Debunking Misconceptions: Doing it in a Meaningful Way

Misconceptions, or alternative conceptions, are understandings that are fundamentally incorrect, causing a disparity when confronted. Many people live their lives without ever even knowing they have misconceptions but they still cause a fundamental misunderstanding.

Above are the results of a question where undergraduate and graduate students majoring in chemistry and biochemistry were asked to match the beaker with the label. Only 30% of people go it right!

As seen above, misconceptions can perpetuate even through education because both undergraduate and graduate students who are majoring in chemistry and biochemistry still misunderstand something as fundamental as solutions.

As the video above mentions, it’s easy to form a misconception because it tends to “feel” like the right answer. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to not only find out what misconceptions their students have but also address the relevant ones.

How do you break these misconceptions?

The most important thing to keep in mind when confronting misconceptions with students is that it’s the students’ fundamental understanding that’s incorrect. Because of this, just saying the right idea isn’t going to allow students to form correct conceptions. What can you do as their teacher?

  • Confronting misconceptions is difficult work. People don’t like being wrong so making the classroom a safe environment helps promote confrontation of misconceptions
  • Acknowledge that it’s not the students’ fault. Misconceptions persist because they make sense in everyday life
  • Give students hands-on experience confronting their misconceptions (as seen in the video above) so they can adjust their own mental models. This has proven to be more effective than teachers just providing the right answer and moving on


One common misconception that students have is that things float on water because they’re lighter than water. While this can be explained through ideas like density and buoyancy, it’s much more meaningful for students to do an experiment to put their idea to the test. For example, whole oranges float while peeled oranges sink, even though the peeled orange is losing weight. An experiment that can be done is something like the video below where the idea is being tested, and then hypotheses for why it might be happening are tested. This process allows students to


  1. Hi Evan,

    Thanks for talking about how you would go about debunking misconceptions in your future science classroom. If you were put in a situation where a student is finding it difficult to change their misconceptions, how would you approach them? Do you believe there is a certain amount of time that you should wait before you talk about it with them again?

    • Jay,
      If a student is finding it difficult to change their misconceptions, I would first make sure they know that it’s a safe environment and that it’s ok to be wrong. I also believe that if a student is getting frustrated trying to confront their misconception, then they may need some time to think about something else for a bit. Sometimes this would be coming back to the idea near the end of class, sometimes even the next class but I think it is important for them to confront their misconceptions.

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