Collection Challenging common misconceptions when teaching physics

Challenging common misconceptions when teaching physics

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By providing information about the misconceptions and issues that pupils have when learning physics, we hope that teachers will gain a sense of the kinds of issues that might come up when they teach areas of physics. The misconceptions noted here and in the misconceptions area are those which have a basis in research, reviewed through the PIPER project, so we know that within the data sets explored by the researchers involved these were issues that came up. Of course, we could never provide a comprehensive list of all the ways of thinking about physics that young people bring to the classroom. Indeed, one of the joys of teaching is encountering the ways that people think about the world. Despite the unique nature of each setting and everyone's thinking, there are some general considerations which we hope would be useful.

Assessing Pupil Thinking

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Substantial evidence suggests that the holding of misconceptions can prevent pupils’ further understanding of physics. As such, a key element of teaching physics is assessing pupils’ current understanding, and deciding how to proceed accordingly. 

There are many different ways of doing this. You could:

  • Ask pupils to draw, model or describe a phenomenon.
  • Ask pupils open questions, or listen to the way they discuss a phenomenon.
  • Use diagnostic questions (where incorrect answers reveal misconceptions).  
  • Ask pupils to draw concept maps or knowledge organisers.

So how might we put this into practice? 

Suppose we were teaching Newton’s Second Law, and came across the following misconception: “Many pupils are unable to apply Newton’s Second Law to examples of motion in 2D.”

Now we are aware of this potential stumbling block, we could assess pupils’ thinking by asking them to explain, discuss or draw the motion of a bowling ball being thrown out of a horizontally-moving aeroplane. 

This question appears in a well-known research tool called the Force Concept Inventory, developed in the 1980s. Here, pupils are asked to choose between five different possible trajectories for the ball, and their answer reveals something about their thinking. Those who select a trajectory in which the ball falls straight downwards, for example, may not have understood that the horizontal momentum of the ball inside the aeroplane will be conserved.

Learning, of course, isn’t always a simple matter of going from ‘incorrect’ to ‘correct’ in a linear fashion. Learning involves continually developing ways of thinking. For instance, returning to the example above, a pupil may later recognise that the ball will move forwards and downwards. But they may think that it first moves forwards, and then falls straight downwards. Here, the pupil’s thinking has developed, but is still not fully correct.

This suggests a couple of things for educators to be aware of. Firstly, that a decision on when to assess pupils must be made: assessing a pupil before first teaching them, say, atomic physics might not be useful, since they are unlikely to have developed misconceptions about this fairly abstract topic. Conversely, pupils may already have ideas about motion and forces from everyday experience. Secondly, assessment should be an ongoing and open process: assessing once, and then tailoring one’s teaching to the static picture given by the assessment is unlikely to capture how pupil thinking develops over time.

The resources on the IOPSpark Misconceptions pages can help you familiarise yourself with patterns of student thinking, and, where possible, offer tools to help you assess and diagnose misconceptions in the classroom.

Useful Resources

Developing Pupil Thinking

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Once you have a clearer picture of the sorts of ideas your pupils might have about physics, the next question to consider is: how can you help develop these ideas to challenge misconceptions and deepen their understanding of physics?

The process by which concepts develop continues to be a topic of active research for the education community, and there is no one accepted theory of how it happens. Loosely speaking, however, four mainstream positions exist, with each suggesting different ways for a teacher to promote conceptual change in learners.


What does it say?

According to the coherence theory, learners develop ideas in a way that aims for coherence. Naive ideas may be internally coherent, from the perspective of the learner, and will be inherently resistant to change because new information is judged against the already-accepted, internally coherent theory. This means that a new idea may be rejected if it does not fit with the learner’s existing ideas. 

What should I do?

  • The coherence theory suggests that conceptual change requires recasting a learner’s existing concepts in new frameworks. Without this, new concepts (even if correct) may be rejected by students since they do not cohere with existing (misconceived) concepts.
  • Provoke dissatisfaction in the existing frameworks. Much of a student’s knowledge remains invisible to them. As such, teasing apart the implications of a misconception might be done using classroom discussion that exposes a misconception as incoherent with other held ideas, or as explanatorily inadequate in certain contexts.
  • Induce conceptual conflict, for example by using student-led activities to challenge a misconception directly, or by using ‘bridging analogies’, that demonstrate that two concepts — one of which the learner may understand, and one about which they may have misconceptions — actually hinge upon the very same physical principles.

Knowledge in Pieces

What does it say?

The knowledge-in-pieces theory suggests that larger concepts are ‘constructed’ out of smaller concepts. In other words, this theory suggests that a developed idea (be it correct or misconceived) is the cumulative outcome of multiple smaller ideas. Misconceptions can be either the result of faulty smaller concepts, or the extension of correct smaller concepts into areas where they are inadequate.

What should I do?

  • Provide the experiential basis for the gradual conceptual change. Proponents of the knowledge-in-pieces view argue that the teacher’s task is not to exchange ‘misconceptions’ for ‘expert concepts’. Instead, since conceptual change is the gradual evolution of many smaller ideas to bring about some larger-level change, the teacher’s task is to provide an experiential basis for this process.
  • Use discussion. Instead of attempting to challenge misconceptions directly — for instance, by telling students that their ideas are wrong — use supportive classroom discussion to allow students to reflect on and refine their understanding. As Smith et al. put it in 1994, “the instructional goal is to provide a classroom context that is maximally supportive of the processes of knowledge refinement.”

Competing Concepts

What does it say?

Modern research using neuroimaging techniques suggests that in many situations experts experience the same misconceptions as novices. The difference between the expert and the novice, however, is that the expert can subconsciously ‘suppress’ the misconception to arrive at a more developed pattern of thought. This suggests that conceptual change does not consist of removing naive ideas and installing scientific ones in their place, but rather training the latter to preside over the former. 

What should I do?

  • Introduce the ‘correct’ idea early on. Students are unlikely to let go of an existing, naive conception until they have a suitable alternative to use instead (even if the naive conception continues to live on in the background). Without this, conceptual conflict may not lead to conceptual change.
  • Install ‘stop signs’. If naive and scientific conceptions can exist side by side, even in experts, attempts to ‘remove’ misconceptions will be futile. Instead, the teacher can provoke dissatisfaction in a given misconception by drawing the learner’s attention to certain ‘stop signs’: statements or ideas which may prompt the learner to think about the shortcomings of their naive conception. A naive conception may fail, for instance, to explain certain physical phenomena, to make correct predictions, or to be coherent with other concepts. Learners might be able to overcome the naive conception that objects fall at a rate determined by their mass, for example, if they are prompted to recall Galileo’s famous cannonball experiment, or the footage from the Apollo 15 mission of a hammer and a feather being dropped simultaneously on the moon.
  • Increase the new idea’s durability. Studies have shown that it is possible to effect short-term conceptual change with minimal cognitive conflict. Effecting longer-term conceptual change, however, is much more difficult. Teachers can increase the durability of new scientific knowledge by presenting learners with problems that take place in a wide variety of contexts, and that often contain classic lures towards commonplace misconceptions.


What does it say?

Some researchers have argued that knowledge, be it scientific or not, is a common property of the social groups that hold it. This view is associated with sociocultural theorists, who emphasise the role of discussion, the way in which we speak, and non-verbal communication in our understanding of conceptual change. 

What should I do?

  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Rather than suggesting any single strategy, the sociocultural view of conceptual change would support the view that there cannot, in fact, be a one-size-fits-all approach. Every classroom will differ in important ways, meaning that what works for one teacher and one class may not work for another. 
  • Be particularly careful with your language. While any of the previous suggestions may still prove useful, the sociocultural view suggests that teachers should remain especially aware of the impact of language (in particular where contradictory scientific and colloquial uses of a certain word exist) and non-verbal cues (tracing a finger around a circuit diagram, for instance, may seem to go against the lesson that charge moves everywhere in a circuit simultaneously) in their teaching. 

Useful Resources

  • IOPSpark’s Misconceptions page features concept cartoons (frameworks for class discussion), diagnostic questions and resources linked to each misconception that may help to induce cognitive conflict.
  • SLOP (Shed Loads of Practice) questions, for increasing the durability of new concepts. Some are available here
  • Mastery Science resources, for increasing the durability of new concepts. 
  • Five Easy Lessons by Randall Knight.



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