Physicist Eric Mazur no longer lectures to his Harvard undergraduates. The seeds of this shift lie in the following story:
Mazur tried the test [of conceptual understanding] on his own students. Right at the start, a warning flag went up when one student raised her hand and asked, “How should I answer these questions—according to what you taught me, or how I usually think about these things?” To Mazur’s consternation, the simple test of conceptual understanding showed that his students had not grasped the basic ideas of his physics course: two-thirds of them were modern Aristotelians. “The students did well on textbook-style problems,” he explains. “They had a bag of tricks, formulas to apply. But that was solving problems by rote. They floundered on the simple word problems, which demanded a real understanding of the concepts behind the formulas.” [full story here]
By the time they arrive at college—maybe by the time they're toddling around preschool—students have absorbed what philosophers call "folk physics." That is, they have a set of deeply entrenched but false beliefs about physics. These beliefs interfere with their ability to learn physics, even when they are explicitly taught that those beliefs are false.
I recalled this story while reading the first chapter of How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. That first chapter discusses various ways that students' background beliefs affect their ability to learn new material. The most problematic kind of false background belief is what Ambrose et al. call "misconceptions," which are "models or theories that are deeply embedded in students' thinking." Ambrose et al. warn that models are "difficult to refute" partly beacause "they often include accurate—as well as inaccurate—elements." Indeed, "[r]esearch has shown that deeply held misconceptions often persist despite direct instructional interventions." Fortunately, "carefully designed instruction can help wean students from misconceptions...." The first step in overcoming misconceptions, however, is identifying them.
Most undergraduates, I think, have some misconceptions about morality. In my classes, this arises most obviously in discussions of cultural relativism. Many students initially adhere to a simplistic, poorly justified normative cultural relativism, which may or may not be consistent with some of their other beliefs about morality. And in my experience, even very bright students fall back on simplistic relativistic thinking even after we walk through the standard arguments against relativism. Like Mazur's students, they resort to "how [they] usually think about" morality, rather than "how [I] taught them." Thus, it seems to me that many students' misconception of morality involves a simplistic kind of relativism. (I take it that even if some kind of relativism is true, students' simplistic version is false.)
Here are a few more false beliefs that I suspect many students bring to our intro courses:
- "Morality is just a matter of opinion," which they take to mean that moral claims are neither true or false.
- Morality, like law, must be positivistic—that is, something can be right or wrong only if someone or something says that it's right or wrong. (Thus, "Who's to say what's right or wrong?")
- "Morality is just your personal feelings." This is a wishy-washy mix of emotivism and subjectivism. It entails that you're always right about moral claims that apply to yourself, and so obviously conflicts both with (1) and with cultural relativism.
- Saying that x is wrong is equivalent to saying that anyone who does x should be punished. (Now, Mill says something like this, but allows that the punishment could be left to one's own conscience. Many students seem to think that "society," in some form or another, should punish the person.)
Do other people's students seem to have these false beliefs about morality? What other false beliefs about morality do students have when they arrive in our intro courses?