Sometimes learning requires unlearning . . . the challenge of unlearning old assumptions and learning new habits

February 9, 2016

Students enroll in a class with existing knowledge and beliefs about the class topic. Some prior knowledge will be accurate information but some prior knowledge is simply wrong. Students’ knowledge may be simplistic, poorly organized, or include important gaps. Students might acquire misinformation through naïve observations and intuitions, deeply-held cultural assumptions and beliefs, or popular media disseminations of “false facts,” “junk science,” and other similar misconceptions. Students must determine which elements of their prior knowledge fit into which category (correct information, misconceptions, false assumptions) (Chew, nd).

Inaccurate information and misconceptions can interfere with learning.                                                

Sometimes students must unlearn a misconception or reconsider an erroneous assumption before they can learn disciplinary content and skills. False assumptions and misconceptions sometimes persist because students hear them repeatedly in popular media. In other cases, students might resist changing their belief because it connects to important cultural or religious beliefs.

Instructors face the challenge of persuading students that information they “know is true” is not true. Examples of false beliefs and assumptions abound from multiple disciplines. Published research on the teaching of physics documents the persistence of incorrect naïve beliefs about physical laws (e.g., mistaken beliefs about laws of motion). Misconceptions that create bottlenecks to learning can be found in every discipline. For example, many students in psychology believe (falsely) that we use only 10% of our brain and students in chemistry may believe that the bubbles formed in boiling water are composed of air, pure oxygen, or hydrogen gas rather than water vapor.

How hard can it be to unlearn a false assumption?

Chew argues that instructors who want to help students overcome a misconception must first activate the misconception and then actively refute it. Students unlearn some misconceptions more readily than others (Chi, 2008). If students hold an incorrect idea as an isolated idea, instructors can sometimes correct the misconception with direct instruction that provides the correct information. However, a collection of interconnected correct and incorrect ideas (a false mental model) may be more difficult to change. We must make students aware of the connections between these ideas and correct all of the critical mistaken ideas to overcome resistance and encourage students to replace a flawed model with a correct model. The most difficult situation occurs when students mistakenly assign a concept to one category (e.g., objects) when the concept should be assigned to a different category (e.g., processes). Instructors who want to correct these highly resistant misconceptions must help students confront errors created by mistaken category assignment. Students must develop a clear understanding of the new category and how the two categories differ before they will accept the idea that the concept belongs to a different category.

Similarly, Amin, Smith, & Wiser (2014) argue that misconceptions resist correction in part because they are embedded in existing organizations of knowledge. They argue that misconceptions cannot be dispelled simply by telling students they are wrong. Instead, students must reorganize their knowledge before they can fully correct a misconception. Refutations of incorrect information and adoption of new organizations require time and multiple experiences applying disciplinary concepts to practical problems.


Amin, T. A., Smith, C., & Wiser, M. (2014). Student conceptions and conceptual change: Three overlapping phases of research. In N. Lederman & S. Abell (Eds.), Handbook of research in science education, Vol. II. (pp. 57-81). New York: Routledge.

Chew, S. (nd). The Cognitive Challenges of Teaching: Prior Knowledge, Misconceptions, Ineffective Learning Strategies, and Transfer [video 3]. Cognitive Principles Video Series, Samford University. Accessed at

Chi, M. T. H. (2008). Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.), Handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 61-82). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Destin Sandlin, Smarter Every Day (Video 133: The Backwards Brain Bicycle). Accessed at

Nakhleh, M. B. (1992). Why some students don’t learn chemistry: Chemical misconceptions. Journal of Chemical Education, 69 (3), 191-196.

Shtulman, A., & Valcarcel, J. (2012). Scientific knowledge suppresses but does not supplant earlier intuitions. Cognition, 124, 209-215. 

02/09/2016 gb