It is always helpful to know about students’ prior experience and learning, and particularly so when misconceptions exist. Here, appropriate use of assessment techniques can help the instructor to determine the extent to which existing knowledge and experience can be effectively used, or whether alternative approaches are needed. Angelo and Cross (8) suggest techniques for determining not only factual knowledge, but also skills in analysis, synthesis, critical thinking, problem solving, and student attitudes and values. Many times, misconceptions are the result of a combination of misinformation and misinterpretation, but such errors can not simply be dismissed. Zull (3, 4) strongly recommends that finding a way to use past experience is more effective than simply telling the student, “That’s wrong. The right answer is…” Misconceptions don’t go away simply because we provide the right answers. However, with an understanding of the nature of students’ misconceptions, it is possible to help students reorganize existing knowledge and to help students reconstruct old ideas in new and appropriate ways. Zull (p.93) sums it up as follows: “First, prior knowledge is a fact….Second, prior knowledge is persistent….Third, prior knowledge is the beginning of new knowledge. It is always where all learners start. They have no choice.” Given this it seems not only wise, but necessary for teachers to make clear the relationships between prior knowledge/experience and new material.
When course material is connected to real-life situations, the instructor can demonstrate logical organization: “Today, as we discuss supply and demand I will show how theory X can be applied to solving problem Y. I’ve chosen this example because it provides a clear path to gaining a solid understanding of the basis for many economic decisions.” Applications make content more clear and understandable: “Now, let’s do this case study see how and why this principle works.” Connecting content to a desired real-world outcome demonstrates practical value: “This is the kind of project that you will have to carry out as professionals in the workplace.” Finally, making connections as above stimulates interest by getting students engaged in solving problems that interweave, theory, applications, and recognizable tasks: “Let’s see how this example relates to your attempts to develop a business plan.” Coincidentally, these four teaching dimensions (organization, clarity, perceived outcomes, and stimulation of interest) are also among the most powerful predictors of student ratings of teaching. It is easy to see how organization and clarity are related, and a logical structure makes it easier for students to know what is expected. The combination allows students to grasp the importance of the course and they are more easily motivated, more often engaged, and more frequently successful.
Maryellen Weimer (9) notes that we need to “…treat experiential knowledge more analytically and more objectively” (p. xiv) and she describes “learner-centered teaching” as a process that “…accepts, cultivates, and builds on the ultimate responsibility students have for learning” (p. xvi). When we relate course material to real life situations, we acknowledge the potential of prior experience to enhance learning and at the same time tell our students that they have to connect new information to their own experiences. Learning requires this synthesis and we can not do this for them. Thus, “learner-centered teaching” has as its focus, two kinds of partnerships: the personal one that acknowledges the responsibilities of teachers and learners, and the cognitive one, that requires synthesis of old and new knowledge. In this sense, learner-centered teaching models the real-life processes that students will have to face – they will have to work with others to apply existing knowledge and to adapt that knowledge as situations change and new problems arise.