Intervening to create conceptual change


  • Pauline M. Ross
  • Deidre A. Tronson


It is well established in higher education that students arrive at university with existing schema (misconceptions) which can exist alongside new conceptions and are characterised by being personal in nature, counter intuitive, highly resistant to change and/or contradictory (Osborne and Freyberg 1985; Driver and Bell 1986; Fensham 1994; Wandersee, Mintzes and Novak 1994). Current ideas about ‘threshold concepts’ mirror this early work on science misconceptions in that some core scientific concepts are conceptually difficult, counter intuitive, and linguistically challenging (Meyer and Land 2003). As a result, there is a wealth of information indicating that the learner’s developing, imperfect cognition becomes ‘troublesome knowledge’ (e.g. Perkins 1999; Wandersee, Mintzes and Novak 1994). The resolution of the conflict between a long-held misconception and the ‘counter-intuitive’, but reasoned scientific idea can be equated with crossing a cognitive threshold and leading to a different way of thinking. Sometimes this occurs quickly, more often torturously slowly, and sometimes never. The challenge for instructors is how to create an ‘ah-ha’ moment for students and academics, likened in comic strips to a light being turned on (Liljegahl 2005) or by Meyer and Land (2003) as a transformation. One useful strategy is deliberately intervening when it is suspected the new topic could involve a threshold concept, by creating conceptual conflict that students need to resolve using reasoned scientific argument. (Gilbert, De Jong, Justi, Treagust and Van Driel 2002). In this paper, we describe a planned strategy of creative and innovative interventions to create transformations in student thinking and learning in Biology at the University of Western Sydney. This teaching methodology has evolved following the stages set out by Biggs (2003); (i) where the student is at (ii) what the teacher does and finally (iii) what the student does. (Ross and Tronson 2004; Ross, Tronson and Ritchi, 2006 and Ross, Tronson and Ritchie. in press). We present results of student evaluations and focus groups to demonstrate the success and limitations of these interventions in creating change in student’s conceptual understanding. We also propose a modified model of interconnecting lenses Brookfield (1995) that may help increase the frequency of transformations for learners.