Wait, Compounds & Molecules Aren’t the Same Thing?

Alternate Conceptions Within the Chemistry Classroom: What Does That Even Mean?

Image result for chemistry misconceptions

Alternate conceptions are very present inside any chemistry classroom. Sometimes, there are even developed outside of the classroom! These ideas can form:

  • As a child from observing the world
  • From looking at a figure in a textbook
  • From a teacher’s misuse of a term
  • By copying notes on the board
  • From an unlimited number of sources on the internet

An alternate conception, or misconception, is defined as an idea that does not align with what is scientifically accepted (Cambridge University). These alternate ideas are often not supported by scientific evidence.

The short video below captures a scene in the classroom that shows just how easy it is for students to develop misconceptions in chemistry merely based on images. Check it out!

So, What Can I Do As a Teacher to Find Out What Misconceptions My Students May Have?

Great question, blog audience! As stated previously, some misconceptions are developed before your students even step into the classroom. Use this to your advantage! Prepare some sort of quick pre-assessment that addresses the most common misconceptions about the topic of the day.

Image result for atom representation

For an example, before learning about atomic structure, show students the most common representations of atoms and have them specify which they like the best!

This gives you background on the information that you need to establish the most.

While this seems to be the best case scenarios, alternate conceptions will often unveil themselves throughout your lessons, and may need to be addressed in a personalized way.

Let’s look into these methods together!


Ways to Address and Combat Misconceptions Efficiently and Productively

Caution! Caution! It is not productive to simply tell students why something is wrong. This is fly right over their heads. You must let them figure out why their conceptions are incorrect. 

  1. Within your classroom, you can create a discrepant event; which refers to a point in the lesson in which students will ultimately struggle with the misconceptions they have thus far. You can:Image result for video image
  • Provide problems that cannot be solved if misconceptions about the topic are held
  • Show a video in which students’ misconceptions are completely contradicted
  • Have students perform an experiment in which the results go against their current thinking

While students may be frustrated with this method, it provides them an opportunity to understand why their misconception is wrong, and why it won’t help them further into their course!

2. Be extra careful about your wording of scientific concepts. A simple mixup in phrasing or vocabulary usage can heavily influence your students and create alternate conceptions. Remember, they are listening to you!

  • Be extra familiar with the differences between terms that may seem similar, but are not.
  • Be careful not to use words interchangeably that are not necessarily interchangeable, such as molecule and compound. No, these are not the same thing, but are often taught that way!

3. Check through all resources used in the classroom for accuracy. This is so important to ensuring that your students are learning correct information. Be sure to check:Image result for chemistry textbook

  • Study resources to recommend to students
  • Visuals and representations
  • Textbook information
  • Any source used; including sources that you created

For example, the video below is meant to educate leaners about the differences between molecules and compounds. However, it’s not exactly correct! The narrator fails to even discuss the importance of bonding type for categorizing molecules and compounds. Yikes!

Let’s use this new knowledge to help our students learn, rather than just tell them what is correct and incorrect!




  1. Chris, thanks! Your question is a good one–how do we make sure to use correct terminology and curriculum without being repetitive and boring? This may seem like a blunt answer, but I think the key is to really just know your stuff. If you truly understand the topic in and out, what you say and do in the classroom will reflect that. You will be able to improvise with no worries of using inaccurate terms or concepts. You also will feel less need to plan question answers–if you know your stuff, then your knowledge can be used on the fly to help students through their problems and learning.

  2. Hi Margaux, I appreciate the positive feedback! I feel that if students are truly having trouble understanding why they are wrong about a topic or hold a misconception, I would find provide situations for them to work through that their current conception would not support. This could be a lab, a problem to solve, et cetera. I think the key is make sure that the student feels stuck–which yes, does sound bad, but it really is the key to the reality of their conceptions. Thanks again!

  3. Kate! I really like how thorough you are in this post. I think one of the big ideas I got from your post was just how careful we need to be about not being a part of the problem and to choose the words and the resources we use with a keen eye. These students learned many of their misconceptions from someone like us! I also appreciate how you highlighted the value of an effective pre-assessment. We dont know what misconceptions are out there in the classroom without a little investigation.
    Have you personally had to confront any misconceptions you’ve had? What led you to doubt? What (or who) helped you learn?

    • Thanks Peter! I am glad you agree that we as teachers can be a part of the problem when it comes to misconceptions. As for misconceptions that I have had, it took me a lot of practice and experiences to understand what it meant for a substance to be “aqueous,” in high school. I just couldn’t grasp that whenever the “(aq)” label was next to a substance in a formula, it meant that there were actually just ions dissociated in solution–they were not bonded together! I think that this is not emphasized in classrooms. Teachers simply say “aqueous means it is dissolved in water,” but don’t always explain what that means at the microscopic level. My misconception was finally combatted in general chemistry when other information was taught that tied things all together.

  4. Great post Kate! I really like how you’re addressing something as simple and molecules and compounds because I’ve taken so many years of chemistry and still had to look up the difference to remind myself why they were different. I think this shows how confusing some vocabulary and terms can be. I also liked how you said using discrepant events to allow students to see that they may have a misconception about something. How would you go about helping those students that aren’t seeing where they can still be wrong even after you’ve presented material and helped them work through problems? Again, great job!

  5. Hey Kate!

    This a really thorough post and I love that you mentioned potential sources of misconceptions that come from us as teachers – because a lot do! I also like that you encouraged teachers to probe for misconceptions from students to get them out in the open rather than leave them to be uncovered later on. Misconceptions students hold about science concepts can really inhibit them from learning things later on that depend on that information! When it comes to teacher mix-ups, I think we all screw up sometimes (I know I do, at least) and let some words get mixed up that confuse students. How do you think we can keep that to a minimum without being super rehearsed and seeming dry? Should we frequently ask for questions/feedback to keep things clear? Great post!

  6. Thanks a bunch, Delaina! I am glad you agree that students need to learn for themselves to combat deeply embedded misconceptions. This can be used all over the place! For example, weight and density are often used interchangeably by students. This can be combatted by having students take measurements of different objects in which the more dense object is lighter than another object to show the relationship is very much so about volume. I like your story about your dog, Moses. It shows how easy it is for kids to develop misconceptions merely by looking at something! I have definitely held misconceptions, and I am sure I still do! I have recently discovered that I held a lot of misconceptions about acids and bases and how those would look at the microscopic level, as well as how buffers effect acids and bases. Luckily I took a course in which we used experiments to debunk these!

  7. Hello Kate!
    Great post! I really like the videos that you shared. Some of those misconceptions, I am familiar with myself! I like how you state that just telling the students the correct answer will not necessarily change their misconceptions. They must find out the correct information themselves by experimentation, proble-solving, and reasoning. Can you give me examples of this in a science classroom? I like how you give plenty of ways that teachers can combat misconceptions. I think that if a student finds out the misconception themselves and replaces or updates the information, that they will be more likely to keep the new information and use it in the future. I had many misconceptions in science. I am a life science/chem major and as a child, I had a silly misconception about genetics. I’ll give you the example. I have always had a chocolate lab named Moses. I used to think that his coat color was the result of codominance or the “mixing” or a black and white coat color. Later, as a college student, I learned how this was incorrect. I read a book about genetics and found that it is much more complex. You say in your blog that misconceptions can actually be a good thing and help people to learn. I agree. This is the the sense that I get from your post and I agree. If I did not find the information on my own and problem-solve and use my misconception as a stepping stone to eventually get the correct answer, I would not have got to the correct answer. In Duckworth’s book, she talks about how it is not always the most beneficial to put getting the correct answer over problem solving. I agree. Do you? This is what I get from your post. I also like all your ways for combating the problem. I definately agree with being more aware. This includes monitoring resources and deciding what is useful and what is not. Great post! Have you ever experienced misconceptions yourself in the classroom, if so, how did you combat them?

    Delaina 🙂

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