What is the cognitive challenge of misconceptions?

Students often hold faulty or mistaken beliefs about the course content at the start of the course. Students may cling to misconceptions even when taught accurate information.

This video focuses on students’ misconceptions and will enhance the text below.

Whenever we learn something new, we use our prior knowledge to help make sense of the new information (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). However, when our prior knowledge is inaccurate, we are more likely to misinterpret, misunderstand or even disregard new information. Inaccurate prior knowledge—or misconceptions—can be a significant barrier to new learning.

Research has shown that:

  • Misconceptions are not isolated incidents, but rather normal outcomes of learning. Students may form misconceptions as a result of exposure to inaccurate information, through faulty reasoning, or by misinterpreting material they read, hear or observe (Lilienfeld, 2010; Murphy & Alexander, 2013).
  • Some misconceptions are minor glitches or errors in understanding that students may resolve on their own, or that can be easily corrected (Schwartz, Tsang, & Blair, 2016). For example, a common misconception in the popular culture is that schizophrenia is characterized by multiple personalities. In introductory psychology it is relatively straightforward to distinguish and contrast schizophrenia from dissociative identity disorder, which is characterized by multiple identities. In this case, students have a misplaced fact that can be aligned with the correct concept.
  • Some misconceptions are significant barriers to new learning. These resemble intuitive theories that can lead students to misinterpret or reject new information. In physics, many students mistakenly believe moving objects, e.g., a coin flipped upward or a thrown baseball, have a force acting on them that continues to propel their motion (McCloskey, 1983). This leads them to make incorrect predictions about the paths of moving objects. These types of misconceptions are based on erroneous underlying assumptions or beliefs. The fundamental attribution error is an example of a persistent misconception in which people tend to overestimate personality and underestimate social situations as the cause of other people’s behavior. When we see a person expressing anger we tend to attribute the behavior to the person’s character and overlook possible situational factors that might cause the anger.
  • Students may give up misconceptions temporarily and then revert back to them after completing a course. Clement (1982) found that 88% of engineering and science students had misconceptions about the motion of objects at the start of their introduction to mechanics course (pre-course misconceptions). Students performed well in the course and made fewer errors on these types of problems. However, on post-course tests 75% of students who had passed the course made the same types of errors as pre-course students. They had reverted back to their earlier misconceptions.
  • Deep misconceptions are difficult to change or correct. Simply presenting accurate information to students does little to change these misconceptions (Taylor & Kowalski, 2014). Busom, Lopez-Mayan & Panadés (2017) examined a variety of student misconceptions in introductory economics classes. They found

. . . that exposure to an economic principles course and doing well in exams and coursework hardly seems to affect misconceptions. This suggests that standard teaching practices may not be sufficiently effective in having students integrate the tools of economic analysis into their reasoning processes, and consequently on their judgments and decisions (p. 84).

Recommendations to help students revise misconceptions and develop more accurate knowledge

Research demonstrates that helping students develop more accurate understanding of our subjects often involves more than simply exposing them to the correct way to think about a topic (Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle, 1993). Changing students’ misconceptions involves revising their conceptual understanding, and not simply adding correct new information to their knowledge base. Below are ways to promote conceptual change.

Identify and assess students’ misconceptions. Instructors need to know what types of misconceptions are prevalent among students. One diagnostic tool is a concept inventory that assess students’ understanding of key concepts in a number of disciplines (Wikipedia, 2019). A concept inventory serves two functions. First, it helps instructors identify the nature and prevalence of student misconceptions in their classes. These are potential problem areas where the instructor may need to address misconceptions. Second, instructors can use concept inventories for pre- and post-course assessment to measure changes in misconceptions. This can help determine the effectiveness of their teaching strategies. Some disciplines, especially in the STEM areas, have established standardized concept inventories. In lieu of these disciplinary tools, instructors may need to develop their own inventories to assess students’ understanding of the major concepts in their courses.

Comparison Table. For misconceptions that lend themselves to direct comparisons, create a table that puts students’ misconceptions side by side with the consensually held conceptions. Compare the two on as many dimensions as possible, e.g., assumptions, predictions, applications, implications, evidence for and against, etc. The table is a graphic representation that makes it easier for students to identify specific differences between the two ideas.

Predict-observe-explain (POE). In this three-step strategy, the instructor first presents a problem or scenario to the class and asks them to predict how the scenario will turn out, i.e., the outcome or result (prediction). Next, the instructor reveals the actual results (observe), and last of all asks students to explain the results and resolve any discrepancies between their predictions and the observed results (explain).

Research indicates that students who predict outcomes before observing the results of a problem or class demonstration are much more likely to grasp the underlying concepts or principles on which the problem is based (Brod, Hasselhorn, & Bunge, 2018). Moreover, when students predict outcomes, they may reveal misconceptions about the relevant concepts, which can help the teacher give immediate feedback and plan further instruction on the topic.

In the final step of a POE episode, students try to explain or justify their reasoning, choices, decisions, and opinions, and reconcile these with the actual results of the scenario. Explaining is a potent strategy for elaborating and revising one’s understanding (Chiu & Chi, 2014). Moreover, instructors can give targeted feedback to highlight key points or give additional examples that illustrate the relevant concepts.

POE is a flexible strategy that students can do in or out of class. They can work individually, in pairs or small groups. As noted, the instructor gains access to the way students think about the topic, and can provide feedback and follow up explanations as needed (Radovanović, & Sliško, 2013).

Refutational teaching. Some researchers emphasize the role of both cognitive and motivational factors in conceptual change. Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle (1993) proposed that conceptual change is more likely if:

  • students are dissatisfied with their current understanding [misconception].
  • the new idea is intelligible to students.
  • the new idea is a plausible alternative to the student’s misconception.
  • the new idea is seen as a fruitful

This framework is not a strategy per se, but teachers can use these four conditions to plan their instruction. Strategies should highlight the shortcomings of the misconception, help students make sense of the correct version of the concept, and highlight how the correct version is more plausible and viable than the student’s misconception.

Refutational teaching is a strategy that can address these conditions. In this approach students first read refutational texts that explain and contradict their misconceptions, followed next by a refutational lecture in which the instructor explicitly refutes the misconception. Research has shown that in some cases refutational texts alone can prompt change in student misconceptions. However, refutational texts may not be sufficient to bring about conceptual change. The second part of the strategy involves a lecture and explanation by the instructor that reinforces the text and refutes the misconception (see Taylor & Kowalski, 2014).

Understanding a complex idea or theory is not an all or none process. Throughout a course, students may have tenuous grasp and partial understanding of core concepts. It should not be too surprising that misconceptions that seem to disappear during a course re-emerge after the end of the course. Instructors can support longer lasting conceptual change by providing multiple opportunities and ample time throughout a term for students to use accurate knowledge to help reinforce newly developed ideas.


Misconceptions are a common feature of learning. As we learn and try to make sense out of new information, we get some of it wrong. Minor misconceptions are inconsequential and easily changed. However, students can have deeper misconceptions that hinder new learning and are resistant to traditional instruction.

To help students revise their misconceptions, instructors should

  • use concept tests to identify and assess their students’ misconceptions.
  • recognize that telling students they are wrong or incorrect is not sufficient to alter their misconceptions.
  • use strategies in which students externalize their thinking and examine their ideas in relation to discipline-based concepts.
  • consider using refutational teaching in which students read material and hear instructor explanations that directly challenge their misconceptions and clarify discipline-based ideas.
  • return to misunderstood topics periodically in a course to give students more experience with consensually held beliefs.

Recommended readings

Chew, S.L. (2005). Seldom in doubt but often wrong: Addressing tenacious student misconceptions. In D.S. Dunn & S.L. Chew (Eds.) Best practices in teaching general psychology (pp. 211-223). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Taylor, A. & Kowalski, P. (2014). Student misconceptions: Where do they come from and what can we do. In V. Benassi & C. Overshon, & C. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


Ambrose, S. A, Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bice, D., Curtis, E.S., Geerling, W., Goffe, W., Hoffer, A., Lindahl, S., Maier, M., Peterson, B., & Stock, W. (2014). Preconceptions of principles students. Mimeo. http://cook.rfe.org/Preconceptions_Bice_et_al_06_2014.pdf

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind & experience. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Brod, G., Hasselhorn, M., & Bunge, S. A. (2018). When generating a prediction boosts learning: The element of surprise. Learning and Instruction, 55, 22–31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2018.01.013

Busom, I., Lopez-Mayan, C., & Panadés, J. (2017). Students’ persistent preconceptions and learning economic principles, The Journal of Economic Education, 48(2), 74-92, DOI: 10.1080/00220485.2017.1285735

Cerbin, W. (2015). Misconceptions. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from http://www.uwlax.edu/catl/teaching-guides/teaching-improvement-guide/how-can-i-improve/misconceptions/

Chiu, J. L., & Chi, M. T. H. (2014). Supporting self-explanation in the classroom. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science in the curriculum (pp. 91–103). Washington, DC: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Clement, J. (1982). Student preconceptions in introductory mechanics, American Journal of Physics, 50(66); https://doi.org/10.1119/1.12989

Concept inventory, In Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concept_inventory

Coştua, B., Ayasb, A, & Niazc, M. (2010). Promoting conceptual change in first year students’ understanding of evaporation, Chemistry Education Research and Practice. 11, 5–16. DOI: 10.1039/C001041N.

Goffe, W. L. 2013. Initial misconceptions in macro principles classes. Mimeo. http://cook.rfe.org/Misconceptions.pdf

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2010). Confronting psychological misconceptions in the classroom: Challenges and rewards. APS Observer, 23(7). 36-39.

McCloskey, M. (1983). Naïve theories of motion. In D. Gentner & A. Stevens (Eds.), Mental models. New York: Psychology Press.

Murphy, P. K. & Alexander, P.A. (2013). Situating text, talk, and transfer in conceptual change. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.). International handbook of research on conceptual change. NY: Routledge.

Pintrich, P., Marx, R., & Boyle, R. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research 63(2), 167-199.

Radovanović, J. & Sliško , J. (2013). Applying a predict–observe–explain sequence in teaching of buoyant force, Physics Education, 48(1).

Schwartz, D. L., Tsang, J. M., & Blair, K. P. (2016). Overcoming misconceptions and misplaced reasoning. In D. L. Schwartz, J. M. Tsang, & K. P. Blair (Eds.)  The ABCs of how we learn: 26 scientifically proven approaches, how they work, and when to use them (pp. 260-276) New York, NY: Norton.

Taylor, A. & Kowalski, P. (2014). Student misconceptions: Where do they come from and what can we do. In V. Benassi & C. Overshon, & C. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.