Learning from Student Misconceptions

Teacher and students working in classroom

Most people would agree that we learn a lot from our mistakes. In the same vein, teachers can learn a great deal from their students’ mistakes, or more precisely, their students’ misconceptions as they are learning a particular topic. Misconceptions are a normal part of learning and are not something to be avoided with the hope that students will eventually adopt the correct ideas naturally once they are exposed to them through typical forms of classroom instruction. Students come to school with a wide variety of ideas and non-scientific beliefs based on their everyday experiences in the world, which affect the way they make sense of and interpret the concepts that their teachers present to them.

There are a plethora of books and articles that explore student misconceptions, and describe the types of misconceptions that typically occur in mathematics, science, and other subject areas (see a list of some of some of these common misconceptions here). For example, typical misconceptions among young students in science include the notion that light things float and heavy things sink; and that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. Common math misconceptions in the younger grades include the belief that multiplication always increases a number (which is not true when multiplying by a fraction), and the notion that a fraction with a larger denominator is the larger number (e.g., ¼ is larger than ½ because 4 is more than 2).


Building on Students’ Misconceptions to Promote a Deeper Understanding

Students’ misconceptions can be a challenge for teachers because they are often difficult to change. To help students move forward, teachers need to help students confront their misconceptions and undergo conceptual change. Research has identified several instructional strategies designed with this specific goal. These strategies include model-based reasoning, diverse instruction, raising student metacognition (and helping students repair their own misconceptions), and providing experiences that cause cognitive conflict. There is a full description of each of these techniques here, but I’ll elaborate on this last one a bit – cognitive conflict.

Read the full article on the Research & Innovation Network blog.