“Epic-Genetics”: An exploration of preservice helping professionals’ (mis)understanding of epigenetic influences on human development

Keywords: epigenetics, misconceptions, motivation, human development, educational psychology


Mental health researchers emphasize the importance of practitioner understanding of biology-environment interplay. Accordingly, our goal of the study described in this article was to understand students’ preconceptions and misconceptions about biological and environmental influences on development through investigating their conceptions of epigenetics. Using a short-term longitudinal design, we explored preservice helping professionals’ conceptions and misconceptions pertaining to epigenetics within the framework of a graduate level human development course. Baseline knowledge about epigenetics was low. Students developed multiple misconceptions about epigenetics and how the phenomenon relates to biological and environmental influences on human development. Students reported feeling highly efficacious for detecting and resolving misconceptions related to biology-environment interactions but varied in their perceptions of interest for learning about the content. Findings support the use of open-ended questions to detect misconceptions about epigenetics and are discussed in light of how to teach students about this phenomenon. Overall, this research speaks to the importance of understanding the misconceptions students believe and instructional strategies that may assist in correcting them.

Author Biographies

Kate E. Snyder, Hanover College

Kate E. Snyder is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Hanover College (USA).

Caroline M. Pittard, Children's Mercy Hospital

Caroline M. Pittard is a postdoctoral researcher at Children’s Mercy Kansas City (USA).

Allison Fowler, University of Louisville

Allison Fowler is a doctoral student at the University of Louisville (USA).

Corey T. Watson, University of Louisville

Corey T. Watson is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Genetics at the University of Louisville (USA).


Akerson, V. L., Morrison, J. A., & McDuffie, A. R. (2006). One course is not enough: Preservice elementary teachers’ retention of improved views of nature of science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43(2), 194-213. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.20099

Alexander, P. A., Kulikowich, J. M., & Schulze, S. K. (1994). How subject-matter knowledge affects recall and interest. American Educational Research Journal, 31(2), 313-337. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312031002313

Badenhorst, E., Mamede, S., Hartman, N., & Schmidt, H. G. (2015). Exploring lecturers’ views of first-year health science students’ misconceptions in biomedical domains. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 20(2), 403-420. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10459-014-9535-3

Bahar, M. (2003). Misconceptions in biology education and conceptual change strategies. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 3, 55-64. https://doi.org/10.1080/00219266.2018.1490798

Balkissoon, R., Blossfield, K., Salud, L., Ford, D., & Pugh, C. (2009). Lost in translation: unfolding medical students’ misconceptions of how to perform a clinical digital rectal examination. The American Journal of Surgery, 197(4), 525-532 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjsurg.2008.11.025

Barbier, E., Johnstone, A. L., Khomtchouk, B. B., Tapocik, J. D., Pitcairn, C., Rehman, F., . . . Heilig, M. (2017). Dependence-induced increase of alcohol self-administration and compulsive drinking mediated by the histone methyltransferase PRDM2. Molecular Psychiatry, 22(12), 1746-1758. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2016.131

Bensley, D. A., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Psychological misconceptions: Recent scientific advances and unresolved issues. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(4), 377-382. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417699026

Bernier, A., Matte-Gagné, C., & Bouvette-Turcot, A. A. (2014). Examining the interface of children’s sleep, executive functioning, and caregiving relationships: A plea against silos in the study of biology, cognition, and relationships. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(4), 284-289. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414534852

Bonasio, R., Tu, S., & Reinberg, D. (2010). Molecular signals of epigenetic states. Science, 330(6004), 612-616. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1191078

Brumby, M. N. (1984). Misconceptions about the concept of natural selection by medical biology students. Science Education, 68(4), 493-503. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.3730680412

Cacioppo, J. T. (2013). Psychological science in the 21st century. Teaching of Psychology, 40(4), 304-309. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0098628313501041

Champagne, F. A., & Mashoodh, R. (2009). Genes in context: Gene–environment interplay and the origins of individual differences in behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(3), 127-131. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01622.x

Chi, M. T. H, & Roscoe, R. D. (2002). The processes and challenges of conceptual change. In M. Limón & L. Mason (Eds.), Reconsidering conceptual change: Issues in theory and practice (pp. 3-27). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Chinn, C. A., & Samarapungavan, A. (2009). Conceptual change—Multiple routes, multiple mechanisms: A commentary on Ohlsson (2009). Educational Psychologist, 44(1), 48-57. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00461520802616291

Cordova, J. R., Sinatra, G. M., Jones, S. H., Taasoobshirazi, G., & Lombardi, D. (2014). Confidence in prior knowledge, self-efficacy, interest and prior knowledge: Influences on conceptual change. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39(2), 164-174. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.03.006

diSessa, A. A. (2006). A history of conceptual change research: Threads and fault lines. In R. K.

Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 265–281). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dodge, K. A. (2004). The nature-nurture debate and public policy. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 50(4), 418-427. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23096214

Dole, J. A., & Sinatra, G. M. (1998). Reconceptualizing change in the cognitive construction of knowledge. Educational Psychologist, 33(2/3), 109-128. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep3302&3_5

Dunlosky, J., & Lipko, A. R. (2007). Metacomprehension: A brief history and how to improve its accuracy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(4), 228-232. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00509.x

Feder, A., Nestler, E. J., & Charney, D. S. (2009). Psychobiology and molecular genetics of resilience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 446-457. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nrn2649

Feil, R., & Fraga, M. F. (2012). Epigenetics and the environment: Emerging patterns and implications. Nature Reviews Genetics, 13, 97-109. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrg3142

Furnham, A., & Hughes, D. J. (2014). Myths and misconceptions in popular psychology: Comparing psychology students and the general public. Teaching of Psychology, 41(3), 256-261. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0098628314537984

Gilbert, J. K., & Watts, D. M. (1983). Concepts, misconceptions and alternative conceptions: Changing perspectives in science education. Studies in Science Education, 10(1), 61-98. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057268308559905

Heijmans, B. T., Tobi, E. W., Stein, A. D., Putter, H., Blauw, G. J., Susser, E. S., . . . Lumey, L. H. (2008). Persistent epigenetic differences associated with prenatal exposure to famine in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(44), 17046-17049. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0806560105

Henikoff, S., & Greally, J. M. (2016). Epigenetics, cellular memory and gene regulation. Current Biology, 26, R644-R648. Retrieved from https://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(16)30623-6.pdf

Hughes, S., Lyddy, F., & Lambe, S. (2013). Misconceptions about psychological science: A review. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 12(1), 20-31. http://dx.doi.org/10.2304/plat.2013.12.1.20

Kowalski, P., & Taylor, A. K. (2009). The effect of refuting misconceptions in the introductory psychology class. Teaching of Psychology, 36(3), 153-159. https://doi.org/10.1080/00986280902959986

Kuhle, B. X., Barber, J. M., & Bristol, A. S. (2009). Predicting students’ performance in introductory psychology from their psychology misconceptions. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 36(2), 119-124.

Lerner, R. M. (2006). Developmental science, developmental systems, and contemporary theories of human development. In R. M. Lerner, W. Damon (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology (6th ed.): Vol. 1. Theoretical models of human development (pp. 1-17). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2012). Public skepticism of psychology: Why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific. American Psychologist, 67(2), 111-129. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0023963

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). Mythbusting in introductory psychology courses: The whys and the hows. In S. A. Meyers, J. R. Stowell, S. A. Meyers, J. R. Stowell (Eds.), Essays from “E-xcellence in Teaching” (Vol. 9, pp. 55-61.) Retrieved from http://teachpsych.org/Resources/Documents/ebooks/eit2009.pdf

Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Pugh, K. J., Koskey, K. L. K., & Stewart, V. C. (2012). Developing conceptual understanding of natural selection: The role of interest, efficacy, and basic prior knowledge. Journal of Experimental Education, 80(1), 45-68. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2011.559491

Lyddy, F., & Hughes, S. (2012). Attitudes toward psychology as a science and the persistence of psychological misconceptions in psychology undergraduates. In S. McCarthy, K. L. Dickson, J. Cranny, A. Trapp, & V. Karandashev (Eds.), Teaching Psychology around the World (Vol. 3, pp. 330-349. Newcastle upon Tune: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Meaney, M. J. (2001). Nature, nurture, and the disunity of knowledge. Annals of the New York

Academy of Sciences, 935(1), 50-61. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb03470.x

Meaney, M. J., & Szyf, M. (2005). Environmental programming of stress responses through

DNA methylation: Life at the interface between a dynamic environment and a fixed genome. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 7(2), 103-123. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181727/

Morris, C. V., DiNieri, J. A., Szutorisz, H., & Hurd, Y. L. (2011). Molecular mechanisms of maternal cannabis and cigarette use on human neurodevelopment. European Journal of Neuroscience, 34(10), 1574-1583. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-9568.2011.07884.x

Nestler, E. J., Peña, C. J., Kundakovic, M., Mitchell, A., & Akbarian, S. (2016). Epigenetic basis of mental illness. Neuroscientist, 22 (5), 447-463. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858415608147

Park, A. (2015, June 8). Explaining “epigenetics”: The health buzzword you need to know. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/3911161/explaining-epigenetics-the-health-buzzword-you-need-to-know/

Peter, C. J., Fischer, L. K., Kundakovic, M., Garg, P., Jakovcevski, M., Dincer, A., . . . Akbarian, S. (2016). DNA methylation signatures of early childhood malnutrition associated with impairments in attention and cognition. Biological Psychiatry, 80(10), 765-774. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.03.2100

Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., & Boyle, R. A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 63(2), 167-199. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1170472

Robison, A. J., & Nestler, E. J. (2011). Transcriptional and epigenetic mechanisms of addiction. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 12, 623-637. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3111

Rogoff, B., & Wertsch, J.W. (Eds.). (1984). Children’s learning in the “zone of proximal development.” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Roseboom, T. J., De Rooij, S., & Painter, R. (2006). The Dutch famine and its long-term consequences for adult health. Early Human Development, 82(8), 485-491. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2006.07.001

Roseboom, T. J., Painter, R. C., Van Abeelen, A. F., Veenendaal, M. V., & De Rooij, S. R. (2011). Hungry in the womb: What are the consequences? Lessons from the Dutch famine. Maturitas, 70, 141-145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.06.017

Rotgans, J. I., & Schmidt, H. G. (2014). Situational interest and learning: Thirst for knowledge. Learning and Instruction, 32, 37-50. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2014.01.002

Saçkes, M., Trundle, K. C., Tuckman, B. Q., & Krissek, L. A. (2012). Development of the

efficacy beliefs for conceptual change learning questionnaire. Journal of Experimental Education, 80(4), 338-351. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2011.600355

Schunk, D. H., & Usher, E. L. (2012). Social cognitive theory and motivation. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 13-27). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Schraw, G., Flowerday, T., & Lehman, S. (2001). Increasing situational interest in the classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 13(3), 211-224. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1016619705184

Sheldon, J. P. (2018). Incorporating a discussion of genetic attributions into psychology courses. Teaching of Psychology, 45(1), 91-101. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628317745463

Sinatra, G. M. (2005). The “warming trend” in conceptual change research: The legacy of Paul R. Pintrich. Educational Psychologist, 40(2), 107-115. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4002_5

Sonuga-Barke, E. J. (2010). ‘It’s the environment stupid!’ On epigenetics, programming and plasticity in child mental health. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(2), 113-115. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02213.x

Spencer, J. P., Blumberg, M. S., McMurray, B., Robinson, S. R., Samuelson, L. K., & Tomblin, J. B. (2009). Short arms and talking eggs: Why we should no longer abide the nativist–empiricist debate. Child Development Perspectives, 3(2), 79-87. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1750-8606.2009.00081.x

Thompson, F., & Logue, S. (2006). An exploration of common student misconceptions in science. International Education Journal, 7(4), 553-559. Retrieved from http://ehlt.flinders.edu.au/education/iej/articles/mainframe.htm

Thompson, R. A., & Zamboanga, B. L. (2004). Academic aptitude and prior knowledge as predictors of student achievement in introduction to psychology. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(4), 778-784. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.96.4.778

Tobi, E. W., Goeman, J. J., Monajemi, R., Gu, H., Putter, H., Zhang, Y., . . . Heijmans, B. T. (2014). DNA methylation signatures link prenatal famine exposure to growth and metabolism. Nature Communications, 5, 5592-5605. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms6592

Tomasiewicz, H. C., Jacobs, M. M., Wilkinson, M. B., Wilson, S. P., Nestler, E. J., & Hurd, Y. L. (2012). Proenkephalin mediates the enduring effects of adolescent cannabis exposure associated with adult opiate vulnerability. Biological Psychiatry, 72(10), 803-810. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.04.026

How to Cite
SnyderK. E., PittardC. M., FowlerA., & WatsonC. T. (2020). “Epic-Genetics”: An exploration of preservice helping professionals’ (mis)understanding of epigenetic influences on human development. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 8(1), 122-137. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.8.1.9