Errors are not misconceptions

Is there a difference between an error and a misconception in science?


Misconceptions tend to be based on naive ideas from everyday experiences. For example, many students believe in the concept of coldness, probably because they were asked to ‘close the door to keep the cold out’ and experienced cold hands after a snow ball fight. These students intuitively think that coldness spreads from one object to another. Misconceptions in this way are not single errors in understanding, but form mental frameworks, often connected to scientific ideas, that explain a range of related but different concepts – albeit based on false logic. For example, the erroneous concept of coldness leads students to think that cans go cold in the fridge because the coldness spreads from the fridge to the can; wrapping ice cream in newspaper will stop it melting because it will keep the cold in. So although these ideas are wrong to a scientist, they work for the individual (and society), and so are stable and resistant to change. For this reason, the term alternative conception is perhaps a more useful term than misconception when referring to these non-scientific ways of interpreting the world.

Overcoming errors – immediate gratification

Errors on the other hand tend to originate during times of teaching and lead to students misunderstanding a concept. An example might be thinking that plants respire at night and photosynthesise during the day. This is an error, and not a misconception, because the source was incomplete instruction as opposed to originating from an alternative conception constructed by the student. Once you teach students that respiration happens continuously, they quickly accept this this new, unproblematic idea. In fact, knowing respiration happens all the time is actually useful and so here the scientific idea is immediately helpful to the student. It seems that errors originate when we miss out steps in explanations which then require students to fill in the gaps, or when students over generalise, for example, incorrectly thinking that all metals are magnetic.

Overcoming misconceptions – delayed gratification

What about Newton’s first law? The idea that a force is only required to change the speed or direction of an object. On the surface this seems easy enough – ask students to draw simple force diagrams and they will do well. But ask students to draw a force diagram of a ball flying through the air, and the misconception that a force is required to keep objects moving will rear it’s ugly head. After all, stop pushing a toy car and it will stop. To address this misconception we need to use a range of methods e.g. diagnostic questions, cognitive conflict, competing hypotheses, demonstrations and time for students to reflect and construct new ways of thinking. For students with a misconception, knowing the scientific idea is immediately problematic as time is needed to reorganise many related ideas  i.e. ‘so why do planes keep burning fuel after take off if a force isn’t required to keep an object moving?’ Some students will enjoy this dissonance but some won’t.

Errors and misconceptions – a different pedagogical approach? 

So what’s important then is that we are aware that students might get something wrong because of an error or because of a misconception. This matters because it helps us to better understand the origin of the problem and how to fix it in the classroom. I’m still trying to fully understand the implications of errors and misconceptions to teaching.

When we identify errors in class we should be able to swiftly address these through clear explanations followed by practicing the specific aspects we are interested in. In written work, errors can be corrected by the teacher. If we fail to correct errors then misconceptions can form.

In contrast, overcoming misconceptions requires more than a clear explanation. Significant time needs to be spent helping students to reject their own ideas/concepts and accept the scientific ones. Correcting misconceptions on written tasks is probably not going to work (although revealing them will). Misconceptions are probably best dealt with in subsequent lessons using specific strategies for conceptual change. And we need to address these misconceptions over sustained periods of time. Indeed, some people argue we never overcome our misconceptions, we simply suppress and live with them – in which case, I hope I haven’t revealed any here!

  1. Misconceptions in science teaching