To review two decades of research on refutation text research in science education to determine factors that make them more or less effective.
Refutation texts are a direct-instruction approach to addressing misconceptions. They are popular in science education because, as people interact with the physical world, they develop misconceptions about how it works. When they are faced with facts that contradict this prior knowledge, they can take one of three paths according to Posner et al.’s (1982) model of conceptual change:
- The least useful path: ignore the new information because it doesn’t fit in existing knowledge structures, and thus, doesn’t make sense (this is not an entirely voluntary process)
- The most common path: develop a separate knowledge structure disconnected from the existing knowledge structure for the new information (and perhaps not realize that they are in conflict)
- The most useful but least common path: reorganize existing knowledge structures to incorporate new information (i.e., conceptual change)
Achieving conceptual change is hard work, and that’s why misconceptions are so difficult to remedy. The need to reorganize prior knowledge structures is why direct-instruction approaches, which are inherently not responsive to individual students’ prior knowledge, are often not productive. For an example, see my article summary on erroneous examples. However, refutation texts have consistently been more effective at addressing misconceptions in science education compared to expository texts, which give correct explanations only. This paper discusses how.
According to Tippett (2010), refutation texts must have two components: a commonly held misconception and an explanation of the correct phenomenon. These are typically joined by a third component, called a cue, that indicates the misconception is incorrect. Here is a truncated version of an example that she gives.
- Common Misconception: Many people believe that ostriches bury their head in the sand when faced with danger.
- Cue: If this were true, they wouldn’t be able to breathe.
- Correct Explanation: Ostriches will sometimes listen for sounds with their heads near the ground.
In her review, Tippett found that the benefits of refutation texts for encouraging conceptual change are robust to most differences in learner characteristics and environments, but there were a couple important features to make them successful.
Confronting Incorrect Prior Knowledge
Refutation texts are more effective when students are asked to explain or predict phenomena before reading the text. In the ostrich example above, I should have asked you whether you believe ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they’re in danger before telling you that this is not true. This activates your prior knowledge on the subject and makes you recognize whether it is wrong. Otherwise, it’s easy to say, “Oh, I had heard of that, but I didn’t really believe it.” When you make an explanation or prediction beforehand, you are more likely to engage in conceptual change if needed. If you did not have a misconception and are adding new information to existing knowledge structures, this is called conceptual growth (Posner et al., 1982).
Differences in Student Age
Tippett (2010) found that refutation texts are most effective for students in 3-10th grade (i.e., 8-16 years old). They can be effective for younger or older students, even adult learners, but less reliably so. For the younger students, it is possible that they have not developed misconceptions yet, so refutation texts are equally effective as expository text because no conceptual change is necessary. For the older students, many knowledge structures are more interconnected and crystallized, making them more difficult to change. In this situation, a constructivist approach to conceptual change that more deeply addresses existing knowledge might be more effective than a direct-instruction approach, like refutation texts. Perhaps then, refutation texts are most effective for knowledge structures that include incorrect information but are still new enough to be fluid.
Why this is important
This article reviews an instructional approach that is common in science education, but not widely used outside of it. Misconceptions hinder learning in many fields, though, and direct instruction can be a highly efficient method of correcting them, if it is effective. The evidence-based best practices from this review can guide us to make more effective refutation texts to address misconceptions that hold back students in our own field.
Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66(2), 211-227.
Tippett, C. D. (2010). Refutation text in science education: A review of two decades of research. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 8(6), 951-970.
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