Surprise Helps Children Correct Scientific Misconceptions
Misconceptions about scientific concepts often persist among children. For example, many children believe that it depends on the weight of an object how much liquid it displaces when you submerge the object under water. As a study by the DIPF | Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education now shows, the more surprised children are by the results of an experiment, the easier it is for them to correct these deep-seated misconceptions. The study also points to a proven method to elicit this surprise and thus the learning effect: Asking children to make predictions about the outcome of the experiment before showing them the correct solution.
"It is sometimes really difficult to get scientific misconceptions out of children's heads. One example is the idea that the earth is flat. It is often not enough to point out the actual facts to them," explains Dr. Maria Theobald, the lead author of the article now published in the scientific journal "Child Development," in which the new study is presented. The responsible DIPF working group, headed by Prof. Garvin Brod, had already been able to show in previous studies that predictions, such as those made in a quiz, help to better remember the correct results afterwards. The greatest learning effects were seen with predictions that turned out to be incorrect, and this benefit was related to surprise. The current study was based on this finding. It investigated whether the effects of making predictions and being surprised can help not only to better remember rather simple quiz facts, but even to revise the aforementioned persistent misconceptions.
The researchers conducted the study with a total of 94 children between the ages of six and nine. As was determined in a knowledge test beforehand, most of the participating children had the misconception that it depends on the weight of an object how much water it displaces when submerged under water. In fact, this depends solely on its volume. The children then worked on tasks related to this topic on the computer – using two spheres for comparison. The children were divided into two groups: One group guessed in advance what the correct result would be. The other group was first shown the solution and then asked to state what result they had actually expected. In some of the tasks, the children's misconception led to an incorrect solution. This was true for the tasks in which one of the two spheres was heavier but exactly the same size or even smaller than the other sphere.
When the correct results were presented to the children, the scientists recorded the surprise in both groups. To do this, they used a scientifically established indicator: the dilation of the pupils, which can be measured precisely with advanced camera systems. Finally, the children completed two tests: the same knowledge query from the preliminary test and another one that determined the extent to which the children could transfer the knowledge they had learned to related subject areas and thus whether they had also understood the concept on an abstract level.
As expected, the children who had made prior guesses about the outcome showed greater learning effects. They performed better in both the knowledge test and the transfer test. They also showed, in contrast to the other group, a more pronounced pupil dilation as a surprise reaction when they were presented with a solution that did not match their prediction. Due to the study design with several task series and advanced statistical methods, the researchers were able to assign the effects of this surprise relatively precisely to each individual child and its learning development. It turned out that the more the pupils dilated, i.e., the more surprised the children were, the greater learning effects occurred and the more likely the children were to correct their misconceptions. Educational researcher Theobald summarizes: "Incorrect predictions help to trigger surprise, and the degree of surprise is related to how much children correct persistent misconceptions."
The results have relevance for everyday school life, as Dr. Theobald explains: "Teachers can let students make predictions before they reveal the correct solution. If the learners are wrong with their assumption, they are surprised and more emotionally involved. This encourages deeper engagement with the topic." However, some limitations of the study results would have to be considered in future research: For example, it still needs to be tested whether these results hold for more complex concepts than just the relatively simple rule that "volume alone accounts for the displacement of water by submerged objects." It is also not yet possible to say whether children overcome the misconceptions permanently.
The study in detail:
Theobald, M. & Brod, G. (2021). Tackling Scientific Misconceptions: The Element of Surprise. Child Development. Advance Online Publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13582
The research was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The research group at DIPF dealing with these questions is also supported by the Jacobs Foundation.