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! The trick is to introduce the scientific ideas clearly and get students to understand why the misconception is wrong.

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, creating a coherent set of ‘alternative conceptions’ based on common sense, but wrong, logic.

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

Other sources of misconceptions

As well as students constructing misconceptions for themselves, based on their everyday experiences, misconceptions can also be passed from the teacher to student through wrong or inaccurate teaching. Textbooks can be another source of misconceptions.

Strategies to explore misconceptions

Multiple choice questions  – students must select the scientific answer from a series of options, one of which will contain the misconception (distractor). Example here for teaching osmosis.

Refutation tasks – ask students to refute a misconception, explaining why it is wrong. For example: some people think that plants get food from the ground but….. .  Example here for teaching conservation of mass.

Open-ended questions – can explore the learners’ thinking processes e.g. are humans still evolving?

Using statements – provide students with some statements about scientific concepts. Students must then comment whether the statement is correct, partially correct or incorrect, and justify their answers with reasons. An example below is taken from Yip (1998)

In the mammalian circulatory system, the blood flow rate is lowest at the capillaries because, the very narrow capillaries offer great resistance to blood flow.  

This statement is partially correct – the blood flow rate is the lowest at the capillaries but the reasoning is wrong. In a closed system, such as our circulatory system, the rate of fluid flow at any point is not determined by the pressure at that point, but by its relative total cross-sectional area. The blood flow rate is therefore lowest at the capillary network because of its large total cross-sectional area not because of the lumen size.

How can science teachers bring about conceptual change?

  1. Start with the correct scientific view
  2. Once the scientific ideas have been introduced you can introduce the misconception – read up on what students are likely to think before you plan the lesson  – some misconceptions are far more common than others
  3. Explain, or even better show, why the misconception is wrong – 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 if used after the correct information has been introduced.
  4. Cognitive conflict can be a useful strategy to promote reorganisation of ideas e.g. show students that the same mass of plasticine will sink and float depending on its shape – mass therefore can’t explain why something floats or sinks
  5. Provide tasks where students have to demonstrate that they understand the scientific idea (why right is right) and are aware of the misconception (why wrong is wrong). Writing tasks can help here.

Links to pages about misconceptions in science

Not all misconceptions are errors

It’s worth remembering that not all student mistakes are misconceptions. I have written about this here.

Misconceptions remain

Finally, below is an excellent video, A Private Universe, that shows just how resistant to change some misconceptions are, even among Harvard graduates.

Full a private universe original from steven allardi on Vimeo.

Further reading
  1. Big ideas of science education
  2. Challenge
  3. Deep learning and making meaning
  4. Diagnostic teaching
  5. Knowledge versus understanding
  6. Misconceptions
  7. Motivation
  8. Novices and experts
  9. Progression
  10. Zooming in and out