Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Students Using Proper Science Vocabulary Can Mask Authentic Understanding

A couple weeks ago, I participated in a workshop session led by Professor Rosemary Russ of UW-Madison. She shared a story of a mystifying event: her dog tends to sniff around more on walks after it rains. She broke us into small groups, gave us some chart paper, and asked us to discuss why that may be happening. Our group gradually dug in, shared ideas, and started drawing out our thinking (we were modeling, though she never used that term). After a while groups shared their thoughts, and she asked questions. In particular, she repeatedly pushed us to explain our thinking, our “why,” our understanding of concepts, how our ideas compared with others’ ideas… When I shared, she didn’t let me get away with using the term “volatile” – she made me explain what I meant!

Professor Russ then emphasized that students too often hide a lack of full understanding behind memorized vocabulary words and definitions. In this Illusion of Explanatory Depth, students repeat ideas without fully understanding what they mean. They can’t use these ideas to help make sense of a phenomenon, because they’ve never truly understood them. Often, in a typical class discussion, assignment, and assessment, students are able to throw around these words and regurgitate ideas, and they appear to really get it. They pass the test but aren’t pressed. They sound capable but aren’t challenged. The concepts are not retained.

Worksheets, questions at the end of a chapter, and taking notes in class do not constitute strong pillars of instruction. Effective science learning happens when students engage in dialogue about phenomena, revise models, and evaluate whether the evidence they have is sufficient to support one explanation over another. It comes when they have to do the work to make sense of the world, not when the figuring out has really already been done for them.

In the conversation with Professor Russ, someone brought up a concern that student explanations might contain “misconceptions” that other students will pick up on. As she noted, that’s an essential part of the scientific process. We hear things all the time in life that are unfounded and not based in accurate or sufficient evidence. In the classroom, it’s critical that students don’t stop after this first stage of sensemaking, just like it’s essential that all people don’t stop thinking about and looking for further evidence after reading some random “scientific” article online. Students will work together to engage in further investigation and evidence gathering after this initial process. They figure out why a particular explanation doesn’t pass muster. They must figure that out themselves if it’s going to stick; for conceptual change, it does not work to have the teacher jump in and counter an idea.

Importantly, this Illusion of Explanatory Depth does not only happen in science. Students in math can hide behind the algorithm (the formula, the typical problem, etc.) to mask their lack of sensemaking and of conceptual understanding. Students in economics, history, or psychology might throw out terms such as “supply and demand” or “culture,” or note theories such as “institutional determinism” or “behaviorism.” As noted in the previous blog post, students should be wrestling with phenomena across subject areas to develop deep understanding and use these ideas as part of their efforts to make sense of various aspects of their world.


  1. Excellent expression of aspects of teaching that I have gleaned from 40 years of teaching high school chemistry. Give me 3 - 5 minutes talking with a student and asking question, then I'll have assessed exactly what the student doesn't understand.

  2. I experience this often and solicit additional information by asking "What does that mean?" or "Can you explain this in another way?" It is incumbent upon us to ask probing questions to both uncover the illusion and give the student the opportunity to look at the issue from a different perspective.

  3. I saw this a lot with my students when I taught high school chem. Students were able to use formulas with little understanding of what they meant. One of the major anti-NGSS arguments that I hear from educators is that we are gutting sciences such as chemistry and physics at the high school level. My rebuttal is that so many students weren’t “getting it” beyond a superficial level before. (Courses are also always welcome to go beyond the NGSS standards 😀). I am attempting to shift toward a model that more closely resembles the 5E model (though I am not great at strict adherence to this model). But I love that vocabulary is introduced toward the end of this model until the explain phase.