Alternate Conceptions: What Are They and What Can We Do

Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Common Misconceptions in Science |  Science Teaching

Alternate conceptions can find their way into classrooms in a variety of different ways. Maybe they’re misconceptions, incorrect assumptions, and cultural beliefs. In science classrooms, this can be difficult to deal with, so let’s talk about different ways to identify and address alternate conceptions.

Where do Misconceptions Come From

Misconceptions can come from a variety of places. This article adapted from Pyc, Agarwal, and Roediger (2014) addresses where student misconceptions come from. This information is summarized in the graphic from the article below!

Knowing where misconceptions come from is great. But we must also know how to address alternate conceptions! Here are some ways to help address alternate conceptions in your classroom below!

Inquiry and Asking Questions

The Value of Inquiry—the Art of Failure » Britannica

We’ve been talking about inquiry a lot. But it truly is one of the best parts of the science classroom! And it’s an easy way to address students’ misconceptions and alternate conceptions in the classroom.

Creating an environment of inquiry creates space for students to question what they experience and observe, as well as their own beliefs. (Which is an important skill to have when getting involved in the sciences)

Curious and want to learn more about how inquiry can help address students’ misconceptions? Check out this paper on Addressing Misconceptions Through Inquiry in First Grade Science by Cameron Cecil Jones!

Get to Know Your Students

4 Tips for Getting to Know Your Students | The Marquette Educator

I know I know, as a teacher one of the most crucial steps is getting to know your students. Everyone tells you this. But if you really want to address alternate conceptions, you need to know where they come from.

Alternate conceptions can come from just about anywhere. Getting to know your students helps you to understand where the alternate conceptions come from. The better you know where misconceptions come from the better you can address them!

It’s important to keep in mind that alternate conceptions can be due to different cultural understandings. It is important to be culturally mindful of your student’s alternate conceptions and where they come from. You might even learn that when you help students unpack their alternate conceptions some cultural beliefs are rooted in science!

This article talks all about scientists “learning and discovering” what Native People have known for decades!

Use Refutational Readings

Refutation Text and Critical Thinking | Center for Inquiry

Using refutational readings in science is perfect for not only teaching students how to read scientific writings but also helping students learn how to identify and address alternate conceptions. Furthermore, refutational readings also provide evidence that refutes incorrect alternate conceptions.

It’s important to make an activity or lesson out of refutational readings, however. This makes sure that students are learning the most out of the reading!

The Center for Inquiry has a great article unpacking how to use and make the most of refutational readings!

Don’t Just Stop at Introductory Classes/Lessons

Alternate conceptions flood into all levels of education and learning. Make sure you are addressing all alternate conceptions throughout all levels of education!

These are just a handful of ways to address alternate conceptions in your science classrooms. What suggestions do you have to address alternate conceptions?

See you next time!

Ms. Brennan


  1. Hi Mckenna!

    Of course, we as teachers hold misconceptions! Everyone does, and it’s not fair to say that just because we have studied science doesn’t mean that we don’t still have misconceptions. A great place to start would be doing research into misconceptions that are typically held in the different sciences and seeing which ones you currently hold. The other thing I recommend doing is to be constantly engaged in learning. The more you learn (listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, read different articles) the more you’ll unpack your misconceptions and further your knowledge!

  2. Ellie!

    I really loved your blog and all of the graphics you included. I think they added a lot to your blog, especially the one about what teachers can do about addressing misconceptions.

    You mentioned in your blog that misconceptions are everywhere in science. Do we as teachers hold misconceptions as well? How do we identify and address our own misconceptions to avoid encouraging them in our student’s conceptual frameworks?

    Great job!

  3. Hey Grace!

    Thanks so much for your comment, I love your questions. One of the most essential things about incorporating scientific papers into a high school-level science class is meeting your students where they are. Scientific papers can be cumbersome to read, even for the most experienced of readers, helping students to break down these readings and find readings that make the science approachable helps students to build the skills they need. Really it’s about finding opportunities to break down readings and this can be done in a variety of ways. The first way I would recommend doing so is as a whole class, it can even be worth doing so while introducing a MTV strategy. As students grow their skills making a reading homework, independent or group work is also a great way to incorporate readings.

    I also really appreciate how you identify that some students might have emotions tied to their misconceptions, and these are really important to address. And they must be addressed by helping students understand where they come from and why they have emotions tied to these misconceptions. Especially while teaching high school one of our roles is to help students learn to work through processes like this, so being really transparent about why were tackling misconceptions and how were doing so can help students cope with these emotions.

  4. Hi Ellie!
    Great job on your blog, I really liked how the graphics you included a lot of in depth information about misconceptions. I do think that questioning is important in this topic because as we pose questions to our students, we will be able to catch on to misconceptions they may be believing about chemistry, physics, or any content area. I agree that knowing your students is so important and that it is worth spending time really trying to understand their background and prior knowledge. In regards to including refutational readings, how would you incorporate scientific papers like that in a high school level science class? And how could you still address students’ emotions tied to their misconceptions they’ve been holding on to while also stretching them to read scientific text?

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