Predicting Students' Performance in Introductory Psychology from Their Psychology Misconceptions

Article excerpt

Students bring many misconceptions about psychology to the introductory psychology course. We investigated whether scores on a 10-item Knowledge of Psychology Test (adapted from Vaughan, 1977) taken on the first class day were related to final class grades in 11 introductory psychology classes taught by the same instructor at three colleges. A total of 178 undergraduate students decided whether each of 10 statements referring to common psychology misconceptions was true or false. Overall, 83% of students held 5 or more misconceptions out of 10. We found a significant negative correlation between the number of misconceptions held and class grade. Misconceptions remain prevalent among undergraduates and continue to be predictive of student performance. Learning about the content, causes, and consequences of holding psychology misconceptions may be helpful to students and educators as they embark on an introductory psychology course.


Variation in prior knowledge is one factor that influences students' performance in college courses. Although prerequisites increase the degree to which students in upper-level courses share a common knowledge foundation, introductory classes (which rarely have prerequisites) often contain students who vary widely in their prior knowledge of course content. Identifying and addressing variability in prior knowledge may promote more effective study skills among students and better teaching practices among instructors. In this study, we report findings on the relation between undergraduates' pre-course knowledge and subsequent course performance in one of the most popular college courses, introductory psychology.

Undergraduates enter the introductory psychology course with many misconceptions about the discipline. Beginning at least as early as the mid-1920s (Nixon, 1925), instructors have noted the prevalence of psychology misconceptions brought to the introductory course (e.g., Brown, 1983; Furnham & Rawles, 1993; Vaughan, 1977). Others have examined the resistance of misconceptions to change (e.g., Best, 1982; Landau & Bavaria, 2003; Standing & Huber, 2003) and the validity of misconceptions (Brown, 1984; Griggs & Ransdell, 1987; Ruble, 1986). A relatively underexplored realm is the association between the extent of misconceived beliefs and course performance.

The few studies that have investigated the relation between number of misconceptions held and introductory psychology course performance have yielded mixed results. Valentine (1936) and Gutman (1979) both found that number of misconceptions correlated negatively with introductory psychology course grade (-.37 and -.35, respectively). By contrast, Vaughan (1977) failed to find an overall significant negative correlation between number of misconceptions and course grade in the four classes she studied. Given the age and conflicting results of these studies, we believed it worthwhile to re-examine this issue. Learning about the content, causes, and consequences of holding psychology misconceptions can be helpful to students and educators as they embark on an introductory psychology course (e.g., Smith, 2000, pp. 8-9; Swinkels, Guiliano, & Cardone, 2000, pp. 1.14-1.15).

Using a much broader sample of students than any previous study we explored two questions: a) Do today's introductory psychology undergraduates still hold misconceptions about psychology? and b) Are undergraduates' misconceptions related to their subsequent performance in introductory psychology? We predicted that misconceptions would still be prevalent among today's introductory psychology students and that students who began the course with fewer misconceptions would earn higher course grades relative to students who held more misconceptions.



One hundred and seventy-eight undergraduates from 11 semester-long introductory psychology classes taught at three schools between 2001-2005 participated in this study. …


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