Humans are viewed as goal-directed agents who actively seek information. They come to formal education with a range of prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and concepts that significantly influence what they notice about the environment and how they organize and interpret it. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, solve problems, and acquire new knowledge. (National Research Council, 1999, p. 10)

Not all of students’ ideas align with accepted science and engineering explanations, even if they are sensible and rooted in experience (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2005). Some research has focused on categorizing incorrect knowledge. In this regard, Chi (2008) argues that incorrect knowledge can be assigned to one of three levels, and that the approach to changing incorrect knowledge depends on the level of that knowledge:

1.   Incorrect beliefs at the level of a single idea. An example is the false belief that all blood vessels have valves (Chi, 2008). In situations such as these, refutation might help students to change their beliefs.

2.   Flawed mental models representing an interrelated set of concepts. For example, many students have a mental model of the human circulatory system as a single loop, rather than the correct model of a double loop (Chi, 2008; Pelaez et al., 2005). In these types of cases, multiple incorrect beliefs need to be corrected, ideally leading to the transformation of students’ mental models. Although instruction is often successful in promoting such transformation, some students may instead assimilate correct concepts into their flawed mental model when those particular concepts do not directly contradict their model (also see Chinn and Brewer, 1993).

3.   Assignment of core concepts to laterally or ontologically inappropriate categories. Examples of this type of incorrect knowledge include categorizing mushrooms as nonliving rather than living or believing that force is a substance-like entity that can be possessed, transferred, and dissipated, rather than a process. Such misconceptions have been found to be highly robust and resistant to change (Chi, 2005). In these cases, instruction needs to be focused at the categorical level, first teaching students the nature of the relevant categories so they can understand the concept in question as a member of that appropriate category.

Chi’s (2008) tripartite taxonomy represents an eclectic approach to thinking about students’ incorrect knowledge. Although she makes the forceful claim that most (perhaps all) robust misconceptions are due to lateral or



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