Addressing Misconceptions in a Chemistry Classroom!

All too often, teachers view their students as “blank slates”, ready to absorb information in their classrooms. This is not the case!

Students are anything but a “blank slate”. Children, and people in general, are constantly using evidence around them in their environments to construct an explanation for what they see.

This is the main idea of the learning theory of constructivism, that learners do not passively take in information presented to them, that they instead construct their own learning and their own ideas about the world around them.

Because learners construct their own knowledge, it is inevitable that they bring alternate conceptions about science with them into the classroom. What is most important though, is that we direct students’ learning in a more scientifically accurate direction while allowing them to maintain a love for learning!

How do we identify student misconceptions in the first place?

We cannot address student misconceptions and redirect them without first identifying them! Determining student misconceptions is vital for student learning. Doing so avoids the students constructing more knowledge on top of inaccurate ideas, allowing them to construct a more scientifically canonical manner.

Here are a few methods I will use to identify student misconceptions:

  • Misconception Probes – utilizing misconception probes, or a series of questions to show where students misconceptions lie, allows instructors to see what misconceptions students are bringing into the classroom has several misconception probes that could be helpful for science classrooms. I found that the Royal Society of Chemistry has several in depth probes about very specific topics. These probes might be helpful for students who have some chemistry background, allowing instructors to see specifically what students know.

Many probes are simply true and false. I would personally add a “I don’t know” option, to ensure the students do not just guess for questions they are not familiar with. For some questions, I would also add a drawing or written explanation portion, allowing me as the teacher to see more about what a student really knows, whether that is a process, particulate level representations, and more.

Misconception probes are pretty versatile. They can be used as a sort of entrance slip, before instruction and exploration take place, in the middle of a unit, or at the end to check for understanding. They definitely serve as a very useful resource, and I plan to utilize them in some form frequently!

  • Making Thinking Visible Strategies!

There are dozens of MTV strategies that can help make students learning visible in the classroom. Check out my previous blog post for more in depth information about MTV strategies!

There are some MTV strategies that are specifically looking to uncover prior knowledge of students, which I think would be really great to uncover and address misconceptions in the classroom.

One example that comes to mind is 3, 2, 1, bridge! Students write 3 words that come to mind about a topic, two questions, and 1 metaphor or simile based on their current understanding. The students then complete a second 3, 2, 1 after instruction, and then discuss the connection, or the bridge, between their understandings.

What are some of the common chemistry misconceptions?

Chemistry is a very complex subject. Many times students are learning about very abstract things that they cannot see, things that do not make sense to them conceptually. Because of several factors, maybe teaching strategies, the complexity of the topic, the cognitive load, students walk out of the classroom with holes in their cognitive frameworks.

These holes have to be filled with something, so the student will fill it with whatever makes sense to them, whether it is scientifically accurate or not.

Another issue is that the complex information involved in subjects like chemistry, are oversimplified and not explained in enough depth for them to fully make sense to students. Some of these ideas will be discussed below!

  1. Ionic Bonds “give” electrons

It is not uncommon that chemistry teachers tell their students that covalently bonded atoms share electrons, and that ionically bonded atoms give or transfer electrons.

As you can see even in the diagram below, the sodium atom with its outer shell valence electron is given, denoted by the arrow, to the chlorine atom.

What many chemistry teachers do not teach, though, is that this electron transfer does not exist! The sodium does lose an electron, and the chlorine does gain one, both becoming ions. However, they are not bonded by this shared electron. They are bonded together through electrostatic attractions!

I was nearly 3/4 of the way through my college career before this unveiled to me! I had taken physical science, high school chemistry, AP chemistry, college general chemistry and organic chemistry, none of which told me that electron transfer does not exist.

The Redirection:

This misconception is something I feel can be corrected effectively with manipulatives and/or drawings. I would ask students to draw what they think is happening when an ionic bond is formed, and have them explain to me or a partner why.

This would allow me to see first, if students hold the misconception at all, or if they have a more scientifically accurate conception, or if they simply do not understand ionic bonding.

I would then draw a picture like the one shown above, asking students as I draw, where the electron goes. Some might tell me that it goes to the chlorine, some might say that it just leaves the sodium. Some might not know at all! I could do this in a verbal discussion or even using an anonymous quiz using poll everywhere or Nearpod.

I would then address the students answers, explaining that yes, sodium loses an electron, and chlorine gains an electron, becoming ions. However, it is not likely that the electron is going to the chlorine atom that the sodium becomes bonded to.

Even so, the bond created is more of an attraction than a bond! This could be shown using manipulatives as well, showing that like repels like and opposite charges attract with ions on sheets of paper.

I would finish up by checking students’ understanding with an exit slip with different atoms but also involving a salt, to see if they can apply their learning to other examples.

2) Atoms have color.

The idea that atoms have color is surprisingly prevalent in students. In representations of atoms, oxygen is often red, hydrogen is often white, and nitrogen is often blue. It is important that in models of atoms, they are colored differently to allow learners to clearly see what it is they are looking at, but it leads to the misconception that an oxygen atom is actually red!

Something I would do to combat this misconception is to verbally tell my students over the course of instruction that atoms are not actually colored. I would also avoid using the same color for an atom each time, and would be sure to make a key to ensure students know what color corresponds to what atom.

Things to Remember!

I would argue that the most important thing to remember is to not simply tell students they are wrong!

Trying to correct students’ misconceptions by telling them they are wrong will make them feel much less motivated to do the work in the class than they might have been before. It is discouraging to be told that you are wrong, and it has a great potential to effect a students’ motivation and self esteem.

It is also important to remember that only verbally telling students the scientifically accurate conception is not enough to get them to change their minds and truly understand the concept!

Students should explore the ideas, and attempt to explain them in their own words with your guidance! This will keep students engaged and interested and wanting to know more.

Finally, you cannot correct student misconceptions without being aware of your own. It is important to seek out where your own misconceptions lie, and work to fix them as well to avoid creating more misconceptions for your students!

Final Thoughts

There are countless misconceptions in chemistry (and other sciences). It is important to identify them, correct them, and prevent new ones, both as learners and as teachers, in order to allow our students to become more scientifically literate adults in the future!

That is all for now – please leave any questions or comments below!


  1. Hi McKenna!
    I loved what you had to say about misconceptions in this blog and especially how you grounded your thoughts in constructivism- that is so important in this topic! Our blogs are quite similar, especially with the chem misconceptions which can be tough to address. I thought by starting with misconception probes was a great idea and I loved the resources you included too, making thinking visible strategies work great here as well. How would you change your content or models in your class resources to resist common chemistry misconceptions (i.e. models)?

    • Hi Rachel!

      This is a great question, and honestly I think that there are dozens of answers possible! I think to combat and prevent common misconceptions, like those in models, it is important to use a variety of materials and models to demonstrate. One misconception I hit on briefly in my post was that atoms have colors. In my writing of this post, I actually googled “what color is an oxygen atom” and the answer that came up was actually red! Now, if you dig a little bit deeper, you will see that the typical color assignment is red, not the atom itself. I think, in this case, it is important to verbally address the idea that the atoms are not these colors, and assign different colors (with a key) to avoid the confusion in class. Additionally, with models, it is so important to point out their limitations! Students can have really valuable discussions about which models are better suited for certain phenomena. I think that doing these things can combat some misconceptions that students bring or build in their conceptual frameworks throughout the year.

  2. McKenna!

    I had such an enjoyable time reading your post about uncovering and addressing misconceptions. I especially loved how you talked about different misconceptions students typically have in Chemistry. Some I’ll even admit to holding myself when I first started learning. It might be interesting to introduce students to the fact that you once held misconceptions too! Possibly as a way to pull them in. When addressing misconceptions in your classroom, what ideas do you have to pull students in rather than push them away?

    • Hi Ellie! This is a great question. I also really love the idea that I could tell my students that I hold misconceptions myself! I think that this kind of bridges the gap between the teacher as the “expert” and the students as the “novice” and helps them to remain confident in their learning.
      When addressing misconceptions in the classroom, it is important to address them in a way that allows students to remain interested in the content and confident in themselves. I think that allowing students to first explain their reasoning and get stuck, maybe in groups to avoid embarrassment, allows them to have a “need to know” moment. The disconnect between what they think is scientifically accurate and their own explanation in which they get stuck will create space for a new, more scientifically accurate conception to take place while keeping them engaged and interested rather than discouraged.

  3. McKenna!
    Sooooooo good- I am glad you are as into learning about and correcting misconceptions as I am 🙂 Amazing connection to constructivism, too. It really is the basis of all of this, and students are not “stupid” for creating this misconceptions. Like you said, they all come in with prior knowledge, and they often use this prior knowledge to fill in their gaps in understanding. They are using awesome critical thinking skills, but sadly, chemistry can be a bit more complicated than the simple, logical jumps students often make. The atoms have color misconception is one that I think of SO often. Models can contribute to so many misconceptions, and I have learned that I am going to have to be very careful with the models I use with my students. What other misconceptions do you think that molecular modeling can contribute to?

    • Hey Grace!
      There absolutely are other misconceptions that modeling can contribute to. Modeling is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately, and that we need to be careful with models to ensure our students have a scientifically accurate conceptual framework about chemistry. One misconception that I think of immediately is that students hold the misconception that a chemical formula indicates a molecule. For example, the chemical formula NaCl, salt, represents sodium chloride. This compound is often shown in models as a single unit, causing misconceptions that it and similar chemicals, maybe CaCl2 or other ionic compounds, are individual molecules rather than in a lattice structure. The chemistry misconceptions are tricky and abundant, and modeling absolutely contributes to them. It is essential to be cautious about facilitating understanding of chemistry using models!

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