Combating Students’ Misconceptions

A quintessential challenge for classroom teachers is confronting and reversing misconceptions that students bring to school. For example, I’ve always started the year off by combating the notion that we only use 10 percent of our brains, an idea popularized by movies and TV shows with lazy premises. I’m not a science teacher, but I lead with a discussion on the modular nature of the mind so that students understand the control they have over their attitudes and reactions.

I usually lose students’ attention early on with this talk, true. It’s not until I bring up information that may be critically useful to them that I’m able to capture students’ willingness to consider what I’m suggesting. I describe being scared, the physiological effects of adrenaline. I talk about the confusion students might face when their palms are sweaty. All too often, teenagers feel like their body is betraying them with such reactions. But I tell them something different: that their body is loyally preparing for fight or flight. Moreover, breathing slowly and deeply can shut this reaction down. We can control which part of our brains we’re using.

Why Misconceptions Are So Tough

Misconceptions are unknowingly created and reinforced as the learner builds explanations, unravels problems and files new data based on faulty reasoning. The longer a misconception remains unchallenged, the more likely it is to become entrenched and resistant to change.
– Targeting Science Misconceptions

Because our minds build upon prior knowledge, students will have already attributed many experiences to misconceptions. It can be a tough challenge to change a student’s fundamental understanding. And to make matters more complicated, teachers very often go unaware of misconceptions and simply provide more accurate information that students then happily connect to their incorrect notions.

Reversing Misconceptions

To combat student misconceptions, a teacher must approach a problem from multiple angles. It may take several hands-on demonstrations to convince students that a phenomenon they are witnessing conflicts with their own understanding of it. And even when that critical step does occur, the new concept must still be reinforced.


The process starts with challenging the misconception. If handled poorly, students can become entrenched and resistant to new ideas. The key is to provide several occasions where new experiences directly contradict their prior knowledge.


Student will need to get their head around the new concept. So the next step is to articulate the logic of the accurate model. Again, this is best done with students exploring the model so that the accurate version of this concept is reaffirmed with new experiences.


If nothing else, our minds are practical. If the new concept can offer greater utility than the prior, we will rapidly adopt it. The usefulness of a concept doesn’t actually have to be a practical benefit; it can instead open up further questions. A new line of inquiry can be just as helpful as a useful take-away in supporting a new concept; the mind is a curious thing.

Ability to Predict Student Misconceptions

Many of the sources I found in preparation for this article mentioned a study by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, involving 181 middle school science teachers. They found a strong correlation between the teachers that could predict which misconceptions their students held and those teachers’ ability to make an impact. Being aware of your students’ level of comprehension seems like a no-brainer. But how often are we assessing our students with special focus on erroneous prior knowledge?

Assessment Activity: Starting a Dialogue

You can use ExitTicket to set up great discussions as you expose misconceptions. Try creating an ungraded Practice type of assessment. In the overview tab, set the options so students can’t see if their answers are correct and can’t see their final score on the assignment.

Add multiple choice questions that target common misconceptions. Provide answer options that may seem tempting to those with commonly held but incorrect assumptions. Here’s the trick: press the “duplicate” button to create copies of each question. Rephrase the copy so it asks students to predict what the most popular answer will be in their class. Students will therefore be asked to reconsider the same question through their peers’ perceptions. This by itself can be wildly helpful in encouraging metacognitive thought.

Take the quiz yourself. You don’t need to submit answers using a student’s account. You can simply write down your own prediction of your students’ answers. When the assessment is complete, go over the results with your class using the Reteach tab. Use the opportunity to start an inquiry and begin to establish students’ dissatisfaction with certain misconceptions. Remember to be patient from the start: Combating students’ misconceptions takes time and attention.


  • “How Do I Get My Students Over Their Alternative Conceptions (Misconceptions) for Learning?”, American Psychological Association
  • “Student Misconceptions: Where Do They Come From and What Can We Do?” by Annette Taylor and Patricia Kowalski in Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum, Society for the Teaching of Psychology, 2014.
  • “Targeting Science Misconceptions in Middle School Students: What the Research Tells Us”, Britannica White Paper Series