it. Credit: Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Zebras developed stripes to avoid predators.

No, that statement wasn't ripped from the annals of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" It's an example of a "misconception"—a term biology-education researchers use to describe a scientifically inaccurate idea held by biology students, even majors in the field.

In fact, new research by Northeastern associate professor John Coley and his team has found that both biology and non-biology majors are equally prone to agreeing with common scientific misconceptions. The difference is that biology majors give more systematic reasons for why they agree or disagree with the inaccurate ideas presented to them—a finding that points to the way they are taught science.

The findings, published earlier this year in CBE-Life Sciences Education, could change the way instructors teach science—and improve how students learn it.

Misconceptions come from intuitive thinking

In the study, Coley and his team surveyed Northeastern University students, both biology majors and non-biology majors, about whether or not they agreed with several scientific ideas—which unbeknownst to the students were inaccurate. Their study yielded some startling results, namely that biology majors agreed with common scientific misconceptions nearly as frequently as non-biology majors. But interestingly, biology majors were much more systematic in their reasoning for agreeing or disagreeing with these ideas—which the researchers say indicates that biology education itself is reinforcing these intuitive ways of thinking.

"A misconception is not just a factual error," says Coley, a psychologist in the College of Science who studies cognition. "It's a belief that, while contrary to how scientists understand a phenomenon, arises from our intuitive ways of organizing knowledge."

From evolution to cell biology, biology and non-biology majors agreed nearly to the same degree, differed on reasons

To dive deeply into the minds of biology students, Coley teamed up with Kimberly Tanner, a neurobiologist at San Francisco State University trained in science-education research. The study, which represents a breakthrough in interdisciplinary research, examines the thought processes driving students' misconceptions across biological disciplines, from evolution to ecology to cell biology.

The authors hypothesized that seemingly unrelated biological misconceptions—about cellular respiration, say, or plant nutrition—sprang not from the complexity of the material but from our intuitive ways of understanding the world. They posited three types of intuitive thinking: cause-effect driven ("zebras developed stripes for protection"), conflating internal properties with external features ("different cells have different DNA"), and imbuing nonhuman species with human characteristics ("plants get food from the soil").

To test their hypothesis, they asked 137 Northeastern undergraduates—69 biology majors with AP biology credit and 68 non-majors with non-science AP credit, to show comparable accomplishment—to indicate their level of agreement with six biological misconceptions, each linked to a type of intuitive thinking. They also asked the students to write down their reasoning.

The results were astonishing. The difference between how frequently both biology and non-biology majors agreed with misconceptions was "surprisingly small," says Coley, with 93 percent of biology majors and 98 percent of non-majors agreeing with at least one misconception. And both groups employed varied types of intuitive thinking. Remarkable—"amazing to me!" exclaims Tanner—was the tight correlation only among the biology majors between the type of reasoning they employed (say, cause-effect driven) and the type of misconception they agreed with ("zebras developed stripes to avoid predators").

The non-biology majors were "kind of promiscuous," notes Tanner, while the biology majors were far more systematic. "That suggests that itself—the way students learn the subject—is reinforcing these intuitive ways of thinking and, potentially, reinforcing the misconceptions as well."

These are not isolated misunderstandings

Next, Coley and Tanner will look at students as they advance through their biological studies and at how biology teachers present information in the classroom. "Our work shows that these are not isolated misunderstandings, which is how they've been viewed," says Coley, "but rather that there are systems of misconceptions—all generated from underlying intuitive ways of thinking."

One way to counteract those systems, says Coley, would be to make students "explicitly aware," in the first week of an introductory class, of basic principles of cognitive science. "Intuitive ways of thinking are deeply embedded in our cognitive systems, and they're useful in everyday contexts," says Coley. "But they are not appropriate for explaining scientific phenomena.

"We need to help think hard about how cognition works, not just in terms of how we memorize material, but in terms of how we organize knowledge in different domains."

So about those zebras

Thinking that zebras got stripes to dodge predators, Coley says, is an example of a misconception arising from a particular type of intuitive thinking: Our minds automatically attribute cause and effect to phenomena or events, even when there might be none.

But evolution doesn't involve "forward thinking," or intention—ancestral zebras didn't sprout stripes to blend in with their surroundings. Rather, given a population of zebra-like animals varying in stripedness, those with abundant verticals had a selective advantage over their plainer relatives: Hence, they were more successful at reproducing, and over time, the stripes prevailed.

Explore further: Biology texts geared toward pre-med students, analysis finds

More information: "Common Origins of Diverse Misconceptions: Cognitive Principles and the Development of Biology Thinking." CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 11, 209–215, Fall 2012. www.lifescied.org/content/11/3/209.full.pdf

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Doug_Huffman
2 / 5 (4) Jul 08, 2015
Beware the narrative fallacy, the witch doctor's tool - and science teachers too! And the student will be failed for doubting the teacher witch doctor.
antialias_physorg
4.5 / 5 (8) Jul 08, 2015
"Intuitive ways of thinking are deeply embedded in our cognitive systems, and they're useful in everyday contexts," says Coley. "But they are not appropriate for explaining scientific phenomena.

Oh boy. That should really hurt the 'intuition crowd' on here.

Learn science, people. Science is not a list of facts. It's a way of structured thinking geared towards removing bias. And intuition is - when you get right down to it - nothing BUT bias.
PeterKinnon
1.7 / 5 (3) Jul 08, 2015
Anthropocentric thinking is rife at all levels and in all disciplines. Not really surprising since it is part of the genetic and cultural legacy with which we are all burdened. It is aided and abetted by the the vagaries of language.

The widespread use of nebulous terms such as "intelligence" in purportedly scientific discussions is an example.

Such issues are frequently dismissed as "merely semantic" but it is semantics which lie at the heart of the issue and therein lies the educational target which needs to be addressed.

To most there is little difference in meaning between "The Zebra developed stripes to provide protection" and "The Zebra has stripes which provide protection"
The problem, at heart, is linguistic, and it is the ability to reason in natural language which needs to be instilled.

Also to learn to step outside our anthropocentric viewpoints. An underlying message of my last book "The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill"
IamVal
4 / 5 (1) Jul 08, 2015
Algorythm for this research paper: in full.

1)troll through old school books from around the time your sample group would have been in those perspective grades for references that are outdated, colloquial, or analogy and form a list.
2) present these things to that group
3) conclude that not everybody thoroughly, regularly, rechecks everything they've ever been told personally
caveats:
-if it 'makes sense'
- doesn't actively harm the persons predictive capability.

Seriously... 99% of people believe at least one thing that doesn't match up with fact. Yeah. duh?.. I really hope there's some metadata here to exploit or this guy was doing this out of personal interest- not being financed.
docile
Jul 08, 2015
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docile
Jul 08, 2015
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docile
Jul 08, 2015
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RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (1) Jul 09, 2015
different cells have different DNA


If this is how the question is presented then many students will assume that it is a poorly framed question and correct in their own minds before answering.

This is extremely common in their normal everyday life as they interact with biologically naive individuals.

For instance: "Do different cells have different DNA?"
"Do you mean 'do different species of cell have different DNA?'. The answer is yes." (correct)
or
"Do you mean 'do various cell types in an organism have different DNA'. The answer is No" (correct).

To prevent this common behaviour the questions need to be more specific, such as asking if the question is literally true. If the students know that the question is asked by a cognitive scientist then they will be far more likely to assume that the question is naive and incorrectly framed, then go ahead and correct in their minds before answering the corrected version.

It was a trap designed to prove a point
JVK
1 / 5 (2) Jul 09, 2015
Is cell type differentiation nutrient-dependent and RNA-mediated via the fixation of amino acid substitutions in the context of the physiology of reproduction in all living genera?

The question incorporates what is currently known to serious scientists about two epigenetic traps.
1) the sun's biological energy is trapped on contract with water, which leads to the de novo creation of amino acids.
2) amino acid substitutions are fixed in the organized genomes via the epigenetic effects of nutrients on the de novo creation of receptors in the cell wall, which enable nutrient uptake.

The two epigenetic traps help to link what students don't know about physics, chemistry, and conserved molecular mechanisms. Many theorists do not want their students to know more than the theorists learned because the theorists accepted what was taught to them by other biologically uninformed theorists.

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