What is a misconception?

By Jordan Cudaback

In the teaching world, especially with young students, misconceptions are a very real part of the classroom. First, we might ask ourselves “what is a misconception?” As a teacher, it is extremely important that you know a misconception when you hear one. A misconception is misguided or incorrect belief about a concept. I do not want to call misconceptions wrong, as there are often reasons students develop these misconceptions, reasons that make complete sense in their minds. If you tell a student their way of thinking is wrong, it may make them shy away from voicing their ideas in the future.

As I have begun to teach, I have come across many students who have held various misconceptions over the subject matter I have taught. This semester, I taught a lesson on electricity to a group of second and third graders in a CLC program. I taught the first lesson in the unit and devoted it mainly to finding out what my students already knew about electricity. I was really interested in finding out about their prior knowledge on the subject, as prior knowledge and misconceptions go hand in hand. It is so easy to simply ask your students what they know about a subject. Doing so can bring up some misconceptions your students may have.

I used this strategy to start off our electricity unit. We first discussed scientists and how scientists often study electricity. I then had each of the students draw a picture of a scientist. This allowed me to find out what the students knew about scientist and how they perceived them. The results were similar to those in the Bodzin (2001) article we discussed in class. Many of the students held the misconception that scientists are males who experiment in a lab with chemicals. This gave me an idea as to what my students knew about science.

I then moved on to the electricity aspect. I simply asked the students what they thought electricity was and what items they have seen that use electricity. Most of the students had a pretty good grasp on this but a few had developed some misconceptions. Many students said items such as lights, televisions, and computers use electricity; however, a lot of students also stated that battery powered items such as flashlights and toys use electricity. This was an area that we had to address and discuss. We then had a discussion on battery powered items and whether those items really use electricity.

Now that we know what a misconception is, let’s discuss where our students get these misconceptions. Children can develop misconceptions about concepts due to various factors. According to the Cohen (1979) article, some students develop misconceptions because they confuse, or mix up multiple concepts they have already learned. They may have trouble separating these concepts so, instead, they lump them together and believe the same facts are true for each concept. Another time misconceptions often arise is when concepts the students previously held are combined with newly introduced concepts.

Cohen states that misconceptions in students most commonly arise due to verbal confusion. Words often have multiple meanings and students may not realize that or may interpret the word incorrectly. One example Cohen gave in his article was the concept of a “new moon”. As adults, we understand the concept of a new moon; however, we may forget what may be going through a young student’s mind when they hear the concept “new moon”. Students will most likely use what they know when exploring a topic. In this case, students most likely know what the word “new” means. They may then think there must be more than one moon in order for there to be a new moon. Cohen gave the example of students asking, “Where does the old moon go when we get a new one?” In this case, students took what they knew and applied it to a new concept, getting somewhat confused along the way.

We already know what a misconception is, that they are often present in the classroom, and how students get them, so let’s discuss what we, as teachers, can do with this information. When we become aware of misconceptions in our classroom, it is imperative that they are addressed. We cannot let misconceptions go unnoticed or unaddressed. We need to look for them and have a plan as to what to do when we find them among our students. We must address misconceptions in order for our students to be successful learners in the future. We do not want our students moving forward in their education being confused about concepts and believing incorrect information. This would only hinder our students and make learning more difficult for them. I do not know of any teacher who would want this for their students.

One may wonder, “How do we go about addressing student misconceptions?” A fairly simple answer is facilitating a discussion among your students. It is important to understand where your students’ misconceptions came from in order to provide them with the correct information. Facilitating a discussion can help you pick your students’ brains and understand why they believe what they do. You should make your classroom a safe place and encourage your students’ to share their thoughts and opinions. In this way, misconceptions can be brought up and addressed in a safe and informative manner.

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