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.


Developing curricula

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Whether you’re a technician, a teacher, the head of your department, or someone involved with the running of a school or a multi-academy trust, you are an important part of the curriculum-making process. After all, curriculum development doesn’t start and end with a national curriculum---interpreting and structuring its content, planning and teaching lessons, and managing the context in which students learn (through, for example, the use of practical activities) all have a profound impact on learners’ understanding of physics. And this is an area where the IOPSpark Misconceptions page can help too.

Lessons from Conceptual Change for Curriculum Development

As we know, researchers have proposed various accounts of how students’ ideas develop. Accordingly, there are also various models of curriculum development. Although we won’t delve into the nuances of the various models here, we will suggest some broad lessons from conceptual change research for curriculum development:


  • Make yourself aware of the common misconceptions that you might encounter. Familiarising yourself with common student misconceptions allows you to anticipate these in your curriculum design, and be proactive in addressing them if they do arise.
  • Signpost, in the curriculum, areas where misconceptions may arise. If you’re directly involved with writing the curriculum, it can be helpful to flag areas where teaching might require particular care. You might even reference research directly in curriculum documents.
  • Give thought to how students’ understanding will be affected by the sequencing of topics in the curriculum. Theories of conceptual change tell us that misconceptions can be barriers to further understanding, and so the order in which topics are covered is important. This is a difficult topic and no real consensus exists among physics education academics on a ‘correct’ sequence, so teachers must exercise their own judgement.
  • Be aware of how different topics warrant different instructional approaches. Students are very likely to bring their own ideas to the classroom in an area like forces and motion, of which they will have experience in a non-classroom setting. In an area like nuclear or atomic physics, students are less likely to have pre-existing misconceptions.


  • Think that you aren’t involved with curriculum development. Everyone involved with the teaching of physics, however, indirectly, is a part of this process. 
  • Introduce ideas ‘negatively’, for example by saying something like “now, the wrong way to think about this is…”. Doing so risks creating misconceptions in students. 
  • Assume that every topic requires a ‘misconception-first’ approach. It’s important to remember that not all students will have misconceptions about physics, and that misconceptions will be more common in some areas of the curriculum than others. When prompted, students can often formulate misconceptions on the spot, where they might not have done otherwise. In these instances, it can be helpful to teach the key concepts of a topic prior to exploring students’ own thinking (see Developing Pupil Thinking)

Using IOPSpark in Curriculum Development

IOPSpark can help with the curriculum development process in several ways. Here are some steps you might follow to get you started.

First, use the Misconceptions tool to familiarise yourself with the common misconceptions in each topic. Crudely speaking, the more references a misconception has, the more common it’s likely to be.

A misconception from IOPSpark. On the right hand side, you can quickly see how many references we have for this misconception (and therefore how likely you are to find it!)

After this, try to map common misconceptions to your curriculum document. Think about where they might be encountered, and how different areas might lend themselves to different instructional techniques. Teachers will have to exercise their judgement here. 

Then think about the ways that misconceptions can be challenged in each area. Because there is no single, correct way of inducing conceptual change, IOPSpark does not offer hard-and-fast advice for doing so. However, each misconception on IOPSpark suggests resources elsewhere on the site that may help teachers to develop student thinking. 

These suggestions will prompt you to think about the contextualisation of topics in the curriculum, and to understand how the setting in which a student learns a topic can be the difference between a scientific and naive conception. 

Further Reading


  • Kelly, A. V. (2009) The Curriculum: Theory and Practice. 6th Edition. London: SAGE
  • Deng, Z (2010) Curriculum Planning and Systems Change. In P. Peterson; E. Baker & B. McGaw (Eds.) International Encyclopaedia of Education (Third Edition, 384-389), Elsevier.
  • Shawer, S. F. (2010). Classroom-level teacher professional development and satisfaction: Teachers learn in the context of classroom-level curriculum development. Professional Development in Education, 36(4): 597–620. 
  • Wiser, M., & Smith, C. (2016). How is Conceptual Change Possible? Insights from Science Education. In D. Barner & A. S. Baron (Eds.) Core Knowledge and Conceptual Change (29-52). Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Amin, T. G., Smith, C. L., & Wiser, M. (2014). Student Conceptions and Conceptual Change: Three Overlapping Phases of Research. In N. Lederman & S. Abell (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Science Education, Volume II (pp. 71-95). Routledge.

Developing your own understanding of Physics

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One of the benefits of familiarising yourself with common student misconceptions is that it may help to develop your own knowledge too! 

In his 1986 article, Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching, Lee Shulman suggests we think about three, overlapping types of teaching knowledge. The first of these is content knowledge, which, for a physics teacher, might comprise things like knowing the relationship between electrical current, voltage and resistance, or knowing that objects fall under gravity at a rate independent of their mass. Having physics content knowledge is knowing about physics.

The IOPSpark misconceptions resources may improve your physics content knowledge by simply filling in any gaps you might have. With the growing need for physics teaching to be carried out by teachers whose specialism is in another subject, it is entirely understandable that some teachers of physics may find themselves grappling with their own misconceptions from time to time. Furthermore, even trained physicists have areas in which they are less confident. In either case, reading through the IOPSpark Misconceptions pages and, where necessary, taking a look at the Resources to Address This section for each misconception can be a great help. 

The second type of knowledge is what Shulman called pedagogical content knowledge, and it’s different from just knowing about physics: it’s knowing how to teach physics. It’s knowing which analogies you can use to explain a complicated idea; which illustrations you can draw on the board to help struggling students; and which demonstrations complement the physical concepts you’re trying to communicate to your class.

Since pedagogy must be adapted for different contexts, classes and students, the most useful pedagogical content knowledge will depend on who, where and what you’re teaching. However, consulting IOPSpark Misconceptions before you plan a lesson or curriculum can help develop your pedagogical content knowledge by encouraging you to reflect on how the activities you use in the classroom might relate to (or even enforce) certain misconceptions, and by making it easier for you to anticipate common student pitfalls and incorporate these into your lesson planning. It may be useful to revisit the Developing Pupil Thinking article from earlier in this series to remind yourself of how conceptual change can be encouraged. In particular, take note of how your planning process changes as you start to anticipate the misconceptions you might come up against. 

Shulman’s last type of teaching knowledge is curricular knowledge. Picture teaching as the task of taking a learner from point A to point B: If content knowledge is knowing where the points are, and pedagogical content knowledge is knowing how to get from one to the other, then curricular knowledge is about knowing not just one way of getting between the two points, but many. To borrow Shulman’s own analogy, much as an expert doctor will know a full suite of different treatments for a given illness, an expert teacher will be familiar with a wide variety of routes between points in the physics curriculum.

The IOPSpark misconceptions resources can help develop your curricular knowledge too: understanding the specific misconceptions you may encounter in your teaching will encourage you to reflect on how different misconceptions might require you to pivot from one intended path along the curriculum to another. It may also be useful to revisit the Developing Curricula article from earlier in this series.

Further Reading

  • Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.

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Conducting research using the PIPER resources

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The Misconceptions resources on IOPSpark are of value not just in teaching, but to those who conduct research too. While they do not quite comprise a systematic review but can still provide an excellent starting point for researchers working on the topic of conceptual change in physics education.

Surveying the Landscape

If you are a researcher looking to understand how your research fits into the conceptual change landscape, or simply looking to learn more about which misconceptions are commonly encountered in different areas of physics education, we’ve made it easy for you to quickly download a document with all the identified misconceptions for a given domain. Simply head to the Resources to Support the Misconceptions Area page and scroll to the bottom to find links to the misconceptions lists for each domain (as seen in the screenshot below). You’ll also be able to see details of some misconceptions that were not common enough to make it through to the Misconceptions resources on IOPSpark.

Looking for More Detail?

At the bottom of each Misconception page, you’ll find a References section. Here, you can see the individual studies that have found or corroborated the misconception in question. Clicking on the Review Sheet link after each reference will take you to the Google Sheet where you can see the information extracted from the study by our research team.

In the Sheet, you’ll be able to see information about:

  • The specific research methods used in the study, and how the study was designed.
  • Sample sizes for each study, and useful demographic information about the participants.
  • Where relevant, details of any statistical techniques used in the analysis of the data.
  • The details of any instruments used or designed for, the study (for example, the force concept inventory). 
  • A list of the misconceptions uncovered by the study.
  • Suggestions for teaching practice made by the researchers, on the basis of the study.

And so on. 

While this is of course no substitute for reading the paper yourself, we hope that it will help researchers to quickly sift through information from this extremely large body of literature. The resources available were developed by a large team of experienced physics teachers, physics education academics and graduate students, and have undergone an internal quality-assurance process.

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