Conceptions and Misconceptions

Watching A Private Universe (Shneps & Sadler, 1987) I was astounded that not only did so many of the graduate and high school students have misconceptions about the seasons, but also that they all seemed to have the same misconception. It was then that I started to question my own knowledge and understanding of the reason for seasons, checking my information by researching the question. The information that the students were giving about the reason we have seasons was logical and made sense given their initial information and the representative drawing from the text. I was enlightened when the video manipulated the drawing from the text from the side view to the bird’s eye view, demonstrating how the elliptical orbit could be misconstrued. I had never thought about this aspect before now.

Not being a particularly strong student in math or science, I have always felt that I would not be a very strong teacher of these subjects also. “Teachers cannot help children learn things they themselves do not understand” (Ball, 1991). As an elementary school teacher I am required to teach both of these and cover quite a quantity of concepts within the year. In science we cover chemistry, physics, matter & energy, and biology within two terms, which can be daunting for someone who made it through most of high school and university with little or no math and science instruction. In my early years of teaching I relied heavily on the science text books, trusting that they would allow me to impart the information and knowledge that the students were required to know. As I read the articles and watch the video I am left wondering how much my teaching contributed to some of the misconceptions my students may have had regarding science and math. Since then, I have developed my own knowledge through experimentation, research, and additional courses.  I have realized some of my own misconceptions and with that have been able to identify some of my student’s misconceptions. Now that I am much more competent in my science and math teaching, it is easier for me to seek out student misconceptions in order to design lessons and activities to help students adjust their thinking.

In a research paper conducted by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the relationship between teacher knowledge and student learning was studied, and concluding that student learning is directly related to teacher knowledge. “If teachers hold such misconceptions themselves or simply are unaware that their students have such ideas, their attempts at teaching important concepts may be compromised” (Sadler et al, 2013). These leads me to two questions: How can teachers identify their own misconceptions and how can they better understand and identify misconceptions of their students?

Confrey notes that “children develop ideas about their world, develop meanings for words used in science, and develop strategies to obtain explanations of how and why things behave as they do, and that these naive ideas cannot be easily ignored or replaced” (Confrey, 1990). It is important for teachers to be able to tease out these misconceptions by probing a student’s conceptual framework using direct questioning allowing them to develop effective lessons and activities to provide opportunities for students to discover new information and correct their misconceptions. Previous research on student’s misconceptions shows that student’s have difficulty assimilating and acquiring scientific knowledge if their misconceptions are ignored or not adequately addressed. One way for teachers to address this gap is to consider that an emphasis on identifying and remediating holes in the teacher’s knowledge may be more helpful for the science teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom (Sadler et al).

Providing hands on activities and experiments for students to work through will allow them to interpret their results as opposed to arriving at an expected result. Technology such as virtual experiments, could be used in a classroom setting where the resources are inadequate for real experimentation. Programs such as Skype can be used to visit high school or college labs and see experiments performed live and allow the students to ask questions directly to the teacher or students performing the experiment. I have done this with our local high school science teacher, who was very enthusiastic about participating, and the students were fascinated with the results. The key is to allow the student to discover the science in order to add to their knowledge and understanding to help dispel misconceptions.


Confrey, J. (1990). A Review of the Research on Student Conceptions in Mathematics, Science, and Programming. Review of Research in Education,16, 3. doi:10.2307/1167350
Kambouri, M. (2014, April 16). Teacher’s and children’s misconceptions in science [Scholarly project]. In ResearchGate. Retrieved January 05, 2017, from
Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education,66(2), 211-227. doi:10.1002/sce.3730660207
Sadler, P. M., Sonnert, G., Coyle, H. P., Cook-Smith, N., & Miller, J. L. (2013). The Influence of Teachers’ Knowledge on Student Learning in Middle School Physical Science Classrooms. American Educational Research Journal,50(5), 1020-1049. doi:10.3102/0002831213477680
Science teaching reconsidered: a handbook. (1997). The National Academies Press. Retrieved January 09, 2017.


  1. Hi Wincherella,

    Thank you for your post. You have asked two questions that particularly resonate with me. How can teachers identify their own misconceptions and how can they better understand and identify misconceptions of their students? I like to think that I teach within the limitations of my understanding. I have no shame in saying “I don’t know, let me get back to you” to my students and I make it very clear when I am offering a personal opinion on a particular matter so that students don’t accept my opinions as fact.

    Still, I have been guilty of erroneously passing on my share of misconceptions to students. I feel I am best able to identify my own misconceptions through collaborating with colleagues. I often ask colleagues if I could run through my understanding of a concept with them and I have had many teachers come to me to do the same.

    For me, the best way to identify misconceptions held by my students is to ask them to explain processes orally. I have used oral assessments within math, physics and biology classes and find they are a great way to really understand what students know. They do take a bit more time to execute, but it is time very well spent in my opinion. This summer I had the opportunity to teach Biology 12 to 24 students and I scheduled a 1-hour oral exam with each student. Daunting as it seemed leading up, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career and provided me with much better insight as to what my students actually learned than any written test could have provided.

  2. HI Anne and Bryn,
    I agree with both of you that teachers have misconceptions and can pass these misconceptions along to their students. Bryn I also totally agree that it is ok to say “I am not sure, let me get back to you”, another really effective method I have found is to stop and take this as a teachable moment. Teachable for both the instructor and student. We stop and try to find the best answer together, either as a class, a small group or just the student and I. It not only allows the students to see that I do not have all the answers, but also the process I use to find the answer. It has really been great, especially in the whole class situation, to see what resources students use to solve the problem. Also the students monitor each other, if a students googles the answer and chooses the first hit other students will often say, well we should check to see that that information is correct. I love it when that happens.
    Secondly, I too have come to assess almost every subject area (elementary grade 6-8) with oral assessments. Just sitting and talking with the students gives me a much better understanding of what they know, as well as, what misconceptions they may have. One of the benefits of this has also been improved student confidence. They often prove to themselves they understood more than they thought.

  3. Hi Anne (and Bryn and Catherine!),

    I enjoyed reading your thoughtful and reflective post. I really appreciate your honesty when you reflected on the misconceptions that we may have ourselves as educators, and it helped me feel a little better about some of the misconceptions I too have had in the past. I originally trained (and worked) as a secondary English teacher and found myself teaching in a grade 4/5 classroom (which I love!) four years ago with little elementary experience. I still tend to rely on textbooks to support my teaching, but it was a good reminder after reviewing this week’s materials, that textbooks also teach under the assumption that we already know certain information. Realistically, one book or site cannot teach any of us everything we need to know about a topic. When I personally research a topic, I look to a variety of different sources, both print and digital media, in order to gain a deeper understanding of a topic. I would never look at only one textbook and consider myself knowledgeable in a subject, but due to time constraints, that is often what happens in the classroom for many students (and I am guilty of doing this myself).
    One thing I wondered about when I reviewed last week’s materials was how I could possibly attend to every student’s misconceptions within the relatively limited amount of time available in class. As you have pointed out, it is important to remember that students tend to have similar misconceptions about certain topics. If we as educators are able to figure out the most common misconceptions, we should be a great step closer to helping students in general correct their misconceptions regarding topics in science. As a person who, like you, was not particularly science or math-minded growing up and found these subjects challenging, I have found that I have actually learned many things along with my students in the past four years. I also feel that my personal struggles in math and sciences have helped me to teach the subjects now as an adult. Especially in math, I have found that my struggles have made me more sympathetic to the fact that some students really just “don’t get it” and I feel that I try to take a more step-by-step approach to teaching math because of this. While as you have referenced, we cannot teach things we do not personally understand, we can teach quite well, I believe, if we are teaching subjects that we have personally struggled with in our pasts.
    I think your questions are very good ones and ones that I need to spend some time really thinking about for my own classroom. Someone said to me once that “we don’t know what we don’t know” (I do not have a reference for this quote as it was said in a conversation with a colleague). I have spent the past few days thinking about what misconceptions I might have, especially related to science which is a subject I am not trained in. As far as students go, I like the ideas in both Bryn’s and Catherine’s responses around oral discussions with students. While I have never done a completely oral assessment before (although I love the idea!), I tend to do a fairly significant amount of brainstorming and sharing around prior knowledge before we begin a new topic, especially in science. This generally allows for some of the misconceptions that students have to come to light. Another strategy I use is posting a picture related to our topic (I do this as a “hook” into a new topic, so students may not even know what the topic is yet) and having students tell me what they see or know (connections they can make, etc.), given the picture shown – this is similar to Faye Brownlie’s “What, So What” if you have used that before – I do not have a citation for this strategy, but here is a link to Faye Brownlie’s website: While these strategies may help me identify some of the students’ misconceptions prior to teaching a new topic, they unfortunately do not address the lingering misconceptions that remain after I have finished teaching the topic. Thank you again for your post and thank you Bryn and Catherine for the oral assessment ideas – I will have to put these into practice!

  4. Great thinking here about the implications for us as educators. This is an important observation from the Private Universe: “I was astounded that not only did so many of the graduate and high school students have misconceptions about the seasons, but also that they all seemed to have the same misconception”. As Mary suggests, we can inform ourselves of some of these more common misconceptions as educators and as Catherine and Bryn, share, inspect our own knowledge and what we pass on to our students. The paper by Sadler is indeed revealing in terms of science and math education. Is there a challenging topic in math or science that comes to mind and you suspect students hold alternative conceptions? Thank you Anne, Samia

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