Misconception and Conceptual Understanding in Science

By Oliver Smith

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It is important we don’t view our students as empty vessels or blank slates when they come into our classrooms. Students are full of their own ideas and theories about the world, some of these are correct and some of them don’t agree with current evidence and agreed thinking in a subject. Often as educators we can fail to appreciate the wide and varied experiences our students have had and the effect this can have on how they think the universe works. Students have misconceptions in all subjects, but this is especially true in Science.

A misconception is a view or opinion that is incorrect based on incorrect thinking. They can be also known as alternative concepts or erroneous understanding. Some examples of misconception are that all pure substances are safe to eat and drink, current is used up in a bulb, or blood in arteries is red and blood in veins is blue. These misconceptions can be shared or can be personal. They are important and shouldn’t be ignored as they are the foundation on which other learning is built.

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A misconception can come from a wide range of sources. Misconceptions can come from students trying to make sense of the world around them with limited understanding of scientific concepts. An example of this is all objects need a force to make them move. Sometimes they come from prior teaching. In Science we sometimes simplify complex, abstract ideas using analogies and models. These models don’t always tell the whole truth, but are useful teaching tools, such as the notion of a particle. We tell students that particles are small ball-like objects that can bind together and make up all matter. We tell students they are arranged in a certain way as a solid, a certain way for a liquid, and a certain way as a gas. This isn’t the whole truth: the particles we often talk about as singular items are actually molecules or atoms. Atoms are not one particle, but made up of multiple subatomic particles.

Misconceptions can also come from mis-remembering or mis-observing. Some common misconceptions may be linked to specialist language. For example, words like power, energy, and weight are often used in everyday speech; in Science however, they have very specific meanings. The word weight in Science means the force due to gravity acting on an object with mass, in the ‘everyday meaning’ people use weight to mean mass. The problem with misconceptions is they are deep-rooted and extremely difficult to get rid of. Students have often held these opinions for a very long time and they make complete sense to them. Students often are completely unaware that their understanding is incorrect and that can impede learning.

The best way to deal with misconceptions is first to find them, then confront them, and finally, reconstruct them. The initial challenge is finding out if students have any misconceptions and if they do, it is important to find out what they are. There are many strategies we can use in the classroom to highlight and discover misconceptions.

Talking, and more importantly listening, to your students is an effective way to find out what your students understand and don’t understand. Although sometimes time-consuming, discussing with your students is a very effective way to discover students' ideas around a particular topic. In a classroom setting, you may only find that your most confident students speak up and share their ideas with the rest of the class. Getting students talking to you and others can some sometimes be challenging. Discussion Storyboards on Storyboard That can be a great stimulus for discussion. They provide a visual cue and a range of opinions on a topic. They allow students to choose a viewpoint and then defend their viewpoint using scientific reasoning. There is a wide selection of pre-made Discussion Storyboards available covering a large number of topics. They have been designed to include some common misconceptions as the different viewpoints.

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You can easily modify any of the discussion storyboards, or create your own based on your students’ needs using one of these templates.

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It is important to nurture an environment where students feel confident to share ideas. If you are leading this as a class discussion, ask students to comment on their peers' ideas and encourage students to interact with each other. Use questioning to promote deeper thinking and keep the discussion moving. At the end of the discussion, summarize the key points from start to finish, noting key ideas on the board.

Using a quiz to see what students know isn’t only useful at the end of teaching a topic. Giving students quick quizzes on a topic before you have started teaching is a great way to see what your students know and don’t know. This pre-assessment can also be an effective way to measure academic growth in a particular topic, by comparing what they knew at the start of a topic and what they know at the end. Pre-assessment quizzes can quickly be done at the start of a topic and can be reviewed to identify any common misconceptions. These misconceptions can be addressed as you are teaching the topic. Reviewing students’ classwork is a lengthy process, but has many benefits in detecting misconceptions. This will give you an view of what each student understands and doesn’t understand. Leaving comments and targets can provide personal feedback and can encourage students to think differently about a particular topic.

Annotated diagrams can easily be produced using Storyboard That. An annotated diagram involves getting students to explain their scientific thinking about a situation by adding labels, arrows, and any extra information to a diagram. An example could be getting students to explain how we see things using this diagram.

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Speaking to other members of staff within your department and researching allows you to predict some common misconceptions that may come up in a given topic. If I am teaching about forces, I can predict that the misconception around mass affecting the speed at which something falls will come up at some point. So, I plan lessons that will ultimately get students to think differently. New teachers can sometimes be surprised by the ideas and concepts that students have. After a few years teaching the same topic, you will come to realize that sometimes the same misconception comes up every time you teach that topic.

There are plenty of strategies that we can use as educators to challenge and change the misconceptions our students have. It is always a good idea to use a wide range of teaching techniques to challenge these misconceptions. The one thing we can’t do, however, is let students leave our classroom with them! In order to do this, we need to cause cognitive conflict. Give your students something that challenges their misconceptions.

Sometimes showing students a class demonstration or even having them do the activity can show them that they weren’t 100% correct. Use this demonstration or activity as a tool to reconstruct thinking. Using the example ‘heavier things fall faster than lighter things’ misconception, this can be easily shown as incorrect using a simple demonstration. Get two identical bottles, fill one of them to the top with water and the other half full. Replace the lids and drop them from the same height. They have different masses, but they will reach the ground at the same time. There are also videos of hammers and feathers being dropped on the moon, which can also be used to provide further evidence that all things fall at the same rate. If there are two opposing ideas, have students plan an investigation. For more information on getting students to plan science experiments, visit our investigation planning resources.

Simply explaining why the misconceptions are incorrect is a method often used by teachers. Alternatively, ask other students to explain why a particular misconception is incorrect as a more effective method. There are many benefits to peer learning and collaborative work, such as an increased ownership of learning and the development of higher-order thinking skills.

Models and analogies can also be excellent teaching tools for dealing with abstract concepts. They present sometimes confusing ideas in more an easy-to-understand context. They have limitations and it can be interesting to discuss what these limitations are with students. An example of using models to help students understand circuits could be the rope model or the water heater model.

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In order for students to succeed in their Science education we need to make sure that their foundational knowledge is strong and correct and that students misconceptions are addressed in lesson planning and execution. Finding misconceptions and then changing student thought can be difficult, but it is an essential process for science, and all, educators.

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