Revealing & Dealing with Misconceptions

Misconceptions, inaccurate or incomplete ideas about a concept or a process, are common (Savion, 2009); indeed, they can arise in any discipline.  Our theories about the world and everything in it are based on our experiences, which are woefully incomplete.  Thus, we have a rather narrow basis from which to reason about why things work the way they do.  Literature that documents misconceptions, and discusses how to combat them, is heavily concentrated in the sciences (e.g., Cakir, 2008); but in addition to biology (Lazarowitz & Lieb, 2006; Nazario, Burrowes, & Rodriguez, 2002), chemistry (Kerr & Walz, 2007), physics (Clement, 1982; Madhyastha & Tanimoto, 2009; Wrinkle & Manivannan, 2009), evolution (Robbins & Roy, 2007), astronomy (Zeilik & Bisard, 2000), engineering (Miller, Streveler, & Yang, 2011) and computer science (Madhyastha & Tanimoto, 2009), literature on misconceptions in sociology (Goldsmith, 2006), mathematics (Confrey, 1990; Scheuermann & van Garderen, 2008), and on the importance of addressing the misconceptions of pre-service teachers also exists (Longfield, 2009; Yip, 1998).

Our initial beliefs about the world, prior to receiving any formal education, are called naïve theories (Savion, 2009).  Based on our particular life experiences, we develop naïve theories about everything we come into contact with.  But our brains take lots of shortcuts along the way—we look for patterns and quickly jump to conclusions, and this emphasis on efficiency costs us accuracy.  Learned early, naive theories are incredibly hard to extinguish; even in the face of conflicting information that we may later be exposed to.  The theoretical basis for this phenomenon, which is called belief perseverance (Savion, 2009), can be understood in terms of Piaget’s (1971) writing on cognitive disequilibrium (Longfield, 2009).  According to Piaget, cognitive disequilibrium is such an uncomfortable state that we strive to stay in equilibrium by not taking on any new information that conflicts with our present worldview.  Consequently, we are highly motivated to avoid, misunderstand, or discredit information that conflicts with our naïve conceptions of a topic.

Piaget’s (1971) concept of assimilation helps us understand why misconceptions persist.  New information is more easily learned when it can be related to something that is already known (Longfield, 2009).  Assimilation describes the type of learning that occurs when information can be taken on board without revising our existing cognitive frameworks.  This stands in contrast to accommodation, which describes learning where we must revise what we already know (or thought we knew) to accommodate a new idea.  We have a natural tendency to overemphasize information that supports our current theories and discount information that would throw us into disequilibrium (Longfield, 2009).

Two issues are paramount when it comes to misconceptions and education:  First, how do we identify when students have them?  Second, having identified them, how should we deal with them?  Utilizing fewer lectures and prompting students to engage in in-class activities allows instructors to identify students’ misconceptions and assess how pervasive they are (Savion, 2009).  One benefit of the “flipped” classroom approach, wherein students watch videotaped lectures at home and engage in problem-based learning activities in class, is that students’ misconceptions are more likely to arise while they are with the instructor and the instructor can more readily respond to them (Berrett, 2012).  Clickers and personal response systems (Sevian & Robinson, 2011), and the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IFAT; Cotner, Baepler & Kellerman, 2008) are all ways that the instructor can quickly assess students’ understanding of a topic, even in a large, lecture-style class.  Cakir (2008) advocates assessing students’ misconceptions through a quiz-style assessment both before and after a unit, pointing out that instructors need to be aware that misconceptions often persist even after explicit instruction.  Instructors should begin a new unit prepared to address commonly-held misconceptions that often arise (Longfield, 2009).

Having identified students’ misconceptions, the question then becomes how to deal with them.  The consensus in the literature is that adopting a student-centered pedagogy is the best way to address misconceptions (Cakir, 2008; Longfield, 2009; Savion, 2009).  In contrast to traditional, teacher-centered methods, which position the teacher at the literal and figurative center of the room, student-centered methods aim to place students at the center of their learning process, and to empower them as agents of their own learning.  Goldsmith (2006) describes Problem-Based Learning and Exploratory Writing activities, and introduces a new teaching method (roughly based on the former techniques) called Writing Answers to Learn.  What these methods have in common is that, in placing students at the center of the learning process, they engage them in an authentic process of discovery.  Research shows that when students are presented with compelling and authentic learning problems, they become more motivated and engaged.  Activity-based methods also heighten the likelihood that students will challenge each other’s, or their own, misconceptions, which is thought to have a more transformative effect compared to having one’s ideas challenged by the teacher (Goldsmith, 2006).  Longfield (2009) describes how presenting students with discrepant events, those whose outcomes are unexpected given the students’ initial misunderstandings, prompt students to reason through their misconceptions, which results in more lasting learning compared to when students are simply told what to think or given the right answers.

In spite of spending years in formal educational settings, misconceptions abound!  In a documentary entitled, A Private Universe, Schneps and Sadler report that graduates of Harvard College were no more likely than middle school students to correctly answer questions such as, Why do we have seasons? (as cited in Gooding & Metz, 2011).  As educators, it seems unlikely that we will be able to eliminate misconceptions entirely—the normal ways in which the brain functions supports them.  However, by combating students’ misconceptions with student-centered, activity-based learning methods, instructors not only quell students’ particular misconceptions, they also teach students to take ownership of their learning.

Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education 



Berrett, D.  (2012).  How “flipping” the classroom can improve traditional lecture.  The Education Digest, 36-41.

Cakir, M.  (2008).  Constructivist approaches to learning in science and their implications for science pedagogy:  A literature review.  International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 3(4), 193-206.

Clement, J. J.  (1982).  Students’ preconceptions in introductory mechanics.  American Journal of Physics, 50, 66-71.

Confrey, J.  (1990).  A review of the research on student conceptions in mathematics, science, and programming.  Review of Research in Education, 16, 3-56.

Cotner, S., Baepler, P., & Kellerman, A.  (2008).  Scratch this!  The IF-AT as a technique for stimulating group discussion and exposing misconceptions.  Journal of College Science Teaching, 37(4), 48-53.

Goldsmith, P. A. (2006).  Learning to understand inequality and diversity:  Getting students past ideologies.  Teaching Sociology, 34(3), 263-277.

Gooding, J. & Metz, B.  (2011).  From misconceptions to conceptual change.  Science Teacher, 78(4), 34-37.

Kerr, S.C. & Walz, K.A.  (2007).  “Holes” in student understanding:  Addressing prevalent misconceptions regarding atmospheric environmental chemistry.  Journal of Chemical Education, 84(10), 1693-1696.

Lazarowitz, R. & Lieb, C. (2006).  Formative assessment pre-test to identify college students’ prior knowledge, misconceptions and learning difficulties in biology.  International Journal of Science and Mathematical Education, 4, 741-762.

Longfield, J. (2009).  Discrepant teaching events:  Using an inquiry stance to address students’ misconceptions.  International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21(2), 266-271.

Madhyastha & Tanimoto (2009).  Faring with facets:  Building and using databases of student misconceptions.

Miller. R. L., Streveler, R. A., & Yang, D.  (2011).  Fundamental research in engineering education.  Identifying and repairing student misconceptions in thermal and transport science:  Concept inventories and schema training studies.  Chemical Engineering Education, 45(3), 203-210.

Nazario, G. M., Burrowes, P. A., & Rodriguez, J.  (2002).  Persisting misconceptions:  Using pre- and post-tests to identify biological misconceptions.  Journal of College Science Teaching, 31(5), 292-296.

Piaget, J.  (1971).  Biology and knowledge.  Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press.

Robbins, J. R. & Roy, P.  (2007).  The natural selection:  Identifying student misconceptions through an inquiry-based, critical approach to evolution.  American Biology Teacher, 69(8), 460-466.

Savion, L.  (2009).  Clinging to discredited beliefs:  The larger cognitive story.  Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9, 81-92.

Scheuermann, A., van Garderen, D.  (2008).  Analyzing students’ use of graphic representations:  Determining misconceptions and error patterns for instruction.  Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School 13(8), 471-477.

Sevian, H. & Robinson, W. E.  (2011).  Clickers promote learning in all kinds of classes—small and large, graduate and undergraduate, lecture and lab.  Journal of College Science Teaching, 40(3), 14-18.

Wrinkle, C. S., Manivannan, M. K.  (2009).  Application of the K-W-L teaching and learning method to an introductory physics course.  Journal of College Science Teaching, 39(2), 47-51.

Yip, D. Y. (1998).  Identification of misconceptions in novice biology teachers and remedial strategies for improving biology learning.  International Journal of Science Education, 20(4), 461-477.

Zeilik, M. & Bisard, W.  (2000).  Conceptual change in introductory-level astronomy courses:  Tracking misconceptions to reveal which—and how much—concepts change.  Journal of College Science Teaching, 29(4), 229-232.


Further Resources:

  • Gooding, J. & Metz, W.  (2008).  A blueprint for cultivating inquiry.  Science Scope, 32(1), 62-64. 
  • Piaget, J.  (1971).  Biology and knowledge.  Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press.
  • Sadler, P. M., Schneps, M. H., & Woll, S.  (1987).  A Private Universe.  Santa Monica, CA:  Pyramid Film and Video.
  • Tait, K.  (2009).  Understanding tertiary student learning:  Are they independent thinkers or simply consumers and reactors?  International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21, 97-107.