Misconceptions; some thoughts.


Sheffield Assoc. Research School

Sheffield Associate Research School

Jan 19


Misconceptions; some thoughts.

I recently had the pleasure of working with Niki Kaiser in a presentation at the Association for Science Education annual meeting on this subject of misconceptions.  Here are some thoughts and a summary of what we said. Though the examples will be from science I know the principles will apply across all subjects.

Some people do not like the term misconceptions as it has a generally negative over tone.  These are genuinely held ideas by students that they have come up with or heard as explanations for the world around them.  Some prefer the term preconceptions, as a constructivist approach, the idea that we are building on what a learner already knows.  Niki and I decided upon sticking with misconceptions largely for ease and consistency.



Learner misconceptions often follow our historical understanding of science.  When they were little my three sons would talk about turning on their torch eyes so they could see where they were going.  This idea of something coming out of eyes by which we see has a long history right back to Aristotle and the ancient Greek philosophers. It is known as the emission theory of vision and was widely held even among the learned of the time right up until the 17th century, despite the obvious flaws in the argument.  There is research to suggest that even today some 50% of adults will hold some sort of similar belief when explaining vision.

Starting teaching in 1993 my fellow trainees and I were heavily inculcated into the work of Ros Driver and the team from Leeds and the Children’s Learning in Science Project (CLISP.)  Our subject tutorials at Homerton, where I trained, would usually start with what CLISP. or sometimes the APU  (Assessing performance unit; how educational standards were followed pre-SATS.) said about student understanding.  We used these when planning our lessons to anticipate learner ideas and then consider how we would address them and then assess whether we had been successful.

The problem with misconceptions is that they are very “sticky,” they can and do persist into adulthood as we have seen above and also in the famous clip, in science education circles at least, of Harvard graduates trying and often failing to explain where the majority of the matter in a piece of wood comes from (answer; the air through photosynthesis.)  There is evidence that in science we are asking learners to inhibit their first intuitive response and to respond with the more accepted scientific explanation  Learners might answer our questions perfectly acceptably within the contexts we set but still in their hearts, believe their original misconception. This could well come out once a novel context is presented.

Years of teaching has shown me repeatedly that students can “get” a misconception one lesson, answer questions successfully and then, like summer mist, it all disappears next lesson and the misconception rears its head.  Why this is so is beyond the scope of a short blog post but it is based in the non-intuitive nature of science I believe.  When your everyday senses are telling you the ground is flat it takes a lot to persuade you otherwise.

Lots of evidence into good teaching reinforces the value of teachers understanding the likely misconceptions their learners will hold. Great teaching review (2) discusses it for instance, and it forms part of the advice from the Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance report on secondary science (3).

In her role as Science Content specialist for the EEF Niki is focusing on helping science departments address this issue.  I agree with her of the importance of this, for all science teachers especially those who are recently qualified and maybe teaching out of specialism.  Being aware of what your learners might come up with helps in lesson planning.  She has created some great info graphics that address a few of the common area where learners hold misconceptions (2) and also a useful planning sheet using the RADAAR idea Research, Anticipate, diagnose, address, assess, review (3). I think this could form a useful document for departments (and not just science) to use when considering planning.  From experience you may well find your colleagues also hold misconceptions! Some departments have already piloted these and adopted them for regular use in their planning.  It would be tempting for a Head of Department to ask around for some completed ones.  Whilst there would be some use in reading these, I think the process of creating them is more important than the finished document.  Sitting down with your colleagues and discussing learner misconceptions and the way of diagnosing them and addressing them is really good staff CPD.

  1. https://www.cambridgeinternational.org/support-and-training-for-schools/teaching-cambridge-at-your-school/great-teaching-toolkit/
  2. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/improving-secondary-science/
  3. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Science/RADAAR_Planning_Template_2020_editable.pdf


Resources for researching and anticipating misconceptions in science

“Powerful ideas of science and How to Teach them” Jasper Green

“The big ideas in physics and how to teach them” Ben Rogers

All these still give valuable insight into student thinking (it hasn’t changed much in 30+ years)

Assessing Pupils Progress in Secondary Science at Key Stage Three


Children’s Learning in Science Project


APU Science Reports for Teachers: Students Aged 11


APU Science Report for Teachers 1: Science at Age 11


APU Science Report for Teachers 7: Electricity at Age 15



Resources for diagnosing and addressing misconceptions

National Strategy science documents from the noughties developed the ideas of Driver et al and created specific teaching routes this selection were created by the team at the University of Leeds

Secondary National Strategy: Effective practice in Interactive Teaching | School of Education | University of Leeds

Best Evidence in Science Education resources from York are the descendants of all this research from the APU onwards, and are being used in numbers of departments with increasing evidence of their value.


Top image: Johann Zahn, ‘The Radiating Eye’ from Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium (1702)

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