A Failure to Forget

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Science  13 Jul 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6091, pp. 134-135
DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6091.134-c

Students with science misconceptions often have a hard time giving them up, especially if they have held them for a long time. When students are exposed to scientific evidence that conflicts with their earlier theories, what happens? Are the previous misconceptions overwritten or merely suppressed? Shtulman and Valcarcel devised and implemented a novel speed-reasoning task to investigate this question. Using software designed to record the speed and accuracy of answers, 150 college undergraduates, who had completed an average of 3.1 college-level math and science courses, verified 200 statements about natural phenomena (20 statements in 10 areas of science such as evolution, mathematics, etc.). Participants were slower at verifying inconsistent statements than consistent ones, verified true statements faster than false statements, and were more accurate in domains where conceptual change occurs early in life, such as fractions, than they were for domains such as evolution, where conceptual change occurs later. These findings imply that although early, incorrect theories are suppressed by scientific theories, they are not truly replaced by them. This suggests that science instruction may benefit from helping students reanalyze their misconceptions rather than expecting students to simply forget them.

Cognition 124, 209 (2012).

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