Students often bring to biology classrooms ideas that are not in line with scientific thought. Simply telling students that their ideas are wrong does not always help advance their scientific thinking. This article describes a teaching and learning activity that allows secondary biology teachers to elicit, interpret, and address students' misconceptions in a meaningful way. The activity provides a chance for students to discuss their nascent ideas about biology with their peers in a safe and nonthreatening environment. More importantly, the activity engages students in a process of reconsidering their initial ideas through reasoning about why certain ideas are scientifically correct.

Introduction

Research has illustrated that learning biology is not an easy task, as students often bring to classrooms many ideas developed from both their formal education and informal experience. Some of these pre-instructional ideas may not be in line with scientific ideas. These erroneous ideas have been labeled with terms such as “naive theories,” “preconceptions,” and “misconceptions” (Fisher & Moody, 2002). In this context, misconceptions, broadly defined, are any ideas held by students that are inconsistent or in conflict with those generally accepted by scientists (Fisher & Moody, 2002). These ideas often, but not always, impede deep understanding of scientific knowledge. Prior research has shown that teachers often agree that it is important to diagnose student misconceptions, but they may lack strategies to do so (Morrison & Lederman, 2003). Even if teachers intentionally plan to address student misconceptions, they often find it challenging to deal with them (Gottheiner & Siegel, 2012). Approaches such as simply telling students clearly and repeatedly why they are wrong and that they need to think differently do not often work. Students may discredit the source, bolster their original ways of thinking, make an exception, or invent a new way to explain the phenomenon without the core ideas (Ohlsson, 2011). More problematically, students may just memorize the “right” ideas by rote and revert back to their original erroneous ideas in other contexts if their initial ideas are not engaged (Bransford et al., 2000). Excessive memorization may move students away from engaging in reasoning about their ideas and result in them developing “right-answer syndrome.” It is alarming that studies show that many students leave school with wrong ideas and serious misconceptions of biological phenomena (e.g., Coley & Tanner, 2015). It is therefore important for biology teachers to make use of productive ways to elicit and address student misconceptions. Campbell et al. (2016) remind us that it is

helpful for us as teachers to think less about correcting misconceptions and more about helping students engage in science reasoning to try out, evaluate, and refine their resources (ideas, ways of thinking about the world) to explain real-world phenomena or solve problems. (p. 71)

Such a resource perspective on misconceptions foregrounds engaging students in reasoning processes that activate students' initial ideas to solve problems. Here, I introduce a classroom activity that aims to engage students in reasoning about their ideas in relation to common misconceptions. The activity can also potentially make students more aware of their approaches to learning (i.e., their predisposition to memorize facts but not to engage the reasoning behind certain biological phenomena). The activity can be conducted at the end of a unit or term to inform adjustments in teaching.

The Post-Box Activity

This activity makes use of the “post-box strategy” (Chin, 2001; Kruse, 2009). A formative assessment strategy for collecting existing views on concepts or issues, the post-box strategy provides an opportunity to explore the range of existing understandings among a group of students. In this activity, students work in pairs to judge the validity of statements (Table 1) related to some common biology misconceptions revealed by the examination reports of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education public examination (for 12th-grade students; e.g., Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, 2018). Some of the items are controversial, as the statements can be correct or incorrect depending on the reasons that are given to justify them. The statements provided here are illustrative examples and can be replaced with other statements. Readers can consult the resources suggested (see Table 2) when writing the statements. The following materials are required for the activity:

  • Empty boxes (e.g., shoeboxes) (×8)

  • Misconception items printed on paper (×8) (see Figure 1 for an example)

  • Post-box ticket (×8) for each group ( Appendix 1)

  • Group task sheet (×1) for each group ( Appendix 2)

  • Scaffolds that stimulate student thinking about the related concepts (see Figure 1 for an example)

Table 1.
Sample statements for post-box activity.
StatementMaterials in the Black Box
1. The mass of a tree comes from soil. Piece of wood; piece of dry ice 
2. Transpiration can take place in a plant without a healthy root system. Cut stem of a white carnation in a dye solution 
3. Under bright light conditions, plant roots release oxygen. Plants with roots 
4. Contraction of the muscles of the aorta propels blood forward along the aorta. Aorta arch; weights 
5. A glowing splint can be used to compare the oxygen content of inhaled air and exhaled air. Gas jar; wooden splints; match 
6. Reabsorption of water occurs mainly in the colon of the alimentary canal. Model of human torso; model of small intestine 
7. When DNA replicates, hydrogen bonds between the nucleotides break. DNA model 
8. The pupil is the effector of the pupil reflex. Eye model 
StatementMaterials in the Black Box
1. The mass of a tree comes from soil. Piece of wood; piece of dry ice 
2. Transpiration can take place in a plant without a healthy root system. Cut stem of a white carnation in a dye solution 
3. Under bright light conditions, plant roots release oxygen. Plants with roots 
4. Contraction of the muscles of the aorta propels blood forward along the aorta. Aorta arch; weights 
5. A glowing splint can be used to compare the oxygen content of inhaled air and exhaled air. Gas jar; wooden splints; match 
6. Reabsorption of water occurs mainly in the colon of the alimentary canal. Model of human torso; model of small intestine 
7. When DNA replicates, hydrogen bonds between the nucleotides break. DNA model 
8. The pupil is the effector of the pupil reflex. Eye model 
Table 2.
A list of resources of students' common misconceptions.
Books that document student misconceptions in a number of topics: 
Driver et al. (2014), Kampourakis & Reiss (2018), Yip (2008)  
Examples of articles that contain a catalogue of student misconceptions: 
Topics Authors 
Cell and cell processes Dikmenli (2010), Fisher et al. (2011)  
Plant physiology Haslam & Treagust (1987), Wynn et al. (2017)  
Human physiology Alkhawaldeh (2007), Treagust & Mann (1998)  
Molecular biology and evolution Ben-Nun & Yarden (2009), Gregory (2009)  
Ecology Munson (1994)  
Books that document student misconceptions in a number of topics: 
Driver et al. (2014), Kampourakis & Reiss (2018), Yip (2008)  
Examples of articles that contain a catalogue of student misconceptions: 
Topics Authors 
Cell and cell processes Dikmenli (2010), Fisher et al. (2011)  
Plant physiology Haslam & Treagust (1987), Wynn et al. (2017)  
Human physiology Alkhawaldeh (2007), Treagust & Mann (1998)  
Molecular biology and evolution Ben-Nun & Yarden (2009), Gregory (2009)  
Ecology Munson (1994)  
Figure 1.

Post-box station with scaffolds.

Figure 1.

Post-box station with scaffolds.

The activity comprises the three successive stages detailed below.

Stage 1: Exploring students' views about the misconception statements (2–3 minutes each depending on the ability of the students; total 20 minutes)

  • Students individually determine the validity of the misconception statements.

  • Students work in pairs to visit each of the eight post-box stations (Figure 1).

  • At each post-box station, students discuss and come to an agreement on the validity of the statement.

  • Students write down their reasoning on the supplied post-box ticket.

  • Students may open a “black box,” which provides some hints for them.

  • Students put their post-box ticket into the post-box.

  • Students are also asked to nominate the “most difficult” statement for further discussion.

Stage 2: Summarizing collective views on the misconception items (10 minutes)

  • Students work in groups of four to summarize the views expressed on each statement.

  • Students are asked to analyze the differences between the viewpoints.

Stage 3: Reaching consensus on the validity of the statements (20 minutes)

  • Students present the views and the teacher guides the group to reach a collective consensus through an interactive discussion. The focus is on reasoning and the relevant concepts.

It is worth noting some pedagogical aspects of the different stages. In Stage 1, scaffolds in the form of concrete objects are provided at each post-box station. The materials stimulate students to think about concepts related to the statement. Students may open the black box if they feel hints are needed. Students are required to determine the validity of the statements individually first. This elicits the initial thoughts of all students in class. As students work in pairs, they have a chance to talk about their views in order to reach a consensus in a safe and nonthreatening manner. Anonymity on the post-box ticket promotes exposure of students' ideas.

In Stage 2, students are exposed to the views of the group and, more importantly, to the reasons why views differ among different groups. In other words, they are analyzing the differences in reasoning about why the statement is correct or not.

In Stage 3, the teacher provides guidance for more difficult items, which encourages debate and argumentation among students with differing views. The teacher is encouraged to preplan instructional materials/scenarios that help refute student misconceptions or prove the validity of the scientific ideas. For example, for statement 6, teachers may present actual data on the volume of water absorbed in each region of the human alimentary canal and guide students to provide an explanation related to the data.

Summary

The post-box activity provides an interactive activity in which students have a chance to

  • reflect on their current thinking about the biological concepts related to the misconception statements,

  • talk about their ideas and justify their views with their peers in pairs in a safe and nonthreatening way,

  • listen to others' ideas,

  • summarize and synthesize the views of their peers, and

  • become aware of their own learning habits.

The activity also allows the teacher to elicit, interpret, and address student misconceptions and make the classroom more responsive to students' thinking.

References

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Post-box ticket

Statement No: _____ 
We think that the statement is True / False / Partiallly true 
The reasons are as follows: 
  
  
Statement No: _____ 
We think that the statement is True / False / Partiallly true 
The reasons are as follows: 
  
  

Group task sheet

BBED3372 Teaching and Learning of Science II - Biology
Group Task Sheet 
BBED3372 Teaching and Learning of Science II - Biology
Group Task Sheet 

Group members:

1. Summarize the views of your classmates:

Misconception Statement No: ____________________________ 
Misconception Statement No: ____________________________ 

2. Are there any differences among your peers' views? Analyze the critical differences in viewpoints.