Scientific misconceptions

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It is a popular misconception that the Sun is red, orange or yellow. In reality, the Sun is white as seen in this solar filter dimmed true-color image.

Scientific misconceptions are commonly held beliefs about science that have no basis in actual scientific fact. Scientific misconceptions can also refer to preconceived notions based on religious and/or cultural influences. Many scientific misconceptions occur because of faulty teaching styles and the sometimes distancing nature of true scientific texts. Because students' prior knowledge and misconceptions are important factors for learning science, science teachers should be able to identify and address these conceptions.


Misconceptions (a.k.a. alternative conceptions, alternative frameworks, etc.) are a key issue from constructivism in science education, a major theoretical perspective informing science teaching.[1] A scientific misconception is a false or incorrect understanding of a scientific concept or principle, often resulting from oversimplifications, inaccurate information, or the misapplication of intuitive knowledge. Misconceptions can arise due to a variety of factors, such as personal experiences, cultural beliefs, or the way information is presented in educational settings. Addressing scientific misconceptions is crucial for developing a more accurate understanding of the natural world and improving scientific literacy.[2] In general, scientific misconceptions have their foundations in a few "intuitive knowledge domains, including folkmechanics (object boundaries and movements), folkbiology (biological species' configurations and relationships), and folkpsychology (interactive agents and goal-directed behavior)",[3] that enable humans to interact effectively with the world in which they evolved. That these folksciences do not map accurately onto modern scientific theory is not unexpected. A second major source of scientific misconceptions are didaskalogenic misconceptions, which are induced and reinforced during the course of instruction (in formal education).

There has been extensive research into students' informal ideas about science topics, and studies have suggested reported misconceptions vary considerably in terms of properties such as coherence, stability, context-dependence, range of application etc.[4] Misconceptions can be broken down into five basic categories:[5]

  1. preconceived notions
  2. nonscientific beliefs
  3. conceptual misunderstandings
  4. vernacular misconceptions
  5. factual misconceptions

Preconceived notions are thinking about a concept in only one way. Specially heat, gravity, and energy. Once a person knows how something works it is difficult to imagine it working a different way. Nonscientific beliefs are beliefs learned outside of scientific evidence. For example, one's beliefs about the history of world based on the bible. Conceptual misunderstandings are ideas about what one thinks they understand based on their personal experiences or what they may have heard. One does not fully grasp the concept and understand it. Vernacular misconceptions happen when one word has two completely different meanings, specially in regard to science and everyday life. Factual misconceptions are ideas or beliefs that are learned at a young age but are actually incorrect.

While most student misconceptions go unrecognized, there has been an informal effort to identify errors and misconceptions present in textbooks.[6]

Identifying student misconceptions[edit]

In the context of Socratic instruction, student misconceptions are identified and addressed through a process of questioning and listening. A number of strategies have been employed to understand what students are thinking prior, or in response, to instruction. These strategies include various forms of "real type" feedback, which can involve the use of colored cards or electronic survey systems (clickers).[7] Another approach is typified by the strategy known as just-in-time teaching.[8][9] Here students are asked various questions prior to class, the instructor uses these responses to adapt his or her teaching to the students' prior knowledge and misconceptions.

Finally, there is a more research-intensive approach that involves interviewing students for the purpose of generating the items that will make up a concept inventory or other forms of diagnostic instruments.[10] Concept inventories require intensive validation efforts. Perhaps the most influential of these concept inventories to date has been the Force Concept Inventory (FCI).[11][12] Concept inventories can be particularly helpful in identifying difficult ideas that serve as a barrier to effective instruction.[13] Concept inventories in natural selection[14][15][16] and basic biology[17] have been developed.

While not all the published diagnostic instruments have been developed as carefully as some concept inventories, some two-tier diagnostic instruments (which offer multiple choice distractors informed by misconceptions research, and then ask learners to give reasons for their choices) have been through rigorous development.[18] In identifying students' misconceptions, first teachers can identify their preconceptions.[19] "Teachers need to know students' initial and developing conceptions. Students need to have their initial ideas brought to a conscious level."[20] However, teachers' ability to diagnose misconceptions needs to be improved. When confronted with misconceptions about evolution, they only diagnose approximately half of these misconceptions.[21]

Addressing student misconceptions[edit]

A number of lines of evidence suggest that the recognition and revision of student misconceptions involves active, rather than passive, involvement with the material. A common approach to instruction involves meta-cognition, that is to encourage students to think about their thinking about a particular problem. In part this approach requires students to verbalize, defend and reformulate their understanding. Recognizing the realities of the modern classroom, a number of variations have been introduced. These include Eric Mazur's peer instruction, as well as various tutorials in physics.[22] Scientific inquiry is another technique that provides an active engagement opportunity for students and incorporates metacognition and critical thinking.

Success with inquiry-based learning activities relies on a deep foundation of factual knowledge. Students then use observation, imagination, and reasoning about scientific phenomena they are studying to organize knowledge within a conceptual framework.[23][24] The teacher monitors the changing concepts of the students through formative assessment as the instruction proceeds. Beginning inquiry activities should develop from simple concrete examples to more abstract.[24] As students progress through inquiry, opportunities should be included for students to generate, ask, and discuss challenging questions. According to Magnusson and Palincsan,[25] teachers should allow multiple cycles of investigation where students can ask the same questions as their understanding of the concept matures. Through strategies that apply formative assessment of student learning and adjust accordingly, teachers can help redirect scientific misconceptions. Research has shown that science teachers have a wide repertoire to deal with misconceptions and report a variety of ways to respond to students' alternative conceptions, e.g., attempting to induce a cognitive conflict using analogies, requesting an elaboration of the conception, referencing specific flaws in reasoning, or offering a parallel between the student's conception and a historical theory. However, approximately half of the teachers do not address students' misconceptions, but instead agree with them, respond scientifically incorrect, or formulate the correct scientific explanation themselves without addressing the specific student conception.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Taber, K. S. (2011). Constructivism as educational theory: Contingency in learning, and optimally guided instruction. In J. Hassaskhah (Ed.), Educational Theory (pp. 39-61). New York: Nova. From
  2. ^ Clement, John (1 January 1982). "Students' preconceptions in introductory mechanics" (PDF). American Journal of Physics. 50 (1): 66–71. doi:10.1119/1.12989.
  3. ^ Altran S; Norenzayan A (2004). "Religion's evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion". Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 27 (6): 713–30. CiteSeerX doi:10.1017/S0140525X04000172. PMID 16035401. S2CID 1177255.
  4. ^ Taber, K. S. (2009). Progressing Science Education: Constructing the scientific research programme into the contingent nature of learning science. Dordrecht: Springer.
  5. ^ Davis, Barbara (1997). Science Teaching Reconsidered. Committee on Undergraduate Science Education. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.
  6. ^ For example, resources include the Bad Science web page by Alistair Fraser, the Students' and Teachers' Conceptions and Science Education (STCSE) website (2009), and the book Chemical Misconceptions: Prevention, Diagnosis and Cure (2002).
  7. ^ Martyn M (2007). "Clickers in the classroom: an active learning approach". Educause Quarterly. 30 (2).
  8. ^ "". Retrieved 15 August 2018.
  9. ^ Rozycki W (1999). "Just-in-Time Teaching". J Indiana University Research & Creative Activity. XXII (1): 8.
  10. ^ Taber, K. S. (2002) Chemical misconceptions - prevention, diagnosis and cure, London: Royal Society of Chemistry
  11. ^ Hestenes D; Wells M; Swackhamer G (1992). "Force Concept Inventory". The Physics Teacher. 30 (3): 141–58. Bibcode:1992PhTea..30..141H. doi:10.1119/1.2343497. S2CID 12311835.
  12. ^ Hestenes D (1998). "Who needs physics education research". Am J Phys. 66 (6): 465–7. Bibcode:1998AmJPh..66..465H. doi:10.1119/1.18898.
  13. ^ Garvin-Doxas K; Klymkowsky MW (2008). "Understanding randomness and its impact on student learning: lessons learned from building the Biology Concept Inventory (BCI)". CBE: Life Sciences Education. 7 (2): 227–33. doi:10.1187/cbe.07-08-0063. PMC 2424310. PMID 18519614.
  14. ^ Nehm R, Schonfeld IS (2008). "Measuring knowledge of natural selection: A comparison of the C.I.N.S., an open-response instrument, and an oral interview" (PDF). Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 45 (10): 1131–1160. Bibcode:2008JRScT..45.1131N. doi:10.1002/tea.20251. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 May 2011.
  15. ^ Nehm R, Schonfeld IS (2010). "The future of natural selection knowledge measurement: A reply to Anderson et al. (2010)" (PDF). Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 47: 358–362. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 July 2011.
  16. ^ Anderson DL; Fisher KM; Norman GJ (2002). "Development and evaluation of the conceptual inventory of natural selection". J Res Sci Teaching. 39 (10): 952–78. Bibcode:2002JRScT..39..952A. CiteSeerX doi:10.1002/tea.10053. Archived from the original on 5 January 2013.
  17. ^ "Bioliteracy Project Home Page". Retrieved 15 August 2018.
  18. ^ "The ECLIPSE Project". Retrieved 15 August 2018.
  19. ^ Fuchs, T.T., & Arsenault, M. (2017). Using test data to find misconceptions in secondary science. School Science Review 364(98) 31-36.
  20. ^ Minstrell, J. & Kruas, P (2005) Guided Inquiry in the Science Classroom. How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom. (478)
  21. ^ Hartelt T.; Martens H.; Minkley N. (2022). "Teachers' ability to diagnose and deal with alternative student conceptions of evolution". Science Education. 106 (3): 706–738. doi:10.1002/sce.21705. S2CID 246591337.
  22. ^ For example: "Tutorials in Introductory Physics". Physics Education Group, University of Washington. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
  23. ^ Bransford , J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. (Expanded ed., PDF). Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, ISBN 0309070368.
  24. ^ a b Bransford, J.D.& Donovan, M.S. (Eds).(2005). "Scientific Inquiry and How People Learn". How Students Learn: History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
  25. ^ Magnusson, S.J. & Palincsar, A.S. (Eds).(2005). "Teaching to Promote the Development of Scientific Knowledge and Reasoning About Light at the Elementary School Level". How Students Learn: History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
  26. ^ Hartelt T.; Martens H.; Minkley N. (2022). "Teachers' ability to diagnose and deal with alternative student conceptions of evolution". Science Education. 106 (3): 706–738. doi:10.1002/sce.21705. S2CID 246591337.