It’s Not Right, But We Can Work With It

Did you know that parents of animals actually do not reject their babies once humans touch them? Yeah, me neither.

Or did you know that toilets don’t actually flush in a different direction in the Southern Hemisphere? Yeah, I didn’t know that one either.

These are two simple examples of something called misconceptions. Today, we get to dig into some misconceptions students might hold in chemistry, and what we as teachers can do to fight misconceptions in a way that works. I’ll preface the rest of this with the fact that misconceptions are one of my favorite topics in the world of educational theory, and I hope they become yours, too!

What is a Misconception?

Misconceptions, or alternate conceptions, are wrong or partially wrong ideas or theories that students believe to be true. Misconceptions are often developed when student don’t have sufficient information to come to an accurate conclusion themselves. Then, they create their own conclusion using the limited information they do know. This explanation seems logical to them, but is not scientifically accurate.

Now, before you get all mad at the students, I want you to see how these misconceptions can actually be really valuable when you, as the teacher, look at them the right way:

  • Where are there gaps in my own teaching? In other words, what did I as the teacher not explain well enough? Often times, there is something missing from our teaching when our students develop these pervasive misconceptions.
  • What do my students understand? Many of these misconceptions hold many bits of truth. Seeing the students’ misconceptions can give you insight into what they have learned and understand, and what knowledge they are building off of. If I am honest, sometimes these misconceptions are impressive, because students use a lot of creative thinking to get there. And we should always encourage creative thinking, but should also ensure accuracy.
  • What did I just teach wrong? Many teachers still hold some misconceptions themselves. These misconceptions are not silly and outlandish like you might think- they are very believable and pervasive, especially in chemistry classes. If we were taught the misconception without realizing it, we ourselves will believe it and therefore continue to teach it. In these cases, we are providing the students with the misconceptions. Oh dear!

A Deep Dive Into Literature

One of my biggest goals for my future classroom is to have students learn how to digest scientific literature. Yes, of course, this means online news articles, but I also want them to learn how to dig into those big, scary papers. Just a little.

But, I need to practice what I preach. I took a course in which much of what we did was read scientific literature, and it gave me a love for it. It’s oddly thrilling to learn from something that seems so high level- once you break it down, you realize how much there is to be learned from research and the papers written about it. So, I read three published articles on the misconceptions students hold about chemical bonding.

Chemical bonding seems so simple, right? Ionic bonding is the transfer of electrons, and covalent bonding is the sharing of electrons. Or so you thought, because your chemistry teacher taught it to you that way. Turns out that that isn’t fully true. Interesting, huh? Here are some of the things I learned about the misconceptions students hold about chemical bonding.

“Development of the Bonding Representations Inventory To Identify Student Misconceptions about Covalent and Ionic Bonding Representations” – Cynthia J. Luxford and Stacy Lowery Bretz, 2014

What were the most shocking things I learned here? Let’s find out:

  • Bonding is actually a continuum, not just either ionic or covalent. However, most instructors and textbooks take this dichotomous approach, which contributes to this misconception development of the dichotomous nature of chemical bonds. This actually becomes a “learning impediment” for students to learn about polar and non-polar bonds later on!
  • One pervasive misconception that students have is about ions and ionic bonding. They believe that electrons and their transfer are involved in the creation of ions, but they don’t understand that those ions are actually attracted to each other because of their opposite charge.
  • Some students hold the misconception that in the lattice structure of ionic compounds, the individual ion-pairs are attracted to other pairs, such as NaCl being attracted to NaCl, treating them like molecules.
  • Other misconceptions include: bonds form because atoms desire an octet, spacing of dots between atoms indicates equal sharing (such as in a Lewis dot structure), bonds are lines, and dots represent all of the electrons in a compound.

This paper also hit a lot on the dangers of rote memorization for students. It made me think about how it can be difficult to edit and improve the mental structures already in place when a student needs to combat a misconception.

For example, if a student has memorized that ionic bonding involves the transfer of electrons, then they would have a difficult time accommodating the new information relating to coordinate numbers and the actual lattice structure of ionic compounds. Their misconception may seem more appealing to them than the actual, new information they are receiving, so we need to make sure as instructors that we do not give our students inaccurate information for the sake of simplicity.

If I am honest, I totally held many of those misconceptions myself, even as a future teacher. And maybe you did, too. This is why being a life-long learner is essential!

“Bonding” – Keith S. Taber, Richard K. Coll, 2002

This paper had some real jaw droppers and eye openers. Here’s what I learned:

  • A misconception related to bonding is that students use the social definition of “share” when it comes to the sharing of electrons in a bond. They assume bonds are between an arrangement of molecules so that they can obtain full outer shells of electrons.
  • The limited, full of misconceptions understanding of chemical bonding works for high school tests, as teachers do not often test on the why but rather only the what of chemical phenomena. But if students are to continue onto study chemistry in college, this understanding will no longer work. They will encounter other bonding concepts which will be very difficult to integrate into their already existing framework if this is their initial framework.
  • The octet framework is much too rigid, and students can’t understand the limitations of it, so they generalize it to all chemical bonding. Specifics of what they attribute it to include why bonds form, what should count as a bond, and how bonds should be classified.

We love talking about the importance of prior knowledge in the classroom- and it is very important! But sometimes, prior knowledge is actually hurting students. One example is when students use the social definition of “share” and assume everything is shared equally. Their definition of share, from their previous life experience, is inaccurate for chemical bonding, which would make the misconception even more difficult to change, as their long term memory has made false, but strong, connections.

“Teaching and learning chemical bonding: research-based evidence for misconceptions and conceptual difficulties experienced by students in upper secondary schools and the effect of an enriched text” – Georgios Tsaparlis, Eleni T. Pappa, and Bill Byers, 2018

Last one, I promise. I don’t know about you, but my brain is already exploding from those first two papers. Buckle up for this one!

  • Bonding is hard to understand conceptually, so students resort to rote memorization- which creates misconceptions because they don’t have all of the information they need – and these misconceptions are resistant to instruction.
  • The models presented in textbooks are limited, oversimplified, and can often be incorrect.
  • When teachers just teach to the test, they end to oversimplify things.
  • You need to use sophisticated reasoning to understand bonding, and most students don’t have that ability yet because of their development.
  • Lewis structures can be helpful when they are just showing one singular ion, but don’t make much sense if you are trying to show NaCl, for example. In that case, you aren’t showing the actual structure of ionic compounds, and this leads to the misconception that ions form as single ion-pairs, which makes students think they can be molecules.
Here’s an example of a model of ionic bonding that many teachers show. However, it is extremely misleading and leads to the development of misconceptions about how ionic bonding actually functions.
This model would be much more helpful, and is much more truthful!

Now is a great time to reference the theory of Constructivism. Like I referenced above, the paper mentioned that students can have a really difficult time comprehending chemical bonding because it is a very abstract concept- they can’t see it! This is likely because, according to the theory, most students at this stage are in the formal operational state. This means that they need to see things to believe and understand them. And this poses a huge issue for bonding!

What Can We Do?

Well, that was a lot. I hope you can chew on those for a long time, and that they will inform your teaching! Also, if you are anything like me, you are feeling discouraged from learning about all of the ways that misconceptions can fester in the classroom.

So, what can we do? Here is what I think:

  • I as the teacher need to be aware of these misconceptions so that I can specifically emphasize material that counteracts them. This means checking my own understanding, and staying up to date on relevant literature.
  • You have to provide students with a more convincing explanation that proves to them that their misconception is incorrect. Until they see that their misconception is faulty, they will not be willing to do the cognitive work to change it.
  • You can attempt to stop the formation of those misconceptions if you teach the appropriate content to students in the first place. This requires a lot of thought to look through your lessons and explanations beforehand to make sure that you aren’t leading students the wrong way.
  • I would like to implement administering tests to my students that test for misconceptions. I should create multiple choice items with high quality distractors based in common misconceptions in chemical bonding, as well as administer formative assessments to students that look to expose their misconceptions so that I can identify them and teach against them.

I will leave you with one of my actual favorite videos ever on conceptual change and how we can change misconceptions in students. I hope you love it as much as I do!

And there you have it, everyone. The blessing and curse of misconceptions. May we identify them, change them, and stop them from forming in the first place, if we can help it.

Which misconceptions about bonding did you believe? How does that make you feel, and make you feel about your chemistry education? Personally, I am still shocked. Let me know!

See ya next time,

Miss Karlock (@MissKarlockChem on Twitter)


  1. Hey Grace,
    Had to check out your article after your enthusiasm the other day and I can see why. This is a great post not only about misconceptions but how we can use them to assess our knowledge and that of our students. I loved that part! It’s great that you want to pass on that torch science article literary as I never got that and still struggle with articles today. So my question to you is what would you do as a teacher if students do everything to deny that their misconception is correct despite any evidence shown against it, how would you handle that?

  2. Hi Nathan!
    Thanks so much! The topic of thermodynamics also has a ton of misconceptions associated with it, such as the differences between enthalpy and entropy, what entropy actually is, and what spontaneous and non-spontaneous reactions actually mean. Those misconceptions are also extremely interesting, and I would like to dive into them more myself.

  3. Hi Luke!
    Thank you for your positive feedback! I think a lot about how it would certainly be easy for me to just keep on teaching these misconceptions, because they are what I initially learned and are often simpler than the actual, correct science. However, I know I can’t do that to my students and need to go the extra mile for them so that it is not harder to learn the correct explanation later, should they choose to pursue science further. In response to your question, I don’t think I would have students read these articles- it is well beyond what I expect of them in my class, because I am the teacher, not them. However, I think that these papers should inform the way I teach- more of the “behind the scenes”. I am excited to stay up to date on research as a teacher, because it will allow me to keep editing my teaching style.

  4. Hi Michael!
    Thank you thank you- I really do love this topic and I am glad that it came through in my writing. I think that confronting colleagues can be difficult, because they assume that they are content experts, and would most likely get defensive if confronted in the wrong way (and I get it- I like thinking that I am correct, too!). I honestly think that the best way to do it would to give them the literature to read so that they can come to that conclusion on their own. Especially as a young teacher, I never want to overstep my role with my more experienced colleagues, and I think just telling them to read these “really insightful” papers I found might indirectly expose those misconceptions to them. But, if I had a good relationship with them, I may just be able to confront them directly!

  5. Hey Grace!
    I really liked your blog post, especially when you went really in depth about the misconception of bonding. It was really cool to see all your research into a topic that is very often misunderstood. I thought your blog was very engaging and fun to read. One question is what are some other common chemistry misconceptions?

  6. Hello Grace 🙂
    This blog was very very well-written. Wow! I was so interested to learn about all these misconceptions, and how you had literature and scientific research to back up your claims. I think some of these misconceptions, specifically related to ionic compounds and bonding are so pervasive, so I really liked how you emphasized that it is on the teacher to teacher content without over-simplifying or cutting corners. Overall, I was really impressed with this blog. I noticed that a lot of the literature you dove into was based in chemistry education research, so how might you use straight up chemistry research in your classroom, or would these articles be too unrelated for your content?

  7. Hi Grace!
    I think your “deep dive” into literature was extremely helpful and I can clearly tell that you know a ton about this topic. I’m interested in how you would confront an educational colleague who has a misconception?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.