It is commonly said that perception is everything. Political candidates are judged by how the public understands their platforms; consumers make purchases based on how they view the products; and business executives make corporate decisions based on potential outcomes of business deals. Likewise, a person's preconception of a topic can change how they learn about and associate that knowledge. Topics with a shared vocabulary between science and common language, such as the terms used when teaching evolution and phylogenetic trees, are especially subject to misconceptions stemming from a lack of understanding how the terminology is used in science. One way to assess the preconceptions students have about specific topics is through using free association techniques. Free association word recall (word association) activities ask students to recall words and phrases associated with stimulus term. Educators can use student responses to learn how students understand and organize prior knowledge, and thus structure subsequent instruction activities to target the revealed preconceptions of the topic.

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