Overcoming Misconceptions in Physical Science through Guided Inquiry

Dawn Lee, Lecturer of Physical Science, The College at Brockport

Misconceptions in Physics and Chemistry have long been noted as an issue, even leading to widely shared and standardized “Concept Inventories.” ¬†These are generally designed for majors courses that go way beyond the scope of my course, but provoked some new thinking about my approach to teaching these topics. I had many ideas, but ultimately I decided to use concept inventories to identify students’ prior knowledge, and let them explore their ideas through a guided inquiry process in the laboratory setting. In addition, I added some free web simulation assignments to supplement material that we were unable to attack directly in our labs.

At the beginning of each relevant lab meeting, students took a concept inventory pre-test. They then performed experiments related to the concepts for which there was a large percentage of students having misconceptions, participated in small post-lab discussion groups and then reported their findings both orally and through a post-test of the concept inventory. In addition, I asked some individual concept inventory questions in lecture (as iClicker questions) and had students use online simulations to run through the experimentation process (akin to the lab experience). To test for short-term retention I asked relevant questions on the unit exam, and for long-term retention I gave an unannounced quiz on these topics right before their last unit exam. The students were also polled about their opinions as to the effectiveness of this process on their learning.

The results were somewhat inconclusive, as there were varying results in the immediate effectiveness of the process, as well as with the short and long-term retention. As a whole, there was obvious improvement from the pre-lab to the post-lab knowledge. However, I chose to analyze four specific questions more in depth and found a good deal of variance in the post-lab results, as well as short and long-term retention. Most interesting in this case was with two of the questions where the students were asked to hand in a post-lab concept inventory for grading as a group. The groups tended to be more likely to retain an incorrect response or even change from a correct to an incorrect response, but on the unit exam (after covering the material in lecture), there was significant improvement on these topics, and modest retention on the end of semester quiz.

Some general observations included an improvement as a whole at tying together the concept with the lab observations, and in the discussions and use of terminology in post-lab discussions as well. When polled, students believed that the process was helpful to their learning, despite the negative rap that inquiry based learning usually gets from students. They expressed a similar consensus with using simulations to assist in their learning. Students also provided very positive reviews in both a survey provided through the CCTE program and through my end of year evaluations.

Overall, the process was very enlightening despite some of the inconclusive data. For more on the details and my personal reflections, please see Overcoming Misconceptions in Physical Science through Guided Inquiry.


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