Climate Change Misconceptions: Can Instruction Help?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
John L McCuin, Dallas Baptist University, Natural Sciences & Mathematics, Dallas, TX, United States, Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, United States and Douglas Hayhoe, Tyndale University College & Seminary, Department of Education, Toronto, ON, Canada
Public understanding of climate change is fraught with misconceptions. In some cases, these may arise due to the complexity of the topic: the difference between personal experience of short-term weather events, for example, as compared to long-term analysis of a climate trend. In others, myths may be deliberately introduced: that climate has ceased to change, or that changes have been proven to be due to natural causes.

Whatever their origin, these misconceptions hold powerful implications for education on climate change and related science topics. Conceptual change theory demonstrates how pre-existing misconceptions persist under regular instruction and interfere with student acquisition of correct concepts. Here, we assess the extent to which incorporating corrective instruction on misconceptions related to the greenhouse effect and on the role of human activities in climate change affects student acquisition and retention of key scientific concepts. We investigate the efficacy of this approach using two reading passages: one that simply discusses the science, and another that provides both science and misconceptions-related information. Study subjects were drawn from a first year Atmospheric Sciences course at a large public university, yielding 197 students who successfully completed the pretest, instructional treatment, immediate posttest, delayed posttest, and a background survey. While both treatments produced significant gains in the posttest and delayed posttest overall, only the treatment that directly targeted misconceptions produced long-term gains on misconception-related questions.

Our results support the conceptual change model’s basic claim that misconceptions may persist through concept-based instruction, but may be uprooted by even a relatively brief reading passage that addresses them directly. However, our results also contain a striking anomaly: for questions involving the phrase “global warming,” misconceptions-based instruction did not produce greater long-term gain. Here, we analyze the influence of student demographics on performance overall as well as by question type, to begin to elucidate the extent to which pre-existing biases may influence the retention of misconceptions even in the face of corrective instruction.