Cognitive psychology Professor John Coley
Cognitive psychology Professor John Coley

by Thea Singer

Zebras devel­oped stripes to avoid predators.

No, that state­ment wasn’t ripped from the annals of Who Wants to Be a Mil­lion­aire? It’s an example of a “misconception”—a term biology-​​education researchers use to describe a sci­en­tif­i­cally inac­cu­rate idea held by biology stu­dents, even majors in the field.

In fact, new research by North­eastern asso­ciate pro­fessor John Coley and his team has found that both biology and non-​​biology majors are equally prone to agreeing with common sci­en­tific mis­con­cep­tions. The dif­fer­ence is that biology majors give more sys­tem­atic rea­sons for why they agree or dis­agree with the inac­cu­rate ideas pre­sented to them—a finding that points to the way they are taught science.

The find­ings, pub­lished ear­lier this year in CBE-​​Life Sci­ences Edu­ca­tion, could change the way instruc­tors teach science—and improve how stu­dents learn it.

Mis­con­cep­tions come from intu­itive thinking
In the study, Coley and his team sur­veyed North­eastern Uni­ver­sity stu­dents, both biology majors and non-​​biology majors, about whether or not they agreed with sev­eral sci­en­tific ideas—which unbe­knownst to the stu­dents were inac­cu­rate. Their study yielded some star­tling results, namely that biology majors agreed with common sci­en­tific mis­con­cep­tions nearly as fre­quently as non-​​biology majors. But inter­est­ingly, biology majors were much more sys­tem­atic in their rea­soning for agreeing or dis­agreeing with these ideas—which the researchers say indi­cates that biology edu­ca­tion itself is rein­forcing these intu­itive ways of thinking.

A mis­con­cep­tion is not just a fac­tual error,” says Coley, a psy­chol­o­gist in the Col­lege of Sci­ence who studies cog­ni­tion. “It’s a belief that, while con­trary to how sci­en­tists under­stand a phe­nom­enon, arises from our intu­itive ways of orga­nizing knowledge.”

From evo­lu­tion to cell biology, biology and non-​​biology majors agreed nearly to the same degree, dif­fered on rea­sons
To dive deeply into the minds of biology stu­dents, Coley teamed up with Kim­berly Tanner, a neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist at San Fran­cisco State Uni­ver­sity trained in science-​​education research. The study, which rep­re­sents a break­through in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, exam­ines the thought processes dri­ving stu­dents’ mis­con­cep­tions across bio­log­ical dis­ci­plines, from evo­lu­tion to ecology to cell biology.

The authors hypoth­e­sized that seem­ingly unre­lated bio­log­ical misconceptions—about cel­lular res­pi­ra­tion, say, or plant nutrition—sprang not from the com­plexity of the mate­rial but from our intu­itive ways of under­standing the world. They posited three types of intu­itive thinking: cause-​​effect driven (“zebras devel­oped stripes for pro­tec­tion”), con­flating internal prop­er­ties with external fea­tures (“dif­ferent cells have dif­ferent DNA”), and imbuing non­human species with human char­ac­ter­is­tics (“plants get food from the soil”).

To test their hypoth­esis, they asked 137 North­eastern undergraduates—69 biology majors with AP biology credit and 68 non-​​majors with non-​​science AP credit, to show com­pa­rable accomplishment—to indi­cate their level of agree­ment with six bio­log­ical mis­con­cep­tions, each linked to a type of intu­itive thinking. They also asked the stu­dents to write down their reasoning.

The results were aston­ishing. The dif­fer­ence between how fre­quently both biology and non-​​biology majors agreed with mis­con­cep­tions was “sur­pris­ingly small,” says Coley, with 93 per­cent of biology majors and 98 per­cent of non-​​majors agreeing with at least one mis­con­cep­tion. And both groups employed varied types of intu­itive thinking. Remarkable—“amazing to me!” exclaims Tanner—was the tight cor­re­la­tion only among the biology majors between the type of rea­soning they employed (say, cause-​​effect driven) and the type of mis­con­cep­tion they agreed with (“zebras devel­oped stripes to avoid predators”).

The non-​​biology majors were “kind of promis­cuous,” notes Tanner, while the biology majors were far more sys­tem­atic. “That sug­gests that biology edu­ca­tion itself—the way stu­dents learn the subject—is rein­forcing these intu­itive ways of thinking and, poten­tially, rein­forcing the mis­con­cep­tions as well.”

These are not iso­lated mis­un­der­stand­ings
Next, Coley and Tanner will look at stu­dents as they advance through their bio­log­ical studies and at how biology teachers present infor­ma­tion in the class­room. “Our work shows that these are not iso­lated mis­un­der­stand­ings, which is how they’ve been viewed,” says Coley, “but rather that there are sys­tems of misconceptions—all gen­er­ated from under­lying intu­itive ways of thinking.”

One way to coun­teract those sys­tems, says Coley, would be to make stu­dents “explic­itly aware,” in the first week of an intro­duc­tory class, of basic prin­ci­ples of cog­ni­tive sci­ence. “Intu­itive ways of thinking are deeply embedded in our cog­ni­tive sys­tems, and they’re useful in everyday con­texts,” says Coley. “But they are not appro­priate for explaining sci­en­tific phenomena.

We need to help stu­dents think hard about how cog­ni­tion works, not just in terms of how we mem­o­rize mate­rial, but in terms of how we orga­nize knowl­edge in dif­ferent domains.”

So about those zebras
Thinking that zebras got stripes to dodge preda­tors, Coley says, is an example of a mis­con­cep­tion arising from a par­tic­ular type of intu­itive thinking: Our minds auto­mat­i­cally attribute cause and effect to phe­nomena or events, even when there might be none.

But evo­lu­tion doesn’t involve “for­ward thinking,” or intention—ancestral zebras didn’t sprout stripes to blend in with their sur­round­ings. Rather, given a pop­u­la­tion of zebra-​​like ani­mals varying in striped­ness, those with abun­dant ver­ti­cals had a selec­tive advan­tage over their plainer rel­a­tives: Hence, they were more suc­cessful at repro­ducing, and over time, the stripes prevailed.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on July 7, 2015