5R Adult Learning Assignment 2: Prior Knowledge and Misconceptions

This is a blog series detailing my seven 5R assignments for Adult Learning, an 8-week course I’m taking at UNM with Gary Smith. The name 5R comes from the requirements for each assignment: Read, Reflect, Research, Relate, Resources. Read reflects checking off a box – reading the assignment and working through the learning module components, which may include an assigned video. Reflect details tying the reading to the learning objectives for the module, although I hope that this part can situate our learning into the frameworks we’ve previously built. Research then describes using scholarly resources (minimum 2) to further build on our reading and to question the inherent assumptions within the assignment. Relate provides us the opportunity to embed our learning within our experience. Resources means listing at least two other resources that might be of interest to classmates and that relate to the learning material. The rubric for the assignments is available upon request.

Synopsis/Reflection – What kinds of prior knowledge exist?

Prior knowledge affects both the foundation of learning and its outcomes. Testing a student’s prior knowledge can reveal gaps, insufficiencies, and misconceptions that undermine any learning that may occur thereafter. Misconceptions are, by far, the hardest kinds of prior knowledge to replace or reprogram as misconceptions are deeply rooted and have worked in many different contexts over a long period of time.

This chapter did not add any new knowledge to my existing knowledge, mostly thanks to the professional development, including Gary’s workshops, I’ve taken over the many years I’ve worked at CNM and UNM. I have long known about the surprising problems with students’ prior knowledge, particularly with misconceptions, and how that prior knowledge can linger and significantly undermine any accumulation of new knowledge that may happen in the classroom. I have worked within my own pedagogy to try to evaluate student’s prior knowledge, fill in the gaps, bolster insufficiencies, and begin to work on at least rattling student misconceptions. But misconceptions are the worst of all of the prior knowledge backgrounds since, as we saw in the learning module video “A Private Universe”, they really don’t become dislodged after an entire degree or lifetime, let alone a semester. Trying to dislodge a student’s misconception sometimes feels like throwing one’s self repeatedly against a wall. The pedagogical mantra that I must keep playing in my mind, however, must be that progress can (and must) be made on misconceptions in the minds of my students; otherwise, why teach at all? Therefore, I continue to work to reframe misconceptions for my students.

My go-to research questions upon reading this kind of material are regularly updated, but basically remain the same:

  1. What progress has been made in teaching students how to dislodge their own misconceptions, specifically in chemistry?
  2. Are there any new chemistry misconceptions I haven’t previously explored that I need to know about and work on with my students?


Research – How do we, as instructors, dislodge student misconceptions?

To answer these questions, I tend to look first to Vicente Talanquer’s extensive work in dislodging student misconceptions. While much of the work in chemical education research has focused on listing student misconceptions (i.e. question 2), I found more recent articles that critique the categorizing approach to misconception research:

“Such an inventory or catalogue approach was criticized by many chemistry educators who strongly emphasized that developing effective instructional approaches to overcome misconceptions requires identifying and taking into account the underlying sources of these misconceptions, rather than merely listing them.” (Tümay, 2016, pp. 230)

It’s clear that my second question shouldn’t be “what” but “how”. How do we focus on underlying themes to counter student misconception formation? What techniques can we employ to dislodge these misconceptions (a reiteration of question 1)?

Using emergence as a perspective to frame students’ meta-level understanding of the epistemology and ontology of chemistry, which allows for more authentic understanding of chemistry (Tümay, 2016), and learning progressions, which continually build more successively sophisticated ways of thinking about chemical thinking (Sevian & Talanquer, 2014) can significantly disrupt and alter students’ misconception building process. I appreciate Sevian & Talanquer’s perspective that:

“Some of these efforts [educational reforms that try to engage students in authentic investigations] tend to overemphasize the investigative and explanatory aspects of chemistry at the expense of other core practices (Talanquer, 2013a). A more authentic balance needs to be achieved by also opening spaces for students to engage in the design of materials or processes, and in the evaluation of the benefits, costs and risks associated with the use and transformation of chemical entities.” (Sevian & Talanquer, 2014, pp. 11, clarification in brackets mine)

Pedagogical techniques that focus on investigation, design, and evaluation (not just investigation) and use both open-ended and argumentation-based assessment can radically reduce the scope and persistence of chemical misconceptions within students. Working towards a conceptual profile to evaluate students’ argumentation practices, in particular, can enrich teaching and research methods such that misconceptions and unhelpful prior knowledge are minimized (Freire, Talanquer, & Amaral, 2019). The conceptual profile described in Freire, Talanquer, & Amaral goes deeper than the pedagogical methods argued by Ambrose et. al (2010) to dislodge student misconceptions and minimize unhelpful prior knowledge – making and testing predictions, justifying student reasoning, providing multiple opportunities to use accurate knowledge, and allowing sufficient time – but the conceptual profile parallels these methods in many ways as well. Figure 1 from the Freire, Talanquer, & Amaral (2019, pp. 680) shows how different facets of chemistry knowledge and practice overlap the conceptual profile zones.

Screen Shot 2019-03-29 at 5.00.25 PM

This overlap reflects how experts organize chemical thinking such that novices can learn this organization as well. Using this overlap as a basis for analysis and formation of instructional materials can help prior knowledge become a building block for further knowledge, not a detriment.


Relate – Where have misconceptions undermined my own learning process?

My own experience with misconceptions and unhelpful prior knowledge has ranged far and wide throughout my time as a student. An example has occurred during my time as a statistics student. Before I entered into the statistics program, I thought statistics was basically magic – one could fully describe any population objectively using the correct statistics. One just needed to know the correct statistics (which I was fully ready to learn). I have since learned that the ways in which statistics work are muddy at best, subject to context and interpretation, and that the real power in statistics is in the complete and transparent description of the data and how you analyzed it. I had to realize that objectivity in statistics is a bias – statistics are open to interpretation in several different ways, especially when it comes to human populations. I will try to collect, organize, analyze, and interpret data with as little bias as I can, but the truth is that I need to embrace transparency in my statistical methods so that others can help me see if bias has seeped into the data somehow.

My knowledge frameworks for statistics have grown exponentially over the past few years such that I feel like I organize data and analysis more like my professors do than I did in the beginning. I wouldn’t call myself an expert (perhaps an emerging expert is a better fit?), but I would definitely no longer call myself a novice.



Freire, M., Talanquer, V., & Amaral, E. (2019). Conceptual profile of chemistry: a framework for enriching thinking and action in chemistry education. International Journal of Science Education, 41(5), 674–692. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2019.1578001

Sevian, H., & Talanquer, V. (2014). Rethinking chemistry: a learning progression on chemical thinking. Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 15(1), 10–23. https://doi.org/10.1039/C3RP00111C

Tümay, H. (2016). Reconsidering learning difficulties and misconceptions in chemistry: emergence in chemistry and its implications for chemical education. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 17(2), 229–245. https://doi.org/10.1039/C6RP00008H

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