An Interview with Andrew Butler: Correcting the Incorrect – And Remembering it!

Feb 8, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1)      Professor Butler, you have just finished a study involving student recollection of incorrect information. How did this come about?

The impetus for the study was our interest in trying to resolve a paradox. Intuition and common experience would indicate that it is very difficult to correct misconceptions that are deeply entrenched in memory. Various theories of how human memory works also predict the same thing. However, recent research had shown that errors made with high confidence were actually more likely to be corrected with feedback than low-confidence errors. We wanted to figure out how this surprising finding, called the hypercorrection effect, could be reconciled with what we know about the difficulty of correcting well-learned misconceptions.

2)      Where do students seem to get this incorrect information from?

People encounter incorrect information everywhere — the Internet, TV, popular movies, to name but a few common sources. Of course, these sources communicate a lot of correct information as well. When people encounter incorrect information, it is possible that they will learn it and thereby acquire false knowledge about the world.

3)      I find it difficult in this day and age that there is inaccurate information out there- could you give an example?

Sure — there are plenty of examples of inaccurate information out there in the world. For instance, one of the questions that we asked students in our study was “What class of animals is the closest living relative of the dinosaurs?” Students often gave “reptiles” as the response and did so with very high confidence. However, the correct answer is actually “birds”. Thus, this particular question is an example of a misconception that many students have that seems to be deeply entrenched in knowledge — they are so confident that “reptiles” are the closest living relative of the dinosaurs even though it is actually birds who are the closest living relative.

4)   I know that in the 1700’s people thought epilepsy was caused by witchcraft and demon possession, but now we know it to be a neurological problem. Are there similar “old wives tales “ out there?

Yes — I think that what we refer to as “old wives tales” are sometimes misconceptions that have been refuted by science or other means, but the false knowledge lives on because it is difficult to correct.

5)     Now what is this “hypercorrection” that I keep hearing about ? Can you describe?

The hypercorrection effect is the finding that high-confidence errors are more likely to be corrected with feedback than low-confidence errors. The finding is very surprising because one would assume that an error that is deeply entrenched in memory would be very hard to correct — but in fact is easier to correct. However, this phenomenon seems to be relatively short-lasting.

Our study shows that high-confidence errors are more likely to be corrected at first, but over longer periods of time these same errors are likely to come back if the correct information is forgotten. As a result, the hypercorrection effect seems like an important opportunity to help people correct their misconceptions, but we will need to give them additional practice with remembering the correct information if we want to produce long-lasting error-correction.

6)    Many teachers I talk to bemoan not incorrect information, but a lack of general information, or world knowledge or global information. Can you differentiate between the two?

I think that this distinction is very important. One important goal of education is to help students acquire knowledge about the world. When students have a lack of general knowledge, it represents a challenge because they may have more to learn. In contrast, when students have false knowledge, it can be harmful to learning if this incorrect information works against what they are trying to learn.

For example, if students have common misconceptions about the physics, then this false knowledge might interfere with their ability to learn about the laws of physics. Overall, I think that the distinction is between an absence of knowledge and knowledge that contradicts correct information that one is trying to learn.

7)   Why do students so strongly adhere to incorrect information? Is it due to a dynamic teacher, or an enthusiastic teacher or some mnemonic?

I think that there can be many reasons why incorrect information is well-remembered. However, most misconceptions probably result from repeated exposure to incorrect information over time — be it from an outside source (e.g., political advertising) or one’s own experiences (e.g., naive theories of motion).

8)   It would seem that it takes some time to correct erroneous information. How can the regular education teacher best do this?

I think that the first step is to correct the misconception by providing students with feedback that informs them of the error as well as the correct information. However, this step alone is not enough — it is also important to provide students with additional exposure to the correct information so that they will remember it in the future. One practical and powerful way that teachers can accomplish this additional exposure is to give the students practice retrieving the correct information. We have conducted other research studies that show that giving students repeated practice with retrieving and using information produces robust long-term retention of that information. For example, the teacher could ask students the question again from time to time during class or give the question on a quiz every few weeks.

9)      What have I neglected to ask?

Nothing. Thanks for your interest in our research..

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