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Strategies for overcoming students’ misconceptions in large class settings

T.D. Mulhern,1 A. Espinosa,1 J.M. Lodge2 and H. Verkade,1 1Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC 3010, Australia and 2Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC 3010, Australia.

Large classes pose a challenge in higher education. They are undeniably efficient from a “teaching” perspective, but their deficiencies as tools for “learning” are well known. They are often associated with poor student engagement, low in-class participation and tend to encourage passivity in students (Mulryan-Kyne, 2010). For many students, these features promote superficial understanding and poorer learning outcomes (Hornsby & Osman, 2014). Unfortunately, in Australia the current social, political and economic framework appears to favour continued increase in undergraduate class sizes. As teaching academics, on a day-to-day basis we often ask, “What can we do to enrich the student experience in the large classes we teach?”

As part of a wider study on exploring misconceptions as a trigger for enhanced student learning, we have been developing a pedagogical approach that can be applied to large classes across STEM disciplines. Misconceptions are a particularly problematic issue as, when unresolved, they can significantly impede student learning progress (Chi & Roscoe, 2002). Key features of this approach are to:

  1. identify student misconceptions and prioritise the target concepts;
  2. develop suites of activities with explicit content, process and metacognitive goals; and
  3. continuously monitor and provide feedback on student understanding.

One of our test cases is the University of Melbourne 2nd year Bachelor of Science subject Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. This subject is core to the Biochemistry major, but is also a prerequisite for postgraduate Medicine and, as such, has very large classes (>1200 students in 2016).

In Biochemistry and Molecular Biology we identify student misconceptions using a published, validated, discipline-specific concept inventory test (Villafańe et al., 2011). We prioritize the target misconceptions at a class level by measuring both % correct and student confidence in their answers on the test. We follow this up with a suite of questions designed to reveal the misconception to the students so that they experience surprise (Butterfield & Metcalf, 2006). The aim is that they question their understanding and are compelled to engage in peer-to-peer learning to resolve this cognitive dissonance (Nussbaum & Novick, 1982; Mazur 1997). A critical component is the use of an electronic in-class polling tool to encourage participation and to provide real-time feedback to the teacher and students in a large lecture theatre.

Butterfield B, Metcalfe J. (2006). Metacog Learn 1, 69-84.

Chi MTH & Roscoe RD. (2002). The processes and challenges of conceptual change. In M. Limon & L. Mason (Eds.), Reframing the process of conceptual change: Integrating theory and practice. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

Hornsby DJ & Osman R. (2014). High Educ 67, 711-719.

Mazur E. (1997). in Series in Educational Innovation, (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1997).

Mulryan-Kyne, C. (2010). Teaching large classes at college and university level: Challenges and opportunities. Teach High Educ 15(2), 175-185.

Nussbaum J, & Novick S. (1982). Instruct Science 11, 183.

Villafańe SM, Bailey CP, Loertscher J, Minderhout V & Lewis JE. (2011). Biochem Mol Biol Educ 39, 102-109.