Evidence of rote learning of science by Spanish university students

Gonzalez, Fermin Ma

The purpose of this investigation was to test for alternative conceptions of students enrolled in a second course of sciences at the Teacher Training School in Pamplona, Spain, regarding a geological topic (silicates) which had been studied in previous educational levels. The investigation also proposed to test the efficiency of NovaK’s concept mapping technique as a method of knowing the cognitive structure of the students. Students’ concept maps showed the existence of a large number of alternative conceptions and the persistence and tenacity of these misconceptions after a period of instruction on the topic, even in the case of so-called “good” students.

What is required is a growing commitment on the part of those peoples who now enjoy plenty to help those who have so little. But this kind of altruism cannot be built on an education that is inherently fraudulent, designed for grades or test scores even when this attainment does not confer empowerment of the student. If we want moral citizens we must provide them with education that is inherently moral.

It has been said that there is nothing so unstoppable as an idea whose time has come. Let us hope and work together to beat swords into plowshares and also to use resources to improve the quality of education. (Novak, 1989, p.23)

Spanish education is at a crucial historical juncture. The accelerated pace of current life and the adaptation to technological, social, economic, and political changes call for new services from educative settings. Innovative actions that successfully integrate all of the “commonplaces” of education are necessary (Novak, 1989; Schwab, 1973).

During the 1991/1992 academic year, a gradual process of reform of Spanish education was initiated, in both primary and secondary school levels. The theoretical basis of the reform is contained in the socalled “white book.” The psychopedagogical principles and the content corresponding to the different areas of the curriculum are detailed in the book, which also emphasizes “meaningful learning.” The White Book for Educational System Reform (Ministerio de Educacion y Ciencia, 1989) was developed and published by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science. Part I of the book approaches several aspects, such as legal scope, Spanish educational reality, reform necessity, and reform project objectives, especially improvement of teaching quality.

Spanish educational reform is based on some principles of educational intervention within a constructivist theoretical paradigm of school learning and pedagogical intervention. These principles, among others, are the following:

The necessity of starting from the development level of the students and from the concepts and experiences that they already have.

The facilitation of meaningful learning construction by relating new concepts, attitudes, and learning procedures to those the students already have. For that, content to learn must be potentially meaningful and students must have a favorable attitude.

Educational intervention must make it possible for students to construct meaningful learning by themselves by using cognitive strategies and skills, that is to say, students must be capable of learning how to learn.

Through extensive professional activity (classes, lectures, seminars, etc.), the author has been able to observe the frustration that most of the teachers feel, due to the lack of both adequate guidelines and practical resources that empower them to successfully implement educative reform in the reality of school settings. The author believes that theoretical ideas stemming from Ausubel’s Assimilation Theory of Learning (Ausubel, 1968; Ausubel, Novak & Hanesian, 1978, 1987), Gowin’ s Educating Theory (Gowin,1981), and Novak’s Theory of Education (Novak,1977,1982) can contribute to solving the problem. An important empirical validation in educative systems of different countries and our own experience support these theoretical models (see, for example, Brody,1993; Gonzdlez,1990,1992a, 1992b, 1992c, 1993, 1997; Gonzalez & Novak, 1996; Markham, Mintzes, & Jones,1993; Peled, Barenholz, & Tamir, 1993; Shymansky & Matthews, 1993).

Theoretical Background

Analysis of investigations of knowledge that students already have corroborates the idea that there is a great potential for learning in human beings that remains undeveloped and that many educational practices dull instead of facilitate (Novak, 1985). Both instruction and evaluation strategies frequently applied in schools and universities justify and reward rote learning and often penalize meaningful learning (Novak, 1977). When instruction centers on memorization of definitions, dates, and problem-solving algorithms, and when evaluation requires verbatim answers or text-type problem solutions, meaningful learning with thoughtful reconstruction of knowledge can be a liability.

Investigations made at Cornell University, conducted in school settings from primary to adult education, resulted in the development of a comprehensive theory of education (Novak & Gowin, 1984, 1988). The implementation of this theory has led to the development of new strategies for teachers (and parents/ tutors) to help students learn how to learn. These learning and teaching strategies include “concept mapping” and “knowledge vee” mapping.

The principle of meaningful learning includes the idea that each one of us has had a unique sequence of learning experiences and, consequently, each of us has acquired idiosyncratic meanings for concepts. In some instances, these idiosyncratic meanings deviate from meanings culturally accepted, and we say that this person has a “misconception” or an “alternative framework.” After learners establish these alternative conceptions in their cognitive structures, they are not easily modified (Helm & Novak, 1983; Novak, 1987).

According to Novak, many students believe that memorizing school information is the only way to learn. Experience shows that educators often find themselves powerless to diminish rote learning and to increase meaningful learning. Three important reasons explain the difficulty of this problem:

1. The student may not be aware that there is an alternative to rote learning.

2. The concepts to be learned are presented in such an obscure way that learning by memorizing appears to be the only alternative.

3. Evaluation of student learning often requires little more than verbatim recall of information or problem-solving algorithms.

Wandersee, Mintzes, and Novak (1994), in their summary work on the current state of investigation on alternative conceptions in science, draw eight knowledge claims from analyzed studies in science education published during the last 20 years. One knowledge claim states that students go to formal instruction in sciences with a diverse set of alternative conceptions that have their origin in a diverse set of personal experiences and that they are both tenacious and resistant to extinction by means of conventional strategies of teaching. The students’ prior knowledge interacts with knowledge presented in formal instruction, giving rise to a set of unintended learning outcomes.

Knowing students’ ideas and taking them into account in the design of both curriculum and instruction is necessary so that meaningful learning by students can be enhanced. Only in this way can adequate conceptual change be promoted and, by sharing meanings, ideas of students can be brought closer to those of scientists.

Novak’s concept maps and Gowin’ s vee diagrams help us identify, understand, and organize concepts we plan to teach. They help us specify necessary propositions for understanding. Concept maps and vee diagrams made by students are effective ways of revealing what they already know. They facilitate the necessary interchange between teacher and student, revealing which concepts and propositions are in teaching material and the concepts and propositions characteristic of the cognitive structure of the students. They can also be used as evaluation tools that help to develop higher order thinking skills.

Finally, the purpose of our investigation was to test for alternative conceptions of students enrolled in a second course of science at the teacher training school in Pamplona, Spain, regarding a geological topic (silicates), which had previously been studied as part of the curriculum in different levels of upper elementary school and secondary school. The persistence of these misconceptions after a period of instruction on the topic was also investigated.

Development of the Investigation and Results

The proposed investigation was carried out during the academic years 1990/1991 and 1991/1992 with a group of 25 students of the second course of science at the teacher training school. This group was trained in concept mapping techniques without receiving specific instructions about the subject matter of geology. Then the students were asked to construct a concept map of the list of concepts (shown in Table 1 ) about the earth’s crust (silicates) on February 2, 1991. Figure 1 shows the concept map constructed by the professor.

One example of a map constructed by a student appears in Figure 2. This took place just before the students began to study silicates. In this way students had not received any prior information about the topic, although they should have had a theoretical background related to it. This topic is treated in levels 1 and 3 of secondary school (within the subject matter of natural sciences), and some students studied this topic in a geology program necessary to gain admittance to the university.

This same class of 2nd-year students then followed the course as usual with a conventional or traditional methodology (that is, without using metacognitive strategies), because other teachers were not familiar with these educational strategies and it was important to ascertain the previous knowledge of students on this particular topic.

The program for the 2nd year of geology consisted of 16 topics, divided into five areas: objectives and methods, crystallography and mineralogy, external geodynamics, internal geodynamics, and historical geology. The topic of silicates was presented in the second area and was the sixth topic of the program. Out of the approximately 32 weeks of the academic year, 2 1/2 weeks were devoted to the topic of silicates. I used eight classes to explain the topic; six classes were theoretical in nature, and the last two classes were practical in nature and were held in the laboratory.

One standard didactic class lasted 50 min. I used 4045 min of the class to make a presentation of theoretical aspects of silicates and the last 5-10 min for answering students’ questions on the topic. Each practical class in the laboratory lasted an hour and a half. Its objectives were for the students to became familiar with different types of silicates and to check the physical properties of silicates themselves. The instructional process was accomplished without special strategies such as concept maps and vee diagrams to promote meaningful learning.

The same group, during their 3rd year of studies (academic year 1991/1992), studied didactics of experimental sciences. In this course, students became familiar with concept mapping and vee diagram techniques that were used to design curriculum and instructional material for science subjects in general but not specifically related to silicates.

At the end of the course (June 17, 1992) and without any advance warning or opportunity to restudy, the students were given the same list of concepts about silicates as in the previous year’s diagnosis of their prior knowledge. They then were asked to construct a concept map.

Figure 3 shows the concept map elaborated by the same student who had done the concept map shown in Figure 2 in the previous school year.

Concept maps constructed by the student “G. A.” were chosen, because (a) they are good examples of the general misconception tendencies of the group in all the maps made, and (b) G. A. is a student who received good grades in geology in all course examinations and a final grade of 8.5 out of 10.

Three additional concept maps (Figures 4, 5, and 6), elaborated on by three students after instruction, were also chosen, because they are good examples of the three detected specific tendencies in the students’ concept maps.


The consideration of concept maps constructed by students from the teacher training school in the first phase of the study showed an enormous number of misconceptions, suggesting that rote learning had been dominant for most of these students. This statement is also corroborated by the careful study of concept maps constructed by the same students after a long period of time (more than 1 year). Concept maps constructed by G. A. illustrate the general pattern of responses.

The first map, shown in Figure 2, was made by the student before receiving pertinent instruction in relation to the topic of silicates, which is included in the geology program of the 2nd year. Although the student studied this topic in the first and third courses of secondary school in the natural sciences subject matter (5 and 3 years prior), and, in this particular case, in the geology program, which is the course necessary to gain admittance to a university (2 years prior), many misconceptions were evident. In the first concept map, taking into account the list of concepts provided, the student shows that the concepts are organized into three groups: types of silicates, structures of silicates, and examples of silicates. The student was not able to make any connection among them. This is a typical characteristic of the students considered and, therefore, this concept map is a good example of the initial situation before instruction. This concept map also shows that the previous knowledge of this topic was very poor and indicates that this student, as many others in this course, learned in a rote way instead of in a meaningful way. The concept map in Figure 2 shows that this student was not able to relate correctly either examples of silicates with groups of silicates, or groups of silicates with their corresponding structural unities; moreover, he was not able to give even one correct example. As pointed out earlier, the characteristics of this concept map are repeated in most of the students’ concept maps. In fact, almost no one was able to make correct propositions with the list of concepts supplied. The results were really disastrous!

In considering the second concept map of this student, although the instruction (related to this topic of silicates) given to the students was conventional or traditional, it was surprising to see that there were no correct propositions which were meaningfully related to tectosilicates. These were emphasized in the relations of this concept with other aspects, such as threedimensional structures formed by tetrahedra with maximum sharing of oxygen atoms, great stability, abundance of feldspar and quartz in the fluvial deposit, etc. This student, as the concept map shows in Figure 3, did not relate tectosilicates to three-dimensional structures formed by tetrahedra with the four shared oxygen atoms of each one. Consequently, it has the greatest stability among the different groups of silicates and an important presence in fluvial deposits.

Another surprising result was related to the concept of phyllosilicates. Apparently, this concept remained confused in students’ minds in spite of having been emphasized during instruction that related aspects such as etymology of the word, sheet structure anisotropy in some physical properties such as hardness and exfoliation, and characteristics of clays and micas. This student, as is also shown in the concept map in Figure 3, did not consider phyllosilicates as sheet structures and, also, he related micas with tectosilicates and erroneously related silicon (a chemical element) with a very complex structure, phyllosilicates.

In relation with concept maps made by the rest of students after instruction, three tendencies existed in the students’ concept maps. In the maps of a group of three students, the concepts appeared in three completely separated areas, without any links among them. These areas were groups of silicates, structures of silicates, and examples of silicates. Figure 4 shows a concept map made by the student “T. M.,” belonging to this group. Second, there was a group of seven students whose maps showed a typical pattern of conceptual organization. The groups of silicates appeared in one area of the map, and in another area were structures of silicates related with different examples but, in most cases, in an incorrect way. The concept map of the student “M. A. F.” (in Figure 5) is a good example of this. Finally, the concept maps elaborated by 14 students show the third tendency. In these concept maps, groups of silicates, structures of silicates, and examples are linked but with an enormous quantity of misconceptions. The most representative example is the concept map by the student “M. A. S.” (in Figure 6). In this group, we can also include the case of the student used in the first example (Figure 3).


The investigation allows us to draw some conclusions. It demonstrates that, unfortunately, misconceptions about scientific topics are very frequent in the group of university students considered, in spite of the fact that they had studied the topics in previous courses. Moreover, the great variety and specific characteristics of misconceptions illustrates the idiosyncratic character of individual knowledge and the fact that some misconceptions have proved to be both persistent and tenacious.

It seems quite clear that the traditional, or conventional, instruction which I designed and implemented encouraged rote learning and did not serve to modify faulty conceptual frameworks. Students lacked pertinent concepts for anchorage of new concepts to be related during the new instruction. As it is known, this is a fundamental requirement for meaningful learning. If useful and applicable understanding is to be achieved, it should be accessible in a long-term retention. Failure of even the “good” students to relate substantively new knowledge with what they already know may explain (together with inappropriate instruction) such bad results. Learning by rote is poor but more comfortable for students who have used this approach, even those who plan to become teachers!

This state of affairs in science education obliges teachers to consider changes in attitudes, teaching and evaluation methodology, etc. It is necessary to reorganize conceptually both curriculum and instruction to promote meaningful learning and, by the method of sharing and negotiating meanings, to displace misconceptions from students’ cognitive structures. The concept mapping technique has proved to be an efficient tool to reveal cognitive structure of the students and to show the evolution of their knowledge through time.

Finally, the majority of these conclusions shows the vital necessity for change and the enormous problems we face to achieve the goals set for educational reform in Spain.


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Fermin Ma Gonzalez State University of Navarra

Author Note: An earlier version of this article was presented at the Third International Seminar on Misconceptions and Educational Strategies in Science and Mathematics in Ithaca, New York, in August 1993.

I am grateful for the help of Dr. Francisco Ibanez Moya for the composition of the text and also to my English teachers Niels Haesen and Ray Wolak.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Fermin MW. Gonzalez, Department of Psychology and Pedagogy, State University of Navarra, 31006 Pamplona, Spain. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to fermin@upna.es.

Copyright School Science and Mathematics Association, Incorporated Dec 1997

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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