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Published: Thursday, November 08, 2018

Correcting your students' misconceptions

Judy Vatcher, Head of Biology at City of London Freemen's School looks at how she corrects student misconceptions using examiners' reports

It’s coming up to the time when students are preparing to sit their mock exams and the same old misconceptions and exam howlers are seen. So, what can we do to help our students avoid making these classic mistakes and better prepare them for their final exams?

I use examiners’ reports to help me identify some of the regular errors and then I devise ways of using this knowledge in my teaching to help improve my students’ learning. Here’s how…

Step 1 – Finding the misconception

Read your subject’s examiners’ report, looking out for questions which have successfully differentiated between students of varying ability. For example:

“Again this item produced a range of scores.

The most common errors were candidates confusing transcription with translation and failing to understand where and when hydrogen bonds are formed.”

Step 2 – Checking whether your class would make this same mistake

      Devise a hinge-point question (HPQ) to address this misconception and check to see what your students understand (or don’t) about the specific topic. This will help inform what next step you should take in your teaching.

      Hinge point questions are those described by Dylan Wiliam as being questions which occur when you need to check if all your students are ready to move on in a topic.
To hear Dylan talk more about this, watch this video 

      Do they fully understand? Are they ready to move on? If the answer is yes, then in which direction should my teaching / their learning go? The answers they give to your hinge-point question will help you find out. You can then devise meaningful follow up to help students move on in their learning (see Step 3 below).

      Key features of the HPQ are:

      It takes no longer than a minute to ask

      And no longer than two minutes for students to respond

      Answers must be easily interpreted by the teacher within 30 seconds

      All students respond to it simultaneously

      Questions are designed so it is very difficult to guess correctly. Importantly, this means the students will only get the answer right for the right reason

Here are two questions I have written to help address the misconception about transcription and translation given above:

1. Which of the following processes occur during translation?
a DNA uncoils and unzips
b RNA binds to free nucleotides
c mRNA binds to tRNA
d codons bind to anticodons
Answer: c and d
2. Which of the following are formed during translation?
a amino acids
b hydrogen bonds
c peptide bonds
d complementary base pairs
Answer: b, c and d


Students write their answer on mini-whiteboards and all respond simultaneously.

Step 3 – Planning the next teaching steps

Decide what next teaching steps you could take if they get the answers wrong. Some ideas I have used include the following:

1. Get them to discuss the questions:

      Dialogue the answers in pairs / fours / as a whole class

      Explain what’s wrong with the other answers

      Individuals can also explain why they chose an answer. What did they mis-understand? Do they “get it” now?

      Another individual can say whether they agree with this explanation and why

2. Make posters or animations (use iPads or mobile phones) of the whole process from transcription through to translation. Get the students to label all the different bonds which are formed during these processes.

3. Use Biozone activities 57 and 58 (pages 78 and 79 in the Edexcel Biology1 Student Workbook) to consolidate their understanding.