Challenging Pre-Conceptions

Developed by Perry J. Samson
Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of Michigan

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Students carry into class pre-conceptions based on stories they've heard, articles they've read and experiences they've had. One of the best opportunities to teach metacognition is at a 'gotcha' moment when they come to realize their pre-conception is amiss.

Learning Goals

The goal of this activity is to establish early in the semester that the strategies for learning science may be different from those that students have successfully used in other disciplines.

Context for Use

Just as students walk into class with pre-conceived understandings about the content in the class, likewise they enter class with pre-conceived systems for learning. The phrase "science doesn't come easy to me" is a euphemism for "my established study strategies don't work in science." This exercise aims to present potential differences in strategies needed for learning science versus the strategies they may employ successfully in other disciplines.

Description and Teaching Materials

Issues to address with this activity:

  1. Some students have not had to work hard to learn in other disciplines where they have confidence in their learning strategies.
  2. First year students in college were, by definition, high achievers in high school. Now they will need to modify their strategies to learn effectively in a more competitive environment.
  3. Students often believe learning science is an innate, not an acquired skill.
Organize a mini-lecture on strategies for learning science. The discussion should emphasize the added value in science of 'doing' and 'practice.' Moreover, in the geosciences memorizing vocabulary will offer only limited understanding (as many students rely on memorization to prepare for exams). Discuss the value of planning study as an on-going activity rather than something to cram into the week before exams. Show how self-assessment through use of previous exams and textbook questions are more likely to galvenize undedrstanding.

In the field of meteorology one sure-fire misconception is to challenge students to choose which air is heavier:
(a) air at 90 degrees F and muggy
(b) air at 90 degrees F and bone dry.
Wrap that content question with a metacognitive question that asks them to state on what they base their response. Invariably students will pick the muggy air based on their experience of discomfort on a muggy day. Now ask them to justify alone or in groups how they arrived at their answer. In the midst of this debate provide the basic data of the atomic weights of hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen and ask them to use that information in their response.

In time the hope would be that students would look at the different molecular weights of N2 and O2, the dominate ingredients of dry air, versus the molecular weight of water vapor, H2O and come to realize that replacing N2 and O2 with H2O yields a lower net weight. Hence the muggy air is lighter (a fact that plays an important role in formation of "dry lines" that trigger tornadoes). As students realize their preconception was wrong it is valuable to point out that they probably have other pre-conceptions that are wrong and that their are methods for assessing whether a concept is correct. This is an excellent time to discuss how learning is aided through self-regulated assessment and adaptation. How do they know what they know? How can they test whether their 'knowledge' is correct?

Teaching Notes and Tips

This mini-lecture probably isn't going to come easy. You are often teaching concepts that you yourself have never been exposed to in class. Nonetheless it is likely that a poorly led discussion on the topic is still better than ignoring the topic. Students will use their strategies from other courses and experiences. You need to challenge them to reflect on whether those strategies will work in your class.


Assessment of this activity is probably best achieved through surveys later in the semester that ask whether students use the same or different learning stategies in your science course from their other courses. If so, you should also ask what factors affected the change (i.e. the mini-lecture from this activity, the grade they received on exams/papers, discussions with peers, etc.).