The Effect of Perspective on Misconceptions in Psychology: A Test of Conceptual Change Theory

By Amsel, Eric; Johnston, Adam et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Effect of Perspective on Misconceptions in Psychology: A Test of Conceptual Change Theory


Amsel, Eric, Johnston, Adam, Alvarado, Elly, Kettering, Jack, Rankin, Lauren, Ward, Melissa, Journal of Instructional Psychology


To test whether students' knowledge about psychology undergoes a conceptual change when learning about the discipline, 227 Introductory Psychology students from six different classes were given the Psychology as a Science (PAS) Scale in one of two conditions. Students were randomly assigned to complete the questionnaire from their own (Self Condition) or their psychology professor's (Professor Condition) perspective. As predicted, results show scores on the PAS Scale were higher, reflecting greater appreciation for psychology as a science, in the Psychology Professor than the Self condition. These results suggest that learning psychology may be less about "reflecting on and revising" misconceptions and more about "sorting out" which beliefs are associated with scientific psychology and which with students' own intuitive understanding of the discipline.

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To account for how students learn science disciplines, Posner, Strike, Hewson, and Gertzog (1982) proposed Conceptual Change theory, based on the idea that science learning is a rational and intelligible process (also see Carey, 2000; Duit, 2003; Nesessian, 1989; Strike & Posner, 1992). The theory states that students' ability to learn a scientific discipline will be limited by their holding disciplinary misconceptions, that is, beliefs that are incompatible with the core concepts of the discipline. It is proposed that in order for learning to occur, students must first critically evaluate misconceptions and revise them to be compatible with the discipline.

This account has been applied to students learning many scientific disciplines (Duit, 2003; Carey, 2000). One purpose of the present study is to apply this account to students learning psychology, who often misclassify the discipline as less scientific than physics or astronomy. According to Stanovich (2007), students enter an Introductory Psychology class thinking that Freudian theory is largely what psychology is all about or that pop culture psychologists represent all psychologists in general. Previous research has identified a range of psychological claims which students believe about the discipline despite having been proven false by psychological research (Gardner & Dalsing, 1986; Kowalski & Taylor, 2006; McCutcheon, 1991; McCutcheon, Hanson, Apperson, & Wynn, 1992; Thompson & Zamboanga, 2004). For example, students readily believe that Good hypnotists can force you to do anything they want you to do, and that genius is akin to insanity despite evidence disconfirming such claims (c.f., Gardner & Dalsing, 1986). Furthermore, research suggests that students decrease in their misconceptions as they take more psychology courses (Gardner & Dalsing, 1986; Kowalski & Taylor, 2006; McCutcheon et al., 1992).

These studies provide weak evidence for conceptual change as the process by which students learn psychology. The questionnaires used to assess psychology students' misconceptions may have reliability and validity problems. In the studies, some researchers (e.g., Garner & Dalsing, 1986), find higher misconception rates than others (McCutcheon, et al., 1992), suggesting alack of measurement reliability in the misconceptions assessments. Moreover, a number of studies report no relation between students' misconceptions performance and their grade in their psychology classes (McCutcheon, et al., 1992; Thompson & Zamboanga, 2004), which would seem to be a violation of measurement validity if misconceptions are supposed to index a constraint on learning, as theoretically proposed (Posner et al, 1982). Finally, the finding of a decrease in misconceptions rate among students taking a psychology class may be due to instructors specifically addressing and clarifying the misconceptions students held (Kowalski & Taylor 2006). It could be argued that the assessment did not measure how well students are able to critically reflect on and revise misconceptions, as theoretically proposed, but how well they were able to provide the "correct" answer that was given to them by their instructor. …

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