Ability and Critical Thinking as Predictors of Change in Students' Psychological Misconceptions

Article excerpt

Based on the conceptual change literature, this study assessed factors influencing change in students' misconceptions about psychology. We expected students' ability and their critical thinking to predict whether they would change their misconceptions following completion of an introductory psychology course. GPA, scores on a test of critical thinking, and scores on a misconceptions test given at the beginning and end of the course were obtained from 74 introductory psychology students. Analyses indicated that critical thinking made a unique contribution to the prediction of change in student misconceptions but that the effect of GPA was accounted for by its relation with critical thinking. The study suggests that misconceptions can change for students at any level of ability and are particularly likely to change for students who think critically.


A variety of studies indicate both the prevalence of student misconceptions about psychology and the limited effect the introductory psychology course has in correcting these misconceptions (e.g.; Gardner & Dalsing, 1986; McKeachie, 1960; Vaughan, 1977). Although instructors are often surprised at the limited impact of their courses on students' beliefs, the finding is exactly what the conceptual change literature would predict.

Cognitive psychology suggests that learning involves the interpretation of new information based on existing knowledge or schemata. Prior knowledge that is congruent with new information can aid learning. Prior knowledge that is inconsistent with new information, however, can hamper learning (Guzzetti, 2000; Lipson, 1982). Conceptual change learning refers to the kind of learning that occurs when newly presented information is inconsistent with prior knowledge and the learner must reorganize existing schemata and change previously held ideas. This kind of knowledge reorganization is most likely when students are able to engage in effortful processing, evaluating old beliefs and comparing them with new intelligible, plausible, and more useful concepts (Dole & Sinatra, 1998: Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982). Because such evaluation involves effort, it is easier and often more likely for people to ignore, reinterpret, or reject competing beliefs rather than to reorganize their belief systems (Chinn & Brewer, 1993). As a result, changing misconceptions is difficult, and students often leave a class believing what they did when they entered. This resistance to change can be particularly prevalent among students with below average ability, who may be less able to comprehend the new information (Guzzetti, 2000), and students with poor metacognitive skills who may be less able to detect inconsistencies between the old and the new information (Dole & Sinatra, 1998: Maki, 1998; Otero, 1998).

Despite several similarities between this conceptual change literature and the studies conducted to date on psychological misconceptions, the link between the two lines of research has never been made. As noted previously, students come into the introductory course with many misconceptions about psychology. Across a variety of studies, scores on tests of misconceptions given at the beginning of a course range from 28% correct (McCutcheon, 1991) to 62% correct (Gardner & Dalsing, 1986). Psychology students also leave their courses having changed few of their original misconceptions. Some researchers report as little as 5.5% improvement in students' scores (Gardner & Dalsing, 1986; McKeachie, 1960: Vaughan, 1977), although an improvement of 25% to 50% is reported when items are explicitly discussed in class (Taylor & Kowalski, 2004; Vaughan, 1977). Even after several psychology courses, 30% of the students still believe someone experiencing schizophrenia demonstrates a "split personality" (Gardner & Dalsing, 1986) and that "most people use only about 10% of their potential brain power" (Higbee & Clay, 1998). …


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