Comparing the effects of traditional vs. misconceptions-based instruction on student understanding of the greenhouse effect

John L. McCuin, Katharine Hayhoe, Douglas Hayhoe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Conceptual change theory holds that pre-existing misconceptions persist under regular instruction and interfere with student acquisition of correct concepts. This implies that effective instruction should address both concepts and common misconceptions. Here, we investigate the efficacy of incorporating corrective information regarding well-documented misconceptions on the greenhouse effect and how the climate is affected by human activities into instruction on the greenhouse effect. Specifically, we compare student acquisition of fundamental concepts related to the greenhouse effect and climate change via traditional reading-based instruction (TRI) to misconceptions reading-based instruction (MRI). Lab sections from a first year Atmospheric Sciences course at a large public university were assigned to either a TRI or MRI treatment group, yielding a total of 197 subjects who successfully completed a pretest, the treatment, an immediate post-test, and a 2-week delayed post-test. Repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) with contrasts reveals that while both treatments produced significant gains in the post-test and delayed post-test overall, only the MRI treatment produced long- term gains on misconception-related questions. These results support the conceptual change model’s claims that misconceptions may persist through concept-based instruction, but may be uprooted by instruction that addresses them directly. Based on these findings, it appears that a relatively brief reading passage focused on the basic science underlying a complex phenomenon, such as the greenhouse effect and human impact on climate, can be effective in improving student understanding. In addition, specifically addressing and instructing against misconceptions may improve learner acquisition of key concepts on which misconceptions exist.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)445-459
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Geoscience Education
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2014


  • Global warming
  • Greenhouse effect
  • Misconceptions
  • Radiation
  • Reading-based instruction


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