Questions 2. Misconceptions

5 12 2015

Derek Muller of the YouTube channel Veritasium makes videos about science that are similar to our live science presentations. Not only has he made some amazing videos he also did his PhD in the effectiveness of using science videos to teach physics. We can learn lots from his videos but in this post I’d like to talk about his PhD. 

Derek started out to show that videos could be used to efficiently and effectively teach science concepts. 

Derek found that presenting information in a way that didn’t challenge the students’ preconceptions and misconceptions meant:

1. The students thought they already knew the information being presented. 

2. As a consequence they didn’t pay as much attention as they could. 

3. They didn’t notice that the information they were being shown was different to what they already “knew”.

4. So they didn’t learn anything

5. But worse, they got more confident in their wrong answers!

No research (that I know of) has been done to see if these results would apply to live science presentations but there’s no reason to suspect not. 

This should make us all ask how we can do better. It all comes down to how we present our information and ask questions. 

He describes the research in this video (where these stills have been taken from).   

He began by giving students an Internet test asking questions like this:

after the ball has been thrown what are the forces acting on the ball?


Pick an answer and I’ll tell you if you are right at the end of the post. 

He then assigned each respondent to watch one of three videos that explained the science. The students then took another identical test to check what they had learned. He also interviewed them to get some in depth information. 

What would you expect to happen? The students all reported they’d found the videos clear and easy to understand. The students also reported being more confident about their answers in the second test. I think most people would expect to see a measurable improvement. In fact there was none. 

Before watching the videos the students scored an average of 6/26 (so there was room for improvement!). After the videos they scored just 6.3/26.

Derek explains the students couldn’t remember the correct explanations they had just seen in the videos moments before. For example, one interviewee said: 


This answer is incorrect. The video had actually explained that after leaving the hand (ignoring air resistance) gravity is the only force acting downwards and constant on the ball (so c. is the correct answer…) not there is “a decreasing force”.

More worryingly people reported because the material in the video wasn’t new to them they’d not really bothered to listen:


Derek hypothesed that the students were bringing in incorrect educational baggage to their learning that was stopping them from learning what was correct and demotivating them even to try. His solution? 

Directly challenge those preconceptions and misconceptions before giving them the correct answer. 

In another video he tasked a student to act out the common misconceptions that the students had, these were then discussed on the video and shown to be false. Only once all the common mistakes had been examined and rejected did they show the right answer. 

Students in interviews all said they found this new video confusing but they all put more effort into watching the video and most importantly there was a marked improvement in their scores. 


Instead of an improvement of just .3  points they scored 11/26, an almost doubling of the pre video score of 6/26.

If this effect is transferable from science videos to live presenting it means, despite our best efforts, our students might be learning nothing and, worse than that, might be becoming more confident in their false knowledge. 

This has radically changed how I ask questions in my shows. I now ask questions that force people to address their prior knowledge. I have started to ask people in my shows about their misconceptions before giving them the correct answer.

For instance,instead of just telling people that gravity accelerates everything to earth at the same rate I will now:

1. Drop two empty .5l coke bottles to show they both hit the ground at the same time.

2. I then fill one with water and get the audience to vote on what they think is going to happen (“hands up for the light one… hands up for the heavy one”) before showing…

3. both bottles hit the ground at the same time even though they now weigh different amounts when they are dropped. 

I haven’t been able to do the research but I’m hoping this helps the information stick by forcing the audience to address their misconceptions before showing them what actually happens. 

10% of audiences consistently raise their hands to say the lighter one will hit the floor first (I think because they imagine as it is light it will accelerate quickly) and 80% say heavy (this makes “sense”), 10% either don’t vote or know the answer. When they all see something that contradicts their preconceptions and misconceptions I hope the new, correct information is more likely to stick. 

If anyone wants to fund some research into this I’d be very happy to hear from you. Until then we should all pay heed to Derek’s research, watch his videos and try our best to not reinforce the incorrect answers. 




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