Jonathan Firth, Teaching Fellow, University of Strathclyde, UK
Jennifer Zike, PhD Student in Education, University of Strathclyde, UK
Myths and misconceptions about learning are pervasive among the teaching profession. Myths such as ‘learning styles’ or the idea that some pupils are ‘left brained or right brained’ have been endorsed by over 90 per cent of participants in some studies (Howard-Jones, 2014). This case study describes the development and evaluation of a short course on memory and misconceptions that was trialled with a group of second-year undergraduate trainee primary teachers in Scotland.
Myths and misconceptions
By ‘myths’, we mean popular ideas about learning that are not in line with the consensus among researchers. Many learning myths represent a flawed attempt to account for individual differences in learner attainment (Kuepper-Tetzel, 2017). Probably the best known is the concept of VARK (visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinaesthetic) learning styles; despite significant doubts that learners can be so simplistically categorised, pupils may choose to refer to themselves as ‘visual learners’ and so forth, and some teachers may concur. Reviews have found no reliable evidence that allocating individuals according to a preferred style improves attainment (e.g. Pashler et al., 2008). Attempting to cater for learning styles is therefore at best pointless and at worst counterproductive.
More broadly, there are many misconceptions about how learning and memory function – misconceptions that should be tackled if educators are to make choices that are in the best interests of their students. Teachers may lack a clear understanding of how new learning takes place, assuming that short-term performance equates to learning (and, in doing so, neglecting the importance of varied, spaced practice). In fact, short-term performance often correlates negatively with learning; variations and delays reduce performance but improve learning over the long term (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015). Learning is also often mistakenly seen as a one-way input process, with little intuitive appreciation of the role of retrieval practice in consolidation.
How best to tackle these issues? In an optional short course offered to undergraduate student teachers, we took a two-pronged approach. Firstly, we tried to develop an understanding of the workings of metacognition and memory, because it is hard to make sense of misconceptions without knowing their cognitive context. It helps, for example, to better understand how learners form and store long-term memories. However, long-term memory is often counterintuitive in its functioning (Bjork, 2011), and this understanding does not appear to develop spontaneously through time in the classroom (Firth, 2018).
Secondly, we tackled the myths and misconceptions head on. Each weekly task focused on a specific issue and explained to participants why it was a misconception, drawing on psychology and education research. There is evidence that a direct approach is important; in one study, Will et al. (2019) found that directly refuting flawed beliefs (for example, learning styles) is more effective than simply providing contrary evidence. That is to say, it is important to state clearly that ‘x is wrong, and here is why’.
It can be difficult to transfer learning from training to real situations, and for this reason, we felt that it was important to give our participants the chance to identify myths in authentic educational contexts, rather than discussing them only in more abstract terms. Each participant was therefore asked to find documents or websites that included examples of misconceptions, and to use their knowledge from the course to explain why the ideas were flawed. Class time was allocated for peer feedback on this process.
The large majority of participants were comfortable discussing what they perceived as well-established myths. Many showed an enthusiasm for tackling these, and for adopting aspects of evidence-based pedagogy. Among the ideas that participants took on board most completely were:
- the learning styles myth
- the left-brain/right-brain myth
- the importance of spacing out one’s practice
- the idea that learning involves retrieval, not just passive input and repetition.
However, some remained sceptical about the ideas presented to them, and expressed (when prompted) concerns about whether research fully translates to the classroom. This is a valuable concern, and suggests that a methodological understanding of when research can and cannot be applied to practice could be an important factor in tackling misconceptions. However, educational exceptionalism – the idea that evidence and science somehow don’t apply to the school classroom – could be seen as a misconception in its own right.
Some participants also questioned the practicality of applying ideas like the spacing effect and variation. This issue suggests that cognitive science concepts may be more easily accepted if tied to examples of how they can be applied to make learning stick more successfully, rather than being seen as extraneous professional knowledge.
Many participants were keen to analyse current trends such as ‘growth mindset’ or play-based learning. However, others were very hesitant to be critical when the focus was real-world school policies rather than theory. It can be problematic if any practices or strategies are seen as being above criticism – something to be borne in mind if we are to avoid new myths cropping up in the future.
The documents that participants accessed and analysed included school teaching and learning policies as well as popular blogs that provided study advice. Participants typically accessed sources on the internet, and the search process helped to raise awareness of how pervasive certain misconceptions are.
Analysis of these sources often revealed a mixture of good and bad advice. For example, one text drawn from educationcity.com and discussed during our second session advised pupils to revise in short sessions with lots of breaks – an idea that fits well with the spacing effect – but also unhelpfully categorised them in terms of learning styles, advising some to voice-record their material (auditory) and others to use sticky notes (visual). It was rare to find a source that didn’t include at least one misconception – although most included plenty of good advice too.
Participants became highly enthusiastic and aware of the issues, and by the end of the course they were able to demonstrate skill in analysing myths and misconceptions in the context of real-world documents. Even when ideas were not fully accepted, the nature of the sessions seemed to encourage participants to view evidence-based scrutiny as important. We felt that because the course explicitly dealt with myths/misconceptions, it became a space where students were comfortable expressing critical points of view rather than taking information at face value.
Participants did, however, retain some misconceptions. It was notable that even when refuting learning styles, many still endorsed the related view that ‘everyone learns differently’. The idea that short-term performance does not always indicate learning was also hard for many to grasp; participants frequently expressed the view that it would be possible to see whether pupils had learned something after observing a single lesson.
Some participants expressed concern that challenging myths and misconceptions in the workplace would be hard for them to do, and that experienced teachers would not welcome a discussion of such issues. The psychology of identity suggests that such concerns could be well founded – a teacher’s beliefs can become part of their professional identity as an educator, in which case challenges to such beliefs could feel threatening. In contrast, if teachers see the understanding of the psychology of learning and memory as part of their professional identity, they may be more open to discussing beliefs and myths. For this reason, a profession that values evidence-based practice may provide an easier environment for trainees to raise and discuss concerns.
To conclude, while we recognise that these findings represent our subjective reflections on the project rather than systematic data-gathering, we feel that there would be much to be gained from addressing myths and misconceptions among new and established teachers, as described in this case study. We found an appetite for tackling flawed ideas among trainees, and this was supported by providing a foundation in the cognitive psychology of memory and metacognition. While some misconceptions are undoubtedly pervasive and difficult to overcome, there appear to be benefits to tackling them directly, in context and in a way that links to research evidence.
Bjork RA (2011) On the symbiosis of remembering, forgetting, and learning. In: Benjamin AS (ed) Successful Remembering and Successful Forgetting: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert A. Bjork. New York: Psychology Press, pp. 1–22.
Firth J (2018) Teachers’ beliefs about memory: What are the implications for in-service teacher education? Psychology of Education Review 42(2): 15–22.
Howard-Jones PA (2014) Neuroscience and education: Myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 15(12): 817–824.
Kuepper-Tetzel C (2017) Learning styles: A misguided attempt to highlight individual differences in learners. The Learning Scientists. Available at: www.learningscientists.org/blog/2017/5/25-1 (accessed 22 April 2020).
Pashler H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D et al. (2008) Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9(3): 105–119.
Soderstrom NC and Bjork RA (2015) Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2): 176–199.
Will KK, Masad A, Vlach HA et al. (2019) The effects of refutation texts on generating explanations. Learning and Individual Differences 69: 108–115.