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Common Origins of Diverse Misconceptions: Cognitive Principles and the Development of Biology Thinking

Abstract

Many ideas in the biological sciences seem especially difficult to understand, learn, and teach successfully. Our goal in this feature is to explore how these difficulties may stem not from the complexity or opacity of the concepts themselves, but from the fact that they may clash with informal, intuitive, and deeply held ways of understanding the world that have been studied for decades by psychologists. We give a brief overview of the field of developmental cognitive psychology. Then, in each of the following sections, we present a number of common challenges faced by students in the biological sciences. These may be in the form of misconceptions, biases, or simply concepts that are difficult to learn and teach, and they occur at all levels of biological analysis (molecular, cellular, organismal, population, and ecosystem). We then introduce the notion of a cognitive construal and discuss specific examples of how these cognitive principles may explain what makes some misconceptions so alluring and some biological concepts so challenging for undergraduates. We will argue that seemingly unrelated misconceptions may have common origins in a single underlying cognitive construal. These ideas emerge from our own ongoing cross-disciplinary conversation, and we think that expanding this conversation to include other biological scientists and educators, as well as other cognitive scientists, could have significant utility in improving biology teaching and learning.

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