Misconceptions and conceptual change in science education

Perhaps one of the greatest privileges of being a science teacher is having the chance to remedy students’ deeply held misconceptions (alternative conceptions). It is important that whilst we do this, however, we don’t rubbish students’ ideas just because they don’t fit our scientifically acceptable schemas. Indeed, many alternative conceptions are very useful for students and allow them to live perfectly happy and functional lives e.g. buying plant food and closing the door to keep the cold out!

My hero Rosalind Driver

Rosalind Driver made a huge contribution to the field of understanding student misconceptions in science. She believed students construct their understanding of the world through their observations and interactions with their peers.

Driver recognised that students need teacher guidance if they are to make sense of the world. Students are unlikely to give up their alternative conceptions easily, so lessons must be carefully designed to help them make this leap; those who champion discovery based learning beware! Students need opportunities to make their current thinking visible, be presented with alternative ideas, and should be given time to assimilate these into their thinking.

Driver proposed that a number of issues make it difficult for students to discover meaning for themselves.

  • Students are unclear about what to focus on. For example, they may focus on the magnetic stirrer when the intended outcome was to focus on the solution inside the beaker
  • Students hold preconceptions about what they will see, such as expecting smoke to move randomly in air
  • Students are unclear of the meaning of scientific conventions. For example, an arrow can refer to a force in physics, moving from reactants to products in chemistry or energy transfer in biology

Examples of misconceptions held by students (and adults!)

  1. Plants get their food from the soil
  2. Particles expand when they are heated
  3. Light travels from students’ eyes to the object

How can science teachers bring about conceptual change?

  1. Allow time in the lesson to recognise students’ misconceptions (check prior learning)
  2. Give students time to reflect on what they have found out
  3. Give students time to discuss and share ideas (support oracy)
  4. Allow students to experience scientific phenomena for themselves (practical work)
  5. Present competing theories to students so they have the opportunity to reject some theories (misconceptions) and accept others (conceptual change). Concept cartoons can help here

Links to pages about misconceptions in science

Further reading
  • Driver, R. (2008) The Pupil as Scientist? Open University Press: Maidenhead UK.
  • Driver, R., Squires, A.,Rushworth, P. and Wood-Robinson, V. (1994) Making sense of Secondary Science: Research Into Children’s Ideas, London: Routledge
  • Sadler, P. M., Sonnert, G., Coyle, H.P., Cook-Smith, N., & Miller, J.L. (2013) Student learning in middle school science classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 50, 1020-1049
  1. Cognitive development 
  2. Motivation in science 
  3. Misconceptions and conceptual change
  4. Deep learning in science teaching