I’ll Change Your Mind (about chemistry)

When I got to college, I took general chemistry in my first semester. The lecture hall was filled with 175 students, mostly freshman, who were on tracks to go into engineering, medical, or STEM fields. The environment felt competitive and fast-paced, as we jotted down notes quickly to keep up with the lecture. I was planning on being a high school chemistry teacher and after taking AP Chemistry in high school, I felt confident and eager to learn. However, it didn’t take long until I reached concepts that were confusing and problems I struggled to solve. The more I learned, the more I realized what I had remembered from high school chemistry was slightly wrong or inaccurate. So, what happens when you start learning concepts or ideas that contradict your prior knowledge? What do you do?

Have you ever been in a position where your initial conceptions were challenged or even contradicted in school? Think back to how your knowledge about science has changed over time. As a future teacher, addressing misconceptions is a key part to teaching any subject, as students enter your classroom not as clean slates, but as people with unique amounts of prior knowledge and experiences.

Key Ideas about Misconceptions:

  1. Knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner. Students often struggle to take their knowledge about a context beyond the classroom or subject in which they learned it. Chemistry knowledge tends to be domain-specific, which can make it difficult for application.
  2. Misconceptions are resistant to instruction. Research has shown that misconceptions are hard to change in the mind of a learner, as it requires lots of time and repeated effort.
  3. Knowledge is not the same as understanding. As we know, students can possess knowledge or memorize information, but lack understanding or the ability to explain a concept adequately.
  4. Misconceptions are often instructor-driven. Misconceptions are going to come from past experiences, misuse of or confusion with science language, or by simplified explanations from instructors.

source: “I Have Found You an Argument: The Conceptual Knowledge of Beginning Chemistry Graduate Students” by George M. Bodner

Did you know? Common Chemistry Misconceptions

  1. Ionic bonding requires the transfer of electrons. WRONG!

Ionic bonding, such as in sodium chloride, is a process that doesn’t actually require electron transfers. This idea is driven by the Bohr Model, where sodium’s one valence electron “moves” to chloride’s one vacant space on its outer shell and by the saying kids learn in chemistry class, that “ionic bonding is the transfer of electrons and covalent bonding is the sharing of electrons.” In reality, bonds have varying degrees of different bonding character, which is more of an abstract concept, but can be explained by the figure below.

2. Electrons move around an atom’s nucleus in circular orbitals. WRONG!

Students learn in school all the time about the Bohr Model and how electrons move in a circular path in distinct orbits around the nucleus of an atom. However, atom’s nuclei are surrounded by an electron cloud, where the electrons do not exist only in one location around an atom. Again, a model is perpetuating a false idea about a core chemistry concept. Check out this video to learn more!

3. Gibbs free energy (deltaG) is always less than 0 for a spontaneous process. WRONG!

Many students have misconceptions in thermodynamics, specifically surrounding heat. At least for me, I had always learned that deltaG < 0 for a process to be considered spontaneous. However, this is true for only isothermal, constant pressure changes. However, for non-isothermal cases, the sign of delta G cannot predict spontaneity. Read about misconceptions in thermodynamics in an JCE article here.

Moving Towards Conceptual Change

Once students’ misconceptions have been identified, teachers and learners can work to redevelop them, in a process called conceptual change. The video below is super helpful for learning about conceptual change and how it’s done!

Simply countering a student’s misconception with the correct idea isn’t enough. We’ve developed mental models over time that have supported our misconceptions, so a mental model won’t just “go away” and be replaced with the new idea.

What Teachers CAN Do

  1. Seek to understand WHY students’ hold certain misconceptions. If you don’t know them and their prior knowledge, you won’t be able to address them in your class. Start new units with activities to assess students’ prior knowledge and what they know before you start to teach to be more informed!
  2. Make the idea INTELLIGIBLE! Explain the new idea with language the students are already familiar with. By connecting concepts to students interests’ or the real world, the new explanation may seem more reasonable to the student. Have students describe the new idea in their own words too.
  3. Make the idea FRUITFUL! Help students see how their preconceived idea was incorrect and why the new one is through demonstrations, hands-on experiments, and inquiry activities. When they can physically see why a concept works, they’ll start to let go of their old misconception. Start applying this new concept to solve problems in order to reinforce the new idea.

Need a new book to read? Check out Chemical Misconceptions: Prevention, diagnosis, and cure by Keith Taber to learn even about addressing misconceptions in the classroom!

An important, gentle reminder — Teachers will have misconceptions of their own, too! Yet, we are all lifelong learners and science is always changing. For me, when I initially found out that ionic bonding wasn’t the transfer of electrons, it felt like everything I knew about bonding wasn’t correct anymore. It’s a scary feeling, so keep that in mind as your students work through misconceptions of their own!

We can inform our students that the nature of science is everchanging and complex and that with more research and discovery, models often get replaced with ones that are more accurate. Conceptual change is vital to the learning process, so embrace it and encourage it in your students! It’ll serve them in the long run – in their future classes, careers, and endeavors.

Find those misconceptions in your students, address them in an intelligible way, and keep building on it! It takes time, but it’s worth it.

Keep going! Until next time, Miss Creeden


  1. Hi Grace! I love what you had to say about the formal operational phase and how students typically aren’t there yet and need to see a concept physically to truly understand it. And yes, I loved that we incorporated similar literature into our blogs! Honestly, it makes me feel nervous knowing that because misconceptions are resistant to change, one semester or even one year in my class may not fully change students misconceptions in chemistry. I want to be helpful for students and set them up well for college and their futures. It is a longer process than I may expect, however it is not hopeless because getting to play a part in their conceptual change is worth the effort and time! love u bestie

  2. Hi Ellie! Thank you so much for the encouraging feedback! I do think it is worth bringing up my own previous misconceptions with my students as a way of empathizing with them when they do realize they have an alternative conception that is being challenged. I would emphasize that it is a natural part of learning when we have to rework our previous knowledge to accommodate for newer or more accurate information. To address misconceptions I have myself, I would continue to do research outside of class to stay up to date with chemistry news and content that is relevant to what I am teaching. Also, as I create class content or look at textbooks to use, when I find something that brings up a misconception I have, I will do research, ask my colleagues for their knowledge, and try my best to facilitate conceptual change in myself when necessary!

  3. Hey Michael!
    Thanks for the input! I think that’s a great question- I think I would start by making sure that the language and materials I am using as I teach is reinforcing the correct concept to begin with, so hopefully my students won’t have to address as many chemistry misconceptions in their future. However, to avoid spending a lot of time on misconceptions, I would limit when I spend excessive time on something to when a student asks specifically about it or is extra confused about it, as a way of going to the margins once and awhile.

  4. Rachel!

    This is an amazing blog post, absolutely worth the read! I totally agree with Michael and you, that as educators we often hold misconceptions of our own. When it comes to addressing misconceptions with students it is really important to address the misconceptions we hold first. How would you address the misconceptions you hold? Do you think it would be worth it to address the misconceptions you hold/held with your students?

  5. Hi Rachel!
    I loved absolutely all of this. So real and informational and full of strong insights. Keith Taber is AMAZING and I will truly be reading that book now because of your suggestion. The ionic bonding misconception still makes my head hurt, but I think that the triangle sort of graph does a really good job of making it more clear. I wish teachers and professors would have shown me that! I also like how you said that students need to physically see why a concept is true in order to understand and accept it- and this is especially true for high school students, because they are generally in the transition from concrete operational to formal operational phase. As a future teacher, how does it make you feel knowing that misconceptions are very resistant to change?

  6. Hi Rachel!
    This is a great blog post, and I like that you included the “important, gentle reminder” that as educators we may have some misconceptions of our own. I think it was really smart to include specific examples of misconceptions related to your field. My only question is: how do you think you can consistently reinforce correct conceptions without spending an excessive amount of time?

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