Busting learning and teaching misconceptions in science and engineering

Busting learning and teaching misconceptions in science and engineering

Students bring a range of misconceptions to our classrooms. Some misconceptions impair how they process what we are teaching.  Others impair how they study and learn on their own.

Robyn Wright Dunbar, Director of CTL and Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford, conducted a roundtable discussion on ‘Busting Student Misconceptions about How they Learn and What they Know’ on Wednesday, October 9.  Eleven Stanford faculty members in science and engineering participated in the intriguing conversation.

Students’ misconceptions about learning

It is common for students to get frustrated with, and at times completely give up on, a class or entire subject because of unrealistic expectations. Many students are under the impression that if they have to work hard at something, they must not be talented in that field, and as a result, they should do something else.

This fixed mindset (Dweck, 2006) tends to be strongest in students with low confidence in their abilities. Test anxiety and stereotype threat exaggerate this fixed mindset and hinder students’ abilities to learn.

Another widespread misconception is students’ belief that teachers have infinite wisdom and cannot err. Aside from the fact that this is not true, this belief actually cripples students’ abilities to develop critical thinking skills. Knowing how and when to ask questions is one of the most important skills for any scientist or engineer.

Students also have plenty of misconceptions about examinations, both preparing for them and taking them. Students commonly prepare for an exam by studying with answer keys, re-reading notes for the first time the night before an exam, and completing one or two example problems on each topic. However, these study techniques do not maximize learning, nor do they maximize test scores. The misconception that a test should be a homework problem with one number changed leads to poor study habits and, as a result, reduces learning.

Busting students’ misconceptions about learning

It is important to emphasize to students that intelligence and skills can be improved with effort and perseverance. This is especially important for women in science and engineering. The stereotype that males are naturally superior to females at math and science can substantially reduce females’ resilience (Walton & Spencer, 2009). Methods for reducing stereotype threat can be found at reducingstereotypethreat.org.

Teachers can reduce test anxiety by acting as coaches, rather than authority figures, to their students during exams. Several faculty members at the roundtable mentioned that they frequently offer words of encouragement and/or conduct short deep breathing exercises with their students prior to handing out an exam. In addition, research shows that writing about test anxiety prior to taking an exam can reduce stress levels considerably (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011; Lang & Lang, 2011).

Teachers might emphasize effective study skills in classes, especially in freshman classes. One faculty member suggested, as a powerful means of communicating what to do, or what not to do, for exam preparation, presenting data that shows how grades correlate to study habits.

More great ideas for busting misconceptions about learning can be found on the Science Education Resource Center (SERC)  website (try typing ‘misconceptions’ in the search bar) and in an article written by Stephan L. Chew, Improving classroom performance by challenging student misconceptions about learning.  Also, check out Diagrams, Images, and Novices. Oh My! for ideas on how to improve figures and plots to make them more comprehensible for novices.

Teachers’ misconceptions about teaching

Many teachers have a habit of introducing new topics to students without any regard for determining what the students already know. However, the reality is most students enter each and every one of their classes with their own ideas and thoughts on the subject matter. The issue is that the students’ ideas often have holes and are based in deep-rooted misconceptions.

Busting teachers’ misconceptions about teaching

It is important for teachers to interact with students while teaching to find out what they already know--or think they know. Misconceptions in science can run deep and be very difficult to overcome, especially if teachers are not aware of what the students are thinking.

Teachers might encourage questions and discussions and incorporate clicker questions, especially in larger classes, to help identify issues they should address to best facilitate learning.

What are your thoughts on misconceptions in science and engineering? Do you have any examples of topics you’ve struggled with learning or teaching? Did you overcome them? If so, how?

Mandy McLean is a graduate student in Environmental Earth System Science.

See Also

Assessing Student Learning: tactics to find out how students are learning

Learning Activities to employ in your course


Dweck, Carol S. 2006. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Lang, Jonas W. B., and Jessica Lang. 2011. “Practical Implications of Test Anxiety Tools.” Science 332: 791–792.

Ramirez, Gerardo, and Sian L Beilock. 2011. “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom.” Science 331 (January 14): 211–213.

Walton, Gregory M, and Steven J Spencer. 2009. “Latent Ability: Grades and Test Scores Systematically Underestimate the Intellectual Ability of Negatively Stereotyped Students.” Psychological Science 20 (9) (September): 1132–9.