Pay Attention to the Misconception

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Science contains a very broad body of knowledge. There are many ideas, theories, and laws. Sometimes it feels almost impossible to keep them all straight!

That’s exactly the case with your students. All students have alternate conceptions about scientific concepts. These alternate conceptions, or misconceptions, may have learned through the media or general knowledge. Regardless of where they got them, all your students will have alternate conceptions.

What is an Alternate Conception?

The definition of alternative conceptions are the ideas which children and adults use to explain various scientific concepts which do not match with the generally accepted scientific explanation of those concepts.

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Alternate conceptions are difficult things because students think they are correct, but they have the wrong conception of it. This is worse than simply not knowing the answer, because students think they know the answer but are actually wrong.

This makes the learning process HARDER for students. Before they can accept the correct answer, they must unlearn their misconception.

Also, these misconceptions can be firmly rooted in students’ minds. They can be extremely hard to undo. This brings up the question…

How do Teachers get rid of Students Misconceptions?

There are few steps that are necessary to undo student misconceptions

Step 1: Identify the Misconception and its Source

Students must first identify what they believe about a topic. If they are not able to verbalize and name their beliefs, this misconception will never be able to be unrooted. They must name their misconception, and also its source. Ask questions like…

  • What do I believe about this topic/question?
  • Where does that belief come from?
  • Why do I believe this?
  • Is this source credible?
  • Is there any evidence for my beliefs?

Asking questions like these will help students get their misconception out into the open. Only then can by finally and permanently DESTROYED!

Step 2: Give Alternate Explanations

If you simply tell the student the right answer, the misconception will often not be ridden from their minds. Oftentimes, when people are given information that contradicts their beliefs, they simply double down on what they believe. This is not enough. Instead, you must give the students alternate explanations, and show why the explanation for the true conception is correct.

  • DO NOT tell the students they are wrong
  • DO show the students why there is a better answer

By showing students that there is a better answer, they will begin to see flaws in their own misconception. They will question their once held beliefs, and slowly the misconception will fall.

Step 3: Encourage Questioning

Once you have provided your students with alternate explanations, encourage your students to start questioning. They should question not only their own beliefs, but also the alternate explanation you provided.

Questioning is part of the inquiry process, and they can personally discover the answers to questions. This is the best for students to convince themselves that their misconceptions are wrong and that there are better explanations. They must see for themselves the reality of the phenomena, and stop blindly believing misconceptions they do not have any evidence for.

These inquiry activities can be applied to many physics misconceptions.

Misconception #1 Force is needed to keep an object moving with a constant speed.

This is a commonly held misconception. You can encourage student questioning by supplying a frictionless surface like an air track. Give students time to play with the device and discover for themselves if constant force is necessary for constant speed in the absence of friction.

Misconception #2 Acceleration means that an object is moving, and speeding up

Allow students to question this misconception by throwing an object and watching it fall. Ask your students, “does it have constant acceleration?” Have them reflect on their answer. Then ask them the question, “does it ever completely stop?” This will make them question their misconception that momentarily stationary objects have zero acceleration. Then ask them, “does the object undergo the same acceleration when it is slowing down as when it is speeding up?” This will reinforce that all objects in free fall are constantly accelerating at g = 9.8 m/s^2

Misconception #3 The more mass in a pendulum bob, the faster it swings.

Having students engage with this misconception can be easily done. Give students two pendulums, one with a heavy mass and another with a lighter mass. Have them compare the length of time it takes for the pendulum to swing back and forth. Ask the students, “Is there any difference between constant acceleration for a free-falling object and the oscillation of pendulums?

Common Physics Misconceptions

Here is a list I compiled of other common physics misconceptions. Many of these are held by students, and even teachers.

  • Rocket propulsion is due to exhaust gases pushing on something behind the rocket.
  • An object at rest has no energy.
  • Large objects exert a greater force than small objects.
  • All metals are attracted to a magnet.
  • Acceleration always means that an object is speeding up.
  • Gravitational potential energy depends only on the height of an object.
  • Batteries have electricity inside them.

I could talk ALL DAY about why these misconceptions are wrong and the better answers. But I will leave that for you to ponder.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Hey Steve! Thanks for reading my post, I’m glad you enjoyed it. As for you question, I think there are many ways that I can ensure my own misconceptions don’t get in the way of my teaching. One strategy is to always be learning about science, and especially physics. If I am always learning about what I teach, then I will see more misconceptions that I am holding and be willing to deconstruct them. Another way I can do this is to be open to criticism. If one of my students points out a misconception in my teaching, I will listen to them and try to remove it from my thinking.

  2. Nate,
    Awesome post! I like how you added specific examples to your post. I think this allowed us to even check our own misconceptions that we have. I enjoyed the video you added to your post. It is interesting to see how influential media/family values have on our understanding of the world. These misconceptions can go hidden for years until they finally show up in the classroom. I think it’s important that we are aware of our student’s misconceptions and bring them to light. A question I have for you is how do you ensure that you don’t let your own misconceptions affect your classroom learning?

  3. Thanks for your feedback! You bring up a great question. I think it is hard to combat misconceptions as an instructor when you hold the same ones as your students. In the real world, this happens all the time. I think that by learning as much as you can about your content field as an instructor, you will not only be a better teacher but you will be able to dismantle any misconceptions you already have. Make sure to always be learning, even as a teacher! This will help you see your own misconceptions and fight them.

  4. Hi Nathan!

    I really liked your blog post and the video you included at the end. I would suggest adding more graphics throughout to balance out the text, especially toward the end of the post!
    I had a question for you! How do we as teachers combat misconceptions if we have those same misconceptions? How do we know what misconceptions we hold as an instructor?
    Overall great job!

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