Addressing A Scientific Misconception

Misconceptions in the science classroom can be very dangerous. They come from a variety of sources such as cultural background, past experiences, poor teaching practices in the past, or misunderstanding of vocabulary. However, no matter the source the result is the same: a misconception that hinders scientific understanding of a topic and all future topics that build upon it. To make matters worse, these misconceptions can be hard to detect if assessments are weak. In this blog post, I will discuss how one might go about one of the most common misconceptions in high school biology: That in the theory of evolution, humans evolved from apes.

Reasons for this misconception

  • Religious beliefs
  • Common cartoons and pop culture images
  • Confusion between cause and effect of evolution
  • Language ambiguity

A Learning Cycle to Address This Misconceptions

Engage –

  • Pose students with two questions: “Did humans evolve from apes? How might this have occurred? Include drawings.”
  • Have students work in table teams to discuss this. They will likely answer yes to the question, or raise concerns about the theory of evolution as a whole
    • IT IS IMPORTANT to note that if students begin to raise questions regarding evolutions validity compared to a religious point of view that you encourage students to treat this class as simply an explanation of a theory, not the end all be all on the origin of human beings
  • Have each table team share out their drawings and explanations to the group

Explore –

  • Give each table team some visual examples of phylogenetic trees of organisms other than human beings
    • Popular examples could be whales, snakes, or sharks
  • Provide teams with texts introducing the idea of common ancestry
  • Allow students to discuss and take notes on these resources
  • Implement a 4C’s (Connections, Challenges, Changes, Concepts) activity to structure each team’s notes
    • In the challenges section this is once again where controversy or confusion could arise. Ensure you are not belittling student’s opinions and giving them an opportunity to look at the world through a different lens for a little while

Explain –

  • Encourage students to write out a new explanation for the evolution of humans. If it is incorrect, do not worry about fixing it just yet
  • Introduce phylogenetic trees to students and explain in a lecture or slideshow format how they work
  • Work with the whole class to build a tree for an organism of their choice

Elaborate –

  • Have each table team begin to create a phylogenetic tree for human beings
  • Provide them with the species that must be included, with a special emphasis on the modern day ape and modern day human
  • Have students reflect on their tree. Ask how it is different from the images of evolution we are often presented with

Evaluate –

  • Explain to students that they will be evaluated on both their phylogenetic trees and a short quiz on trees and evolution
  • NOTE that this is just one way of looking at the origin of species. NOT the end all be all

Notes About This Learning Cycle

When running this learning activity, there are a few things to keep in mind. Make sure students are thinking about evolution as a result of natural selection for traits that happened to appear via mutation. Mutation is not intentional, so it is not perfect. If it works and an organism survives, the trait is carried on, not improved upon. This will help students to avoid confusing the cause and effect of evolution. 

Be sure to use as precise of language as possible. Do not allow yourself to wrongly explain something for the sake of being simple. 

Finally, approach this topic with some sensitivity. Some students will be reluctant to accept this information. Frame it as a theory that they must know about, even if they do not agree or believe in it. It is still necessary knowledge. 

Students who are involved in special education should be able to use this learning cycle pretty effectively. Accommodate them by changing group dynamics, having less reading and more visuals, and allowing them to type or write notes depending on what works best for them.

Conclusion and Additional Resources

This is just one example of a misconception that students will have in a science classroom. Addressing these misconceptions by allowing students an opportunity to engage with content is the best way to eliminate them. Approaching them with thoughtfulness and kindness is also crucial, so as to not force students into a defensive mode when they are told they are wrong. If these steps are taken, these misconceptions can be reduced.


  1. Hey Max, I enjoyed reading through your post. I agree that it is important to be precise and clear with our explanations and should pay attention in detail to how we explain concepts (especially if there are misconceptions surrounding the ideas). How would you prepare to simplify a complex concept to the course level without brining in hazardous or wrong content?

    • Thanks for the question Duncan. I think simplifying a complex concept comes down to content expertise by the teacher. A teacher who has a solid foundation in the content will be able to avoid using misconceptions or easily confusing vocabulary when discussing a topic with a student. This will allow them to briefly cover whatever is giving the student trouble without adding too much complexity with room for misconceptions.

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