science student misconception websitePop quiz: True or false?

     • The different cell types found in a given individual's body contain different DNA.

     • Mountains form by the piling up of pieces of rock.

     • Some living parts of organisms are not made of cells.

More than half of the thousands of middle and high school students tested in nationwide examinations think the above statements are true (58 percent, 52 percent and 75 percent, respectively). They are not. Also false: Earth's plates are under the surface and are not visible (49 percent of students think is true); and air is carried through the body in "air tubes" (43 percent).

Expelling these common misconceptions is key to improving overall scientific literacy. But trying to root out just where misconceptions lie can be a tricky part of the job for already busy teachers. "It becomes more difficult to teach students without actually addressing the misconception," Anu Malipatil, a charter school administrator in New York and Connecticut, said in a prepared statement.

A new Web site is taking aim at this challenge, providing educators with quick lists of scientific statements broken down by subject matter, highlighting concepts that tend to be misunderstood by students. "This is extremely valuable information for teachers and curriculum developers to have because it shows them where instruction needs to be targeted," George DeBoer, deputy director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061 (an imitative to improve science, math and technology literacy), which created the site, said in a prepared statement.

The site (which is accessible after free registration) also provides teachers with some 600 multiple choice questions for tests that could help pinpoint conceptual sticking points. Multiple-choice tests have drawn criticism for being too reductive, and DeBoer acknowledges that "too often test questions are not linked explicitly to the ideas and skills that the students are expected to learn."

So to figure out just what kids know—or think they know—researchers involved in the seven-year-long project tested more than 150,000 students in some 1,000 classrooms and conducted interviews with many of them to try to figure out how well the questions were getting at the underlying understandings.

Here is one multiple choice question developed by the team:

• What is true about cats and worms?

     A. There are both similarities and differences between cats and worms.

     B. There are similarities but no differences between cats and worms.

     C. There are differences but no similarities between cats and worms.

     D. There is no way to tell if cats and worms have similarities or differences.

(Answer and student statistics below)

As policymakers discuss nationwide science standards, curriculum designers say that the opportunity to drill down on misconceptions would be a huge bonus. "No one releases any information about misconceptions," Deagan Andrews, a curriculum specialist in Greeley Colorado, said in a prepared statement. "They are interested in whether students got it right or wrong," rather than why students hold a particular understanding. And figuring out the nuances of student knowledge could help teachers, in turn, "think about their instruction and what they may be doing that may be perpetuating misconceptions," he said. 

Not all of the misunderstanding, of course, comes from the classroom. "Students create strange conceptions about the world from their experiences," Malipatil said. And it's not just students who come up short on basic science. An American Academy of Arts and Sciences report published in February found that 15 percent of U.S. adults did not think that both plants and animals have DNA. And that's not to say anything of acceptance of evolution, which still hovers around 40 percent among U.S. adults.

So how did you do on the multiple choice question? If you answered A ("There are both similarities and differences between cats and worms"), you were correct, joining just 37 percent of 6th-8th graders and 48 percent of high schoolers—and only 30 percent of students who speak English as a second language. More students overall chose C ("There are differences but no similarities between cats and worms"), flagging it as a common misconception that a teacher could target.

See how you measure up to U.S. middle and high school students in more areas of science on AAAS's Science Assessment site.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Chepko