Conceptual Change

Why facts don’t always fix misconceptions.

What is conceptual change?

Whether or not they are aware of it, your students will arrive in the classroom with some level of prior knowledge that will affect their present learning experience in your course.

When prior knowledge is accurate, rich and well-organized, it can help students learn and retain new information. By asking learners to build on their understanding, we can situate what we are teaching them in the context of the relevant knowledge they already have.

However, when knowledge is inaccurate, incomplete or inappropriate, prior knowledge may serve to hinder future learning.

As students grow, they develop conceptual frameworks to explain their observations of the natural phenomena that occur around them. These conceptual frameworks are often intuitive but flawed in terms of scientific accuracy. Misconceptions pose a challenge to learning because they are often robust and prevent students from understanding future information correctly.

Why should I care about students’ misconceptions?

When students have misconceptions, particularly those involving central concepts in the discipline, their ability to acquire new knowledge and develop a higher level of understanding may be hindered.

For example, after observing the rise and fall of the sun, they may initially assume that the sun revolves around Earth. Since the person cannot directly observe Earth revolving around the sun, this conception will remain unless it is specifically challenged. People include these misconceptions within their conceptual framework of the topic, in this case astronomy, which may impact their understanding of any new knowledge that they acquire. If someone continues to believe that the sun revolves around Earth, it will be difficult for them to understand the relationship between Earth, the sun and the other planets in our solar system. Students will distort or ignore new information if it clashes with this more foundational understanding. This is why the misconception needs to be first identified and corrected before new knowledge is added to their conceptual framework.

Unfortunately, misconceptions tend to be difficult to change once they are connected to other concepts or misconceptions – creating a flawed mental model of the set of concepts. In that case, multiple misconceptions need to be addressed prior to any new learning of the material.

Addressing misconceptions

While there is no one right way to address all misconceptions, the following steps may serve as a guide.

Step 1: Understand the sources and effects of misconceptions.

  • Sources of misconceptions
    • Observations.
    • Experiences and interactions.
    • Religion and culture.
    • Prior instruction.
    • Overgeneralizations.
  • Effects of misconceptions on learning
    • Insufficient knowledge can mislead learners and instructors to assume students are more prepared for content.
    • Inappropriate knowledge can skew comprehension.
    • Inaccurate knowledge does not support new learning.

Step 2: Help learners identify student misconceptions.

  • Intentionally bring forth students’ relevant prior knowledge.
  • Activate through formative assessment and discussion.
  • Self-assess abilities and knowledge before and after learning.
  • Have students ask questions to identify confusing topics.
  • Look for patterns of errors in student work.

Step 3: After identifying students’ misconceptions, begin the process of eliciting conceptual change.

Strategies to elicit conceptual change

General strategies

  • Meaningfully and purposefully address misconceptions that will inhibit students' future learning.
  • Understand that changing deeply rooted misconceptions takes time.
  • Plan activities for students to build a stronger knowledge base.
  • Let students “see for themselves” how and why their thinking needs to be adjusted.
  • Provide multiple opportunities to practice concepts that are new and challenging.

Specific strategies based on misconception source

  • Lack of prior knowledge
    • Introduce new material in a meaningful and logical manner.
    • Design practice opportunities to support new learning.
    • Use active learning strategies.
    • Provide additional resources for the student to build knowledge base.
    • Help student make connections to prior knowledge.
  • Conflicting views
    • Establish the value of new concepts.
    • Provide many examples.
    • Revisit accurate information.
    • Give students opportunities to reflect on new learning and make connections.
    • Provide feedback and guidance.
  • Inappropriate knowledge
    • Represent content in multiple formats (multi-modal).
    • Provide many examples.
    • Monitor progress and scaffold support.
    • Design practice opportunities to support new learning.
    • Review accurate information.