On Misconceptions about Behavior Analysis among University Students and Teachers

Article excerpt

Students frequently show misconceptions regarding scientific psychology in general and basic concepts in behavior analysis in particular. We wanted to replicate, the study by Lamal (1995) and to expand the study by including some additional statements. In the current study, the focus was on misconceptions about behavior analysis held by undergraduates, by students in a master program in behavior analysis, by teachers in university colleges, and by a group of students without any formal training in psychology. The results showed that participants in all groups showed misconceptions. Students in the master program held the fewest misconceptions, while traditional psychology students showed most misconceptions about behavior analysis. Factors that might influence number and resistance of misconceptions are discussed.

Key words: misconceptions, behavior analysis, students, teaching strategies


Misconceptions can be regarded as "beliefs that are held contrary to known evidence" (Taylor & Kowalski, 2004, p. 15). Misconceptions in science-related education seem to be present in all sciences, including natural sciences (Fletcher & Francis, 2004). Comins (2001), for example, listed more than 1,700 misconceptions regarding astronomy. However, not all incorrect beliefs are misconceptions. Thus, it is important to distinguish misconceptions from incorrect remembering, as for example in remembering the order of the planets from the sun. Hardy, Jonen, Moller, and Stern (2006) studied misconceptions related to the concepts of density and buoyancy force in 161 third-grade students and found that the number of misconceptions was reduced as a function of instructional support. Two other examples are misconceptions in the comprehension of hierarchical graphs (Korner, 2005) and in the areas of politics and law (Janicki, 2006).

In the general field of psychology (Stanovich, 2007), as well as in the field of behavioral analysis, misconceptions have been widespread in both students and scholars (Gardner & Hund, 1983). Tests for misconceptions among students are found in the early psychological literature (e.g., Holley & Buxton, 1950), and misconceptions have been found not only among students but also among writers of textbooks in English (Morris, 1985; Todd & Morris, 1983) and Norwegian (Reichelt & Skjerve, 1983). It is important to unveil students' misconceptions as soon as possible, and several researchers have argued that one important task of psychology teachers is to change students' opinions/knowledge about basic terms in psychology (Lamal, 1995; McKeachie, 1960; Shields & Gredler, 2003). However, misconceptions among students seem to be persistent regardless of the subject matter of psychology courses. Vaughan (1977) claimed that an introductory course in psychology "has little influence on their erroneous beliefs" (p. 140).

Comins (2001) outlined a strategy to identify the origins of misconceptions. An analysis of those origins might be helpful in understanding the functions of misconceptions, and in the development of techniques to prevent misconceptions in the future. The sources of misconceptions are diverse (Stanovich, 2007). Inaccurate information in textbooks and lectures, biased information due to conflicts of interest in academia, and the assumption that enough exemplars and facts will induce fewer errors are important sources. Furthermore, too little focus has been on critical thinking skills (Benassi & Goldstein, 2006), and lecturers have seldom addressed misconceptions directly. This might enhance beliefs contradicted by evidence. Taylor and Kowalski (2004) reported that participants in their study attributed 30% of their misconceptions to ignorance about the source, 20% to the media, 19% to personal experience, 16% to reading, and 15% to classroom learning.

Logically, one would assume that there is a correlation between grades and number of misconceptions. …