How it is possible to ask multiple-choice questions with four choices that only 4% of students get right? Simple guessing should result in 25% of the students randomly selecting the correct answer. The problem is not that the students have no idea what the answer is, but that nearly all of them are convinced they know the correct answer. In fact, they have a misconception.
Misconceptions that students hold can get in the way of them developing a deeper conceptual understanding of chemistry. So what can we do about it? Students must realize they have a misconception before they can put it aside. This can be fairly easy to accomplish in a small class with an emphasis on lively discussion. By bringing ideas out in the open, teachers can highlight misconceptions; students can recognize their preconceived notions and work to change them.
But what can you do in a large lecture hall with a class of 400? In our CTP course we have sought to replicate some of this discussion in a number of ways by having the students actively engaged in the classroom. First, we encourage debate among the students during class in response to conceptual clicker questions. Not sitting at a small table? No problem: turn around and talk to the people sitting near you. If you don’t want to talk to anyone write your ideas down on a piece of paper to get them out into the open. We facilitate this debate with a cadre of undergraduate peer learning assistants who move the discussion forward by asking more questions rather than simply providing answers. Finally, we bring student voices to the class by having the questions answered and explained by the students. This can resolve our question or lead to further debate.
One of the great benefits of this approach is that we can quickly uncover and identify misconceptions. From experience, we can guess at many of these, but there are always surprises. By engaging the students, polling their ideas, and listening to their discussion we can bring any misconceptions to the forefront where they can be addressed. If you want to know what students are thinking: don’t guess, ask.