Theories Of Learning And Science Instruction

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Whether one examines results from the recent NAEP, TIMSS, or PISA performance assessments, the conclusion remains the same; our students are not making strides in their acquisition of scientific knowledge. Yet our instructional practices have remained virtually unchanged; the majority of classrooms remain places where knowledge is conferred from teacher and textbook to student. As in the past, traditional methods of science instruction view teachers as transmitters of information, and students as recipients of that information. New knowledge is thought to replace existing ideas. Recent research (Lowery, 1998) into how people learn has provided evidence that this is not the case; new knowledge does not necessarily replace the old. In fact, both may exist alongside each other for some time, competing with each other until one gains a higher priority or status in comparison to the other (Duit & Treagust, 2003). New knowledge becomes assimilated into our existing schema, and learning takes place only when we can fit the new information into our old. This is the constructivist's view of learning, and it can be used to explain how misconceptions can exist in students' minds, and how they certainly can be resistant to change (Lowery. 1998).

Jean Piaget (1969), noted Swiss psychologist, after studying how children learn, concluded that children do not learn as adults; rather, children construct their knowledge from their experiences. Piaget believed that children go through several cognitive stages, each stage allowing them the opportunity to compare new knowledge with existing ideas, assimilating it into their existing schema, and finally accommodating what they know according to what they have constructed. Piaget did not believe that children were empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, but rather open to challenging ideas, and theories about the natural world. Children could be viewed as young scientists, gaining knowledge as they develop and test theories. In fact, Piaget (1969) had this to say about science education:

The form of instruction by lecture and demonstration has often been supplemented by laboratory work by students, but the repetition of past experiments is still a long way from being the best way of exciting the spirit of invention, and even of training students in the necessity for checking or verification, (p. 51)

While Piaget's theory of learning was based solely on individual testing and acquisition of knowledge, more recent types of constructivism have included additional ways in which knowledge is constructed. In social constructivism, which had its beginnings in Russia with Lev Vygotsky and his Social Development Theory (Vygotsky, 1978), and in the United States in the 1960's with the publication of a book by Berger and Luckman (1966), learning is more complex than merely being an individual enterprise (Duit & Treagust, 2003). Like Piaget, who said that cognitive development was strictly individualistic, Vygotsky also believed that children developed cognitively as individuals. He disagreed with Piaget; however, as he believed that this development was secondary only to their social development. A central component to Vygotsky's theory, known as the Zone of Proximal Development, states that what children learn is relative to the people with whom they interact, and that what they can attain with guidance from adults and peers is more than what they could attain alone (Vygotsky, 1978). Social constructivism incorporates social interaction as a way of confirming, refining, or modifying a students' knowledge. This interaction takes the form of discussion, explaining, questioning, and providing evidence to support or refute some belief held by the student. A change in the students' existing schema results not simply from the exchange of one idea for another, but rather as a result of conflict between what was known previously and what appears to be a change from that concept. This conceptual change model, as it is called, explains misconceptions in science, and why they are resistant to change. "The only way to get rid of an old theory is by constructing a new theory that does a better job at explaining the experimental evidence..." (Bodner, 1986, p.876). Duit and Treagust (2003) reported that in their research that "no study which found that a particular student's conception could be completely extinguished and then replaced by the science view ... the old ideas stay alive in particular contexts" (p. 673). A comparison of the constructivist viewpoints of Piaget and Vygotsky can be found in Table 2.

Table 2

Similarities and Differences between Piaget and Vygotsky's Theories of Learning



Cognitive Theorist


Learning develops through individual experience

Learning takes place with input experience from surroundings and others

Learning is an individual enterprise

Learning is a social enterprise (Zone of enterprise Proximal Development)

Cognitive development has 4 distinct stages

Cognitive development has no set stages

Eleanor Duckworth (1964), Professor of Education at Harvard University and former student of Jean Piaget, combines both theories of cognition set forth by Piaget and Vygotsky (Duckworth, 1964). She agrees with Vygotsky, in that she too believes that learning is a social enterprise. Duckworth also applies Piaget's ideas regarding cognitive development to education by explaining that children need an overall understanding of large themes, and that training in one specific task does not lead to overall understanding. In order to learn, children need to do new things, not simply repeat what they learned. Children must experience science by using a hands-on approach, finding the answers to the questions themselves rather than be given them. In addition, it is important for teachers to learn what students know by using discussion and questioning techniques. In this way, teachers can provide opportunities to be creative, thereby fostering intellectual development. Science education allows for the element of surprise. "What distinguishes a good scientist is that he is amazed by things which seem natural to others (Duckworth, 1964, p. 175). Finally, Duckworth had this to say about teaching and learning: "The goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and do not accept everything they are offered" (p. 175). The use of discussion, questioning and requiring evidence to support or refute students' ideas in science should be regular features in our science classrooms.

Social constructivism has tremendous implications for science education. According to Lowery (1980), while Piaget's research regarding cognitive development is significant from a psychological standpoint, it does little to inform us of the nature of how we learn science. Using information obtained from recent brain research, Lawrence Lowery has combined Piaget's ideas of knowledge construction along with the social development of knowledge provided by Vygotsky and Duckworth. Constructing knowledge, says Lowery, involves making connections to past learning (1998). Current brain research tells us that our sensory and motor experiences activate neurons in the brain, and the connections made between our brain cells categorize the information into what we call schema. Parts of the experience are stored in different places in the brain; the sensory, emotional, and language pieces are all stored independently of each other. Nevertheless, when a new situation arises, our brain cells compare it to the existing parts in order to develop meaning. How well we make meaning from a new experience depends on how well the original information is arranged and organized. It is easier to construct meaning when we have previously made multiple connections. In other words, the more ways we experience something, and the more places we store the information, the easier it is to make meaning of a new experience. Learning should include the use of multiple strategies such as interactive lessons, prediction activities, discourse, and the use of analogies (National Research Council, 2000).

There are several instructional strategies that can be used successfully to improve student achievement. Marzano, Gaddy, and Dean (2000) identified nine such strategies, taken from meta-analysis of over 30 years of educational research. Their findings suggest that students who are taught to generate and test hypotheses, and to activate prior knowledge demonstrate an increase in student achievement in all subject areas. They noted that the average effect size of those students who utilized hypothesis testing was .61, while the effect size of those who were instructed to activate prior knowledge was .59. This means that both groups, the one that used hypothesis testing and the one who activated prior knowledge, had markedly increased differences in student achievement from the control group, whose members received neither instruction. Both strategies, they argued, make knowledge more meaningful, and provide opportunities for both teachers and students to monitor progress toward learning goals.

In addition to instructing students on how to generate and test hypotheses, teachers must also recognize that learning requires a two-way flow of information between the student and a source. If the source is a textbook, this could present a difficulty in student learning, as textbooks are vertically sequenced, with introduced concepts building on previous ones. Although the format may appear logical to the publisher, it may not be so logical for the learner (Lowery, 1998). If the source is the teacher themselves, then the teacher should assess the student's prior knowledge in order to assist the student in identifying the misconceptions held. The teacher should present the information as related to previous knowledge, and in multiple ways. This will facilitate the assimilation of the new knowledge into the student's existing schema. The teacher should allow for opportunities for the students to develop reasoning skills, ones that will aid the student in providing evidence to support the new concepts. The teacher should also assist the student in developing individual learning goals, and demonstrate ways to work toward them (Duit & Treagust, 2003). Assessments should be developed to monitor progress toward these goals. Finally, the teacher should modify the existing curriculum to suit the information gained from the above mentioned. According to Duit and Treagust (2003) these guidelines are powerful ways in which to increase our students' scientific literacy.

Hardy, Jonen, Moller, and Stern (2006) conducted a study to determine if a constructivist approach to instruction allowed students to develop an understanding of scientific concepts better than a traditional approach. The study, performed in Germany, included 161 elementary students, who were studying the concept of sinking and floating. They divided the students into two groups, one which was called the low instructional support group (LIS) and the other the high instructional support group (HIS). Both groups were to perform hands-on experiments on the topic of sinking and floating, but the LIS group designed their own experiments, conducted student-run discussion and received little to no support from the teacher. In contrast, the HIS groups were given discrete activities based on a sequence of concepts that began as simple ones, and which became more complex as they went along. Although the group activities also included student-generated discussions, these discussions were supported by the teacher, who continually asked for explanations and clarifications from the group. Use of a pre-test and post-test in the study demonstrated the fact that while both groups had misconceptions regarding sinking and floating prior to instruction, the students in the HIS group gained a more thorough understanding of the concept than did the LIS group, and with the use of a confirmatory test, they demonstrated more retention of the correct understanding. Change in misconceptions, according to the researchers, can only come about within a constructivist learning environment (Hardy, Jonen, Moller, & Stern, 2006).

Constructivists advocate for the use of effective communication in the learning environment. Syh-Jong (2007) attempted to determine whether communication affects student construction of science knowledge. The study was conducted with 19 college students, all of whom were science education majors. Using a single module on physical science, the instructor read basic facts to the entire group, and then divided the larger group into six collaborative ones. Within each group there was a considerable amount of discussion, experimentation, writing, and presentations. Data collected included journals and questionnaires, and interviews were conducted to determine the students' level of understanding. Results from the data showed that the majority of students gained an understanding of the concepts. Sixty-eight percent of them claimed that by communicating with the others in their group they were forced to gather evidence to support their own ideas (or refute others), and that the ideas heard in the exchanges challenged their own ideas, which ultimately gave them a clearer understanding of the physical science concepts.

Misconceptions in Science


Despite our recent understanding of students' cognitive development, failure in identification and correction of erroneous knowledge still exists. In fact, research has demonstrated the vast number of misconceptions in science held by children in all grade levels (Duschl, Shouse, & Schweingruber, 2007). These misconceptions occur in all areas of science, but are more prevalent in the areas of astronomy, energy, forces and motion, and phases of matter (American Institute of Physics, 1998). The prevalence of these misconceptions has an impact on future learning; students cannot construct new knowledge until they recognize the relationship of this new knowledge with existing ideas (Lowery, 1998). However, when student' existing knowledge is incorrect, and then instruction takes place without correcting that knowledge, misconceptions may hinder the students' understanding. Crockett (2004) claimed that "if a student attempts to build more complex knowledge on a weak scaffold of misconceptions, the structure will collapse at some point" (p. 35). His study included 8000 7th and 8th graders, to which he administered a test based on the National Research Council physical science standards. The test, which was in multiple-choice format, included as its distracters common misconceptions held by middle school students. Results from the test showed that a significant number of students chose the misconception as their answer; further studies demonstrated that if the misconceptions were eliminated from the choices, more students chose the correct answer to the questions.

Misconceptions in Life Science

Research in the area of life science reveals that students have difficulty with concepts such as photosynthesis, respiration, genetics, and ecology and the environment. Canal (1999) identified misconceptions present in elementary school students as being primarily associated with their understanding of how plants obtain and use air, nutrients from the soil, and energy from the sun to produce their own food. Students understood plant nutrition as being the process through which plants feed themselves, and that they breathe like animals in order to take in and expel air. Not doing so results in the plant asphyxiating and dying, much like people. In more than just at the elementary level,

however, do these misconceptions exist, and students entering college still maintain the belief that plants breathe the same way humans do during the same time of day, and that for this reason it is necessary to remove plants from the bedroom at night for the fear of the plant using the oxygen that the person requires to breathe.

Amir and Tamir (1990) also investigated students' misconceptions regarding photosynthesis. Their study included 285 1 ll and 12l graders who had recently studied the topic in class. The focus of their study was to determine if they could develop an instrument to use to identify the frequency of the misconception, the nature of the misconception, as well as its source. They used multiple formats, paper/pencil tests as well as interviews, in order to understand whether the students simply recalled the correct information, or if they truly understood the concept. In one example involving the role of light in the process of photosynthesis, 21% of the students chose incorrect answers, with 17% of them choosing the same misconception. However, when they examined the students' rationale for their answers, only 55% of all students, both those choosing the correct and incorrect answers, actually were able to demonstrate their understanding of the concept. Similar results were obtained for other questions. So while the students may be able to identify the correct answer, they still harbor misconceptions which may prove to be a barrier to future understanding regarding the process of photosynthesis (Amir & Tamir, 1990).

Students may also confuse the difference between acquired and inherited characteristics. In a study performed by Clough and Wood-Robinson (1985), students aged 12 to 16 were asked to predict and explain the mechanism by which traits were obtained. The 84 students were divided into three age groups in an attempt by the researchers to see if progress in their understanding was related to their age. The students were interviewed to determine if they understood the concept of inheritance, and they were asked a series of questions regarding task performance related to both inherited and acquired characteristics. In both the 14 and 16 year age groups, there was a decrease in their usage of inheritance as an explanation for an acquired characteristic (as compared to the 12 year old group). However, 40 - 50% of the students in the 14 and 16 year old group still believed that changes in phenotypes (the physical characteristics) of an individual would be inherited. In fact, this figure was consistent across all the age groups. So while the students seem to make progress toward a better understanding of the mechanism of inheritance as they age, much still remains to be corrected in the area of genetics.

Misconceptions in Earth Science A study by Schoon (1989) attempted to uncover misconceptions held by people of many ages in the area of earth science. He developed a survey which consisted of 18 multiple choice questions, containing distracters which were thought to be plausible misconceptions, as well as the correct answer. He administered the survey to students in grades five, eight, and 11, as well as adult learners. Results of the surveys indicated that misconceptions can be thought of as being primary, secondary or functional. Primary misconceptions are those whose answer was chosen more often than the correct one. Some primary misconceptions, he discovered, included the location of the sun at noon,

the phases of the moon, and the location of the earth in relation to the sun. Secondary misconceptions are those whose answers were chosen equally as often as the correct answer. These included misconceptions regarding earthquakes, floods, planets, rock hardness, and the solar system. Functional misconceptions are those that, according to

Schoon, can greatly affect how we function in life. Fortunately, the only functional misconception he encountered was one regarding direction; the question asked for the direction of north. Only 4.7% of those surveyed could actually depict north correctly. From this research, Schoon found that some misconceptions actually increase in age groups. These misconceptions included where the sun is located in relation to the earth, and locations of the moon. In addition, 32.6% of those surveyed believe that dinosaurs existed at the same time as cavemen. Schoon provides rationale for some of these misconceptions; those involving floods, earthquakes, and other natural phenomena may be attributed to where people live, in other words, they may be culturally promoted. Those misconceptions dealing with direction may be culturally-influenced. When people choose the direction for north as being straight up, for example, they may be thinking of phrases we use to support such thinking, such as "up north" and "down south." Finally, some misconceptions can be influenced by the media; in many films cavemen and dinosaurs are depicted as living side-by-side.

Misconceptions regarding natural phenomena have been correlated to geographic location. In 1993 Ross and Shuell conducted research regarding children's beliefs about earthquakes. In three separate studies, they tested elementary students' knowledge of earthquakes using multiple choice pretests and posttests as well as by conducting interviews. The students in each study were in grades kindergarten through six, and lived in different areas of the country. Students in study one lived in New York State. Of these 35 students, two had previously experienced an earthquake, while those students in grades four, five and six had some earlier, limited instruction on earthquakes. Students in study two also lived in New York State, but in a seismic region of the state. Of these 33 students, four had experienced an earthquake, while the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders also had previous instruction in earthquakes. Students in study three lived in a seismic area of Utah. Of these 23 students, nine had experienced an earthquake event. Findings from the three studies showed that students who had experienced an earthquake event in the past had the same misconceptions as those who did not experience one. These misconceptions included causes of earthquakes, and how earthquakes and volcanoes are related. Despite receiving prior instruction on the topic, students in grades four through six had different beliefs about the causes of earthquakes. Most students in study one said that earthquakes occur as a result of movement of the earth and resulting pressure, while students in study two said that earthquakes occur as a result of plates and rocks moving and colliding. Most students in study three, however, just did not know. The researchers concluded that the misconceptions resulted from the students' misunderstanding of terms, which resulted from confusion of everyday terms that may have multiple meanings. In addition, since only the effects of earthquakes can be observed, students have a difficulty understanding the causes.

Terms that have multiple meanings may result in many other misconceptions in addition to those surrounding earthquakes. Spiropolou, Kostopoulos, and Jacovides (1999) conducted a study of over 500 Greek students in which they tested their understanding of weather and climate. They used a survey which consisted of five questions, all related to weather and climate. They administered this survey to 210 students who were 11 and 12 years old. This group had previously received instruction on the topic, and the survey instrument was used as a posttest. The survey was also given as a pretest to 307 students who were 13 and 14 years old. Results from the surveys of both groups showed that for each question, students confused the terms weather and climate. Knowledge was limited to a non-scientific type, and was based only on what their sensory experiences had taught them. Despite the fact that Greece has a national curriculum that has themes such as weather and climate included in each of the first six grades, these students had not mastered the understanding of the concept. Repetitive instruction without the correction of misconceptions does not provide for student comprehension.

Studies have been done to examine whether students' ideas change over time (Havu-Nuutinen, 2007). In a Finnish study, researchers attempted to determine whether the children's ideas changed as they went from pre-school to first grade. Young children were asked to identify pictures of everyday experiences with a corresponding temperature reading. The children were also shown different phases of water and were asked to select the corresponding temperature. In addition, the students were interviewed to check for understanding on the topic. Of the 156 preschoolers surveyed, 18% chose the correct pictures that corresponded with the temperatures, while of the 157 first graders, 46% were able to do so. The researchers also examined the views of second and third graders on states of matter. Using equal numbers of students in each grade (N=371), they tested their knowledge on the relationship between temperature and phases of water. Results from both testing and interviews demonstrated that third graders had a better understanding of the phases of water, but that only approximately 2% of the third graders were able to correlate all of the pictures and temperatures correctly. Based upon these results, the researchers concluded that while conceptual change does indeed occur, specifically in the area of science relating to temperature and phases of matter, misconceptions still persist (Havu-Nuutinen, 2007).

Students also have misconceptions regarding light energy and the earth in space. Thurston, Grant, & Topping (2006) explored students' understanding in these areas, as well as whether using a constructivist approach to instruction can have a significant impact on students' learning. They selected 41 nine year olds who attended two different primary schools in Scotland. The researchers administered a pretest, in which they asked students questions regarding light energy and sources, phases of the moon, and rotation of the earth. Over the next four weeks, students were provided with opportunities for discussion and interactive investigations, and were then post tested, using the same instrument as in the pretest. The results from the study were based not only on the scores of the pre-and posttest, but also on researcher observations, discussions, and student writing samples. The researchers evaluated the results based on 11 outcomes that they identified as being pertinent to the topics. In every case, the students demonstrated a large gain in their knowledge. This large gain was also evenly distributed across the participants of the study. The researchers concluded that, while the students may hold misconceptions about light energy and earth and space science, these misconceptions could be corrected with activities designed to construct the necessary scaffolding on which subsequent concepts can be built (Thurston, Grant, and Topping, 2006).

Misconceptions As They Relate to Age

In an attempt to determine if students' conceptions vary with age, Brosnan and Reynolds (2001) examined students' understanding of atoms, molecules, and substances. The researchers used a computer to flash up sentences that were composed of a mixture of true scientific principles and misconceptions. They categorized the students' answers according to their level of understanding: macro referring to an understanding that ranged from non-existing to basic; micro which meant that there was evidence of some understanding; within micro, indicating a high level of understanding. The results of the computer assessment indicated that the 11 and 12 year-olds demonstrated learning that was only in the macro level, while the 17 year-olds were mainly in the within micro level. What was revealing were the results of those students in the 13 to 15 year-old range. Results from students in this group did not fit into any category; while some were in the beginning of the micro level, most were still at the macro level. In other words, most of these students only had a partial, if any, level of understanding of atoms, molecules and substances. Science misconceptions seem to appear in the same age groups of students across the continents. Adeniyi (1985) studied the misconceptions surrounding ecological concepts present in Nigerian students. He selected 232 13 and 15 year olds. He administered an essay test to all students as well as interviewing 26 of them to determine if they had misconceptions regarding basic ecological principles, such as food chains, carbon cycle, and energy flow. After it was determined that these misconceptions did, indeed exist prior to instruction, the teacher taught the unit, attempting to correct their misconceptions by using an authoritarian approach. When the researcher administered the assessment and conducted the interviews after the instruction was completed, he found that while some of the misconceptions were corrected during instruction, some persisted, and some arose with students who had the correct understanding prior to the instructional unit. This last set of misconceptions were formed during instruction, and the researcher identified errors in understanding that the teacher herself had, and likewise passed them on to the students during instruction.

In Botswana, an African country influenced by climate, particularly drought, students are taught early on that they should understand the water cycle in order to be an informed citizen. Here, the national curriculum is structured so that every grade level includes some form of instruction regarding climate and its impact on life in the region. Taiwo, Ray, Botswiri, and Masene (1999) studied the perceptions of students in the elementary grades in regards to the water cycle. Their study included 888 children who lived in various regions of the country - rural, urban and peri-urban (areas surrounding the cities). The researchers administered a ten item test which consisted of scenarios and science concept questions. In addition, they interviewed a number of them to determine the rationale for their answers. Overall, the results of the test suggested that only 53% of the students actually understood the water cycle, and that the more correct answers were obtained from those students in the higher grade levels. The researchers also examined the details of the results, in terms of where the students lived. Students who resided in urban areas had a higher level of understanding (correct answers M = 5.54) than the rural and peri-urban groups (rural correct answers M= 5.29 and peri-urban group M =5.29). However, results of the interviews revealed that the correctness of the urban students was as a result of scientific knowledge in 55% of the cases, the correctness of the peri-urban students was as a result of scientific knowledge in 53% of the cases, and the correctness of the rural students was as a result of scientific knowledge in only 49% of the cases. In other words, because students in the urban areas had more opportunities for schooling, while those in the remote areas had less, the students' knowledge was positively influenced by schooling, and was negatively impacted by their ideas formulated as a result of their cultural experiences. Perceptions, the researchers claim, are influenced not only by school and the curriculum that is taught, but also by the cultural ideas to which students are exposed.