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Concept Coach: An Online Activity That Addresses Student Misconceptions and Supports Learning

Merri Lynn Casem

Department of Biological Science
California State University, Fullerton


One of the big challenges facing educators in any discipline is how to dispel the misconceptions that students bring with them to class. Research has shown that simply supplying students with correct information may work for the short term (up to the point they are tested on it) but is ineffective when it comes to long-term, meaningful changes in student learning (National Research Council, 2000 How People Learn: Brain, Mind Experience and School). In order for students to change, they must first engage with a concept, identify their own misconceptions, and then actively replace the "bad" information with "good" information.

Working through this metacognitive process with each student would be a challenge, even in a small class, and it becomes impossible in the larger classes so typical of our introductory courses in the major. Because beginners are the very students most in need of help in identifying and correcting misconceptions, I have developed an instructional tool to help my beginning biology majors work through this process. I have modified the Quiz feature of the course management program Blackboard to create what I call Concept Coach activities that are designed to make students aware of their misconceptions and to provide a venue for them to practice using their "new" knowledge.

The key innovation of the Concept Coach is that it draws upon actual misconceptions held by students. I have identified several key concepts in my course with which students typically struggle. Some of these concepts, such as the structure of a biological membrane, involve both an understanding of technical terms (e.g. phospholipid bilayer or integral membrane protein) and an understanding of how these terms are physically related and visually represented.

Representative Concept Coach Project

For the example concept, I ask my students to complete in class on paper their best drawing of a membrane and to label all the parts they know. I use this prompt as the lead-in to the class in which we discuss membrane structure and function. Because students receive points for completing a drawing and not for its quality or accuracy, they are more likely to represent their understanding of the concept honestly. One might anticipate that some students would take advantage of these "free" points; however, it has been my experience that the majority of students make a sincere effort (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1 – Sample student drawings of a biological membrane. The structure and organization of a biological membrane can be a difficult concept for students to master. These drawings illustrate a range of student comprehension. Image (a) is a reasonable representation of a membrane. Image (b) correctly represents the bilayer structure of the membrane, but is incomplete due to the omission of proteins. Images (c) and (d) contain membrane proteins but reveal misconceptions related to the structure and organization of the molecules that make up the membrane.

Once I’ve collected the drawings, I look for common misconceptions or errors in the students’ work. I find it helpful to create a rubric (answer key) that includes all of the critical elements of a correct drawing. With a "best possible" answer in mind, it is then easier to identify where students are in their understanding. Having identified a set of misconceptions or errors in the students’ work, I create my own drawings that highlight the misconceptions revealed by the students’ work but that also include correct information or representations (Figure 2). I scan my drawings to create small JPEG files that can be uploaded to Blackboard. The students will evaluate these drawings as part of the Concept Coach activity. By creating my own versions of student drawings I avoid stigmatizing students by selecting their work as the "bad" example.

Figure 2

Figure 2 – Instructor-generated composite drawings highlighting student misconceptions. Reviewing student-generated drawings provides insights into common errors or misconceptions held by the students. Representations of incomplete knowledge (a), misconceptions (b, c, or d) or correct information (e) can then created by the instructor. The use of instructor-generated illustrations avoids stigmatizing students.

Quizzes and Question Formats

The Test Manager feature of Blackboard (6.0) allows users to create quizzes that students can complete at any time outside of class. Unlike a standard quiz, a Concept Coach is formatted such that students can repeat the activity as many times as they wish. This critical feature provides the tutorial value of the activity. Each Concept Coach includes a description that outlines the goal or student learning outcome of the tutorial as well as instructions on how to complete the assignment. The assignment itself consists of a series of questions intended to challenge a student’s understanding of the concept and to provide practice working with the associated vocabulary and thinking about the important relationships. An image or images can be linked to each question.

Figure 3

Figure 3 – Sample Concept Coach Question in the Test Manager function of Blackboard. Students are given the task of identifying which of the statements provided as Answers correctly describe the linked image (shown above). The Answers prompt the student to evaluate each image based on a set of criteria that defines the concept. Students receive feedback for their answers. This activity models the process of analyzing an image and provides students with practice in applying their knowledge of a concept.

I typically use the Multiple Answers question format, which requires students to identify the statement or statements with which they agree or disagree (Figure 3). By providing a set of statements, I am modeling the steps involved in evaluating an image or problem. The other critical piece to the Concept Coach is the feedback I provide both for correct and incorrect responses. The feedback feature is another venue for modeling the thinking process required to master the concept. I can outline the positive or negative aspects of an answer or give hints as to what to think about or what to look for in evaluating the problem. Questions that use the Multiple Choice, Fill-In, or Matching formats are useful for review of key concepts or vocabulary. The open text format of the Essay type questions is not well suited to the tutorial nature of this type of assignment, since feedback requires an additional step by the instructor and will not be instantaneous.

Concept Coach Applications and Evaluation

I have used Concept Coach activities to help students with (a) concepts related to biological structure and function, (b) common misconceptions specific to my course, and (c) as a supplement to in-class problem-solving activities. In all cases, the Concept Coach was designed to explicitly model the thinking or problem-solving process. The Concept Coach format can easily be adapted to any discipline in which recognition, analysis or interpretation of images, graphical data or text is important. Problem-solving tasks are also amenable to this mode of instruction as it allows the instructor to explicitly model the steps involved in arriving at a solution. The collection of student-generated images or answers is not a requirement for the activity; however, it can facilitate identification of areas of misconception specific to course content.

Student response has been positive, with 89% of the class (n=83) reporting that the activity helped their learning. In their written comments, students offered that the Concept Coach was "an eye opener if I didn't get the materials," "helpful because it tied in the visual with the information," and "very helpful in understanding difficult material." A majority of students made use of the Concept Coach activities, ranging from a low of 84% to a high of 94% participation. It was interesting to see (using the Course Statistics feature of Blackboard) that students accessed the assignment at all hours, with the highest use occurring between 7 and 11 p.m. More students completed the activity as the date of an exam drew near, although in some cases, it appeared that student use of the Concept Coach was related to ongoing activities in the classroom.

Students that completed the Concept Coach activity for biological membrane structure/function performed significantly better (P > 0.05) on a midterm question covering that material than students that did not complete the assignment. Significant differences were not found in student performance on exam questions related to other Concept Coach activities. This finding might reflect the abilities of the few students that did not complete the activity, or it may suggest that these other activities were less effective. The true measure of the effectiveness of this strategy would be an assessment of how well students retain an understanding of the core concepts in a course and the degree to which they have replaced misconceptions with correct information. I hope to address these questions in the future.

Posted June 23, 2005.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2005 by Merri Lynn Casem.

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