Conceptual Challenges

Students conceptual understandings and ideas are likely long established prior to entering the classroom. While these can be based on personal experiences or long-held beliefs, these ideas are, unfortunately not always correct. These overall themes are evident in the short documentary, A Private Universe (1987), as well as presented in the readings on constructivism (Fosnot, 2013). Both the video and reading establish that students have their own pre-existing concepts and notions, which ultimately need to be “straightened out” as new concepts emerge and compete. Fosnot further argues that the role of educators is to change not necessarily “dispense knowledge” but also to provide “opportunities and incentives” to construct learning.

The article selected for further examination studies several different misconceptions held by both teacher and students in regards to the physical sciences (Burgoon, Heddle, & Duran, 2010). The misunderstanding of particular interest is one regarding the general concept of gravity. The article discusses the common confusion with the concept in which objects at different heights experience a different force of gravity. The study confirmed a general belief and association by both teachers and students alike that objects at a higher elevation are experiencing “more gravity” wherein fact gravity is always present regardless of height or elevation. The article addresses some of the concerns raised in educating students if teachers themselves held misconceptions but proposed some solutions such as increasing awareness and professional development.

In regards to digital technologies and instructional activities to help nurture student understanding, there are online simulations, phet labs, and video clips. Fosnot, however, would argue that students need opportunities to change and construct their learning, to help my own students overcome the gravitational misconceptions explored by Burgoon, Heddle, and Duran (2010), I use a combination of digital motion detectors linked to graphing to allowing students to create their own explorations on relationship between gravity and height. By dropping objects from various elevations, students are able to examine and confirm the notion that the force of gravity and acceleration remain constant.


Burgoon, J., Heddle, M., & Duran, E. (2010). Re-examining the similarities between teacher and

student conceptions about physical science. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 21(7),

859-872. http://10.1007/s10972-009-9177-0


Fosnot, C.T. (2013). Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice (2nd ed.). New

York: Teachers College Press


Sahiner, A. (Producer), & Schneps, M. (Director). (1987). A private universe [Documentary].

United States: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.


  1. Your example of misconceptions regarding objects at different heights makes me think of a conversation I had this week with my boyfriend, who is currently studying engineering physics. He was telling me about how his professor explained that our commonly held and accepted concept of mass is actually flawed because there are so many other forces at work simultaneously that mass cannot truly be defined. We were discussing how education seems like a process of learning, unlearning, and relearning ideas. With this week’s course activities floating around in my brain, I put together the theory that perhaps the source of some of the seemingly simplistic understandings that eventually become seen as misconceptions as students get older, originate in younger grades as an attempt to explain concepts at an age-appropriate level for students. The problem arises when a student in grade 10 continues to hold on to their grade 2 conception of a topic such as gravity. I think one of the implications of this for teachers is the need to seek out and acknowledge foundational understandings while working to revise the foundation to qualify statements, add depth and breadth, and ensure that student mindsets do not become stuck in an inaccurate frame of reference.

  2. HI Darren and Stephanie,
    I think your two posts go very nicely together. As I was reading Darren’s post I was thinking about how we can provide opportunities for students to not only learn about their misconceptions but also test them. Sort of the seeing is believing moniker vs I am the teacher and told you so so you should believe it. Then I read Stephanie’s reply and thought WOW Stephanie you really hit the nail on the head. I am not an educator who dispenses absolute truths, rather I have come to believe that I am here to help students discover what the “current” truth is. Exactly as Stephanie said, we learn, unlearn and relearn ideas. Will this not always be the case. Did the scientists and physicists of previous generations not have to do this when dark matter was proven to be a reality? Do we not teach what we understand to the best of our ability given the current facts and information available? This lead me back to thinking about the A Private Universe ( 1987) were the students and faculty not quoting previous held beliefs about why the seasons occur? The current fact of the angle of the earth was lost to the previous noise of being farther or closer to the sun. One of the things I always try to instil in students is to be open to the idea that all we understand right now can change as findings in science constantly change.
    Thanks for the great posts , really got me thinking,

  3. Super questions being raised in this post. I also liked the example taken from the study by you Darren: The study confirmed a general belief and association by both teachers and students alike that objects at a higher elevation are experiencing “more gravity” wherein fact gravity is always present regardless of height or elevation. Many of us will be able to relate. Are there other alternative conceptions you have found in your class on the topic of gravity? Samia

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