GUEST POST: How to Help Students Overcome Misconceptions

GUEST POST: How to Help Students Overcome Misconceptions

By Annette Taylor

Professor Taylor has been a member of the USD faculty since 1990. She teaches courses in introductory psychology, research methods and cognitive psychology. Her research interests currently focus on teaching-related issues, including student engagement and changing students' misconceptions. She received her PhD in general experimental psychology in 1987 from the University of Southern California. Her specialty area was information processing cognitive psychology. She later completed a three-year postdoctoral training program at the Andrus Gerontology Center in Los Angeles, where she studied cognitive aging, specifically focusing on attention and memory.

As teachers, you and I want all of our students to come away from our classes learning accurate information. Unfortunately, misconceptions exist in every area of study, and teachers should not ignore them. Studies have consistently shown that if you do not activate and refute misconceptions, no matter what else you do for the course, misconceptions will NOT go away. At best, misconceptions will co-exist with correct knowledge. At worst, they will block students from acquiring new knowledge. Our research (1) shows the failure to acquire new knowledge is particularly true for students who struggle more with verbal skills—students who need help with corrections to their prior misconceptions, and with resolving conflicts between their prior knowledge and newly presented classroom knowledge.

So, what are misconceptions? Misconceptions are beliefs that contradict the current state of scientific evidence. They may or may not result from a lack knowledge as much as from a worldview that supports a given misconception and discourages the consideration of other perspectives that would threaten that worldview.

As teachers, we cannot possibly address all of our students’ misconceptions. However, across all areas of study some misconceptions are more common than others. For example, in my discipline, psychology, one common misconception is that there needs to be immediate contact between a mother and her newborn for strong bonding to occur.

Image by author, used with permission

Image by author, used with permission

How do we help students overcome their misconceptions for the long term? One pedagogical technique that has shown the most success across many areas of study is the use of refutational teaching (2), (3).

What is refutational teaching? How does it differ from standard or traditional teaching?

In traditional teaching, the students receive instruction in the correct information for that discipline. We call it “right is right,” or simply providing the known evidence or facts. As a first narrative about the topic of bonding, I might tell my students that, “bonding is a process in which a mother forms a protective, emotional connection with her child. This process takes time, and continues over time.” So far, I have only provided some facts about bonding—a definition and an evidence-based fact. I have not yet mentioned the misconception. I do not want to mention the misconception yet because it is not part of the “facts.” I want to tell the students about what is known (why “right is right”). And this is where most traditional teaching stops.

But wait! I know that many of my students believe that this emotional connection must occur immediately after birth in order for the bond to be strong. I know this, because I pretest my students on a large number of items at the beginning of the semester so that I have a pretty good idea of their misconceptions. So next, I bring up the misconception. Remember, you do not begin with the misconception. You begin with “why right is right” AKA the “facts.”

Why not start with the misconception?

An accumulating amount of evidence suggests that if you start with the misconception, those students who already know about and believe the misconception, especially those who hold the belief strongly, or who struggle with keeping up with the on-going flow of information in class, are likely to stop listening (4). If asked immediately afterwards, students can repeat back what you said, but that new knowledge quickly reverts back to the prior misconception (5). In fact, some studies have found a “familiarity backfire effect” in which students’ belief in the misconception even strengthens (6). Students remember what they heard first (the misconception) and attention wanders for the rest. So, remember, start with just the facts—then go to the misconception. 

Now comes the all-important part three: Telling students “why wrong is wrong,” also called the refutation. This is the part that is most often missing in traditional teaching. Students need to understand why you want them to change their beliefs. The key here is to avoid repeating the misconception again. You do not want to make the misinformation increase in its familiarity. As research has shown, that which is more familiar is also more often believed to be true—related to the mere exposure effect (7).

So far we have co-activated facts with misconception. Doing so creates a void, and we need to fill that void. But how? There is a gap in knowledge. Now you must show why the misconception is wrong, and why the known facts provide more fruitful predictions and outcomes when compared to the misinformation. For example, I talk about “why wrong is wrong” by discussing cases of adoptive parents who form perfectly strong bonds with their children of any age. Only in extremely rare cases do adoptive parents have immediate contact with a newborn after birth.

In addition, I talk about the detrimental effects of the misconceptions on mothers who, due to perinatal complications, either theirs or the newborn’s, are unable to have immediate contact. Such mothers form strong bonds with their newborns once they are able to have routine contact. Why? Because bonding is a process and the process takes time and it can begin at any time. Here I have filled the gap with the concepts of process and time.

Image by author, used with permission

Image by author, used with permission

Finally, I go to a fourth step: Inoculation. I want students to 1) keep the correct information their memory, and to 2) attach a misconception “tag” to the misinformation. In other words, I want to provide students with something that indicates to them that when they hear someone in everyday life mention the misconception, they can say to themselves, “Oh, that’s a misconception!” “And, I know the correct information!”

So what is inoculation and how can you do this? The idea of inoculation stems from studies following World War II and the Korean War when researchers were looking for ways to immunize soldiers taken as prisoners of war against propaganda and persuasion tactics used by their captors. Think of the medical analogy of an inoculation: exposure to a pathogen at a low level so that its effect is to boost future immunity against the pathogen. You want your students to be immune to future exposure to the misconception. Most students come across misconceptions relatively frequently in everyday life, making the information seem familiar and “right.” So, once you have provided the facts and refuted the misconception, you want your students to be immune to these everyday challenges to their new beliefs. And this is the purpose of inoculation. It is like a vaccination or a shot to protect the new belief from reverting to the old misconception. See Swire, Ecker and Lewandowsky (2017) for how inoculation may mitigate familiarity effects (8).

Work by Cook (as cited in “Five characteristics of climate science denial”, (9)), and others (10) has shown that familiarizing people with potential fallacies of reasoning can be very valuable for such inoculation. Researchers have developed the acronym FLICC, which stands for Fake experts, Logical fallacies (red herring, misrepresentation, jumping to conclusions and false dichotomies), Impossible expectations, Cherry picking and Conspiracy theories. They suggest that when debunking a particular misconception, it is important to apply FLICC in order to maintain the change in beliefs. For example, I can end my lecture on mother-infant bonding with a restatement of the facts, so that these are now part of the most recent memory and then talk a bit about impossible expectations (what happens when contact is delayed?). I can also talk about the false dichotomy created between the ideas of immediate versus delayed contact. And, most importantly, I can ask my students to think about other FLICC possibilities.

To recap, with suggestions:

  1.  Develop your own pretest of misconceptions for your course. Instructors’ manuals, textbook material, your own knowledge of the field, or, in the case of psychology there are wonderful books by Lilienfeld and colleagues that can guide you (11).

  2. Remember to focus on the FACTS, on why “right is right” before you address a potential misconception in class.

  3. Activate the misconception but minimize the focus on the misconception. You want to minimize the familiarity backfire effect.

  4. Then REFUTE – focus on why “wrong is wrong.”

  5. Now, you need to fill the gap you created in the student’s knowledge base. Go back to the facts – to why “right is right” or even talk about why the misconception might have developed (this is an important aspect in the book by Lilienfeld and colleagues (11)). Note that throughout you want to focus on making sure that your refutation and your information to fill the gap are both plausible and believable (12).

  6. End with the INOCULATION. Talk about logical fallacies that others might use when they bring up this misconception in everyday conversations. Remember that you know what’s right, why it’s right, and why the misconception is wrong.


(1) Kowalski, P., & Taylor, A. K. (2017). Reducing students’ misconceptions with refutational teaching: For long-term retention, verbal ability matters. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 3(2), 90-100.

(2) Guzzetti, B. J. (2000). Learning counter-intuitive science concepts: What have we learned from over a decade of research? Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 16, 89 –98.

(3) Lassonde, K. A., Kendeou, P., & O’Brien, E. J. (2016). Refutation texts: Overcoming psychology misconceptions that are resistant to change. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(1), 62–74.

(4) Skurnik, I., Yoon, C., Park, D., & Schwarz, N. (2005). How warnings about false claims become recommendations. Journal of Consumer Research, 31, 713–724. doi: 10.1086/426605

(5) Danielson, R. W., Sinatra, G. M., & Kendeou, P. (2016) Augmenting the refutation text effect with analogies and graphics, Discourse Processes, 53, 5-6, 392-414, doi: 10.1080/0163853X.2016.1166334

(6) Cook, J., Lewandowsky, S. (2011), The debunking handbook. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland. November 5. ISBN 978-0-646-56812-6. []

(7) Bornstein, R. F., & Craver-Lemley, C. (2017). Mere exposure effect. In R. F. Pohl (Ed). Cognitive illusions (pp. 256-275). New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-1138903425

(8) Swire, B., Ecker, U. K. H., & Lewandowsky, S. (2017). The role of familiarity in correcting inaccurate information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, No Pagination Specified.

(9) Five characteristics of climate science denial. (2015, September 7). Retrieved from

(10) Diethelm, P., & McKee, M. (2009). Denialism: What is it and how should scientists respond? European Journal of Public Health, 19(1), 2-4.

(11) Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. L., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). 50 great myths of popular psychology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

(12) Rich, P. R., Van Loon, M. H., Dunlosky, J., & Zaragoza, M. S. (2017). Belief in corrective feedback for common misconceptions: Implications for knowledge revision. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(3), 492-501.

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