Scientific misconceptions

Types of scientific misconceptions

In general, scientific misconceptions have their foundations in a few "intuitive knowledge domains, including folkmechanics (object boundaries and movements), folkbiology (biological species configurations and relationships), and folkpyschology (interactive agents and goal-directed behavior)" (Altran & Norezayan, 2005), that enable humans to interact effectively with the world in which they evolved. That these folksciences do not map accurately onto modern scientific theory is not unexpected. A second major source of scientific misconceptions are instruction-induced or didaskalogenic misconceptions.

Misconceptions can be broken down into five basic categories 1) preconceived notions; 2) nonscientific beliefs; 3) conceptual misunderstandings; 4) vernacular misconceptions; and 5) factual misconceptions (e.g., Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, 1997).

While most student misconceptions go unrecognized, there has been an informal effort to identify errors and misconceptions present in textbooks. The Bad Science web page, maintained by Alistair Fraser, is a good resource. Another important resource is the Students' and Teachers' Conceptions and Science Education (STCSE) website maintained by Reinders Duit. Another useful resource related to chemistry has been compiled by Vanessa Barker

A more systematic search for student misconceptions has been driven by recent efforts to construct concept inventories relevant to various disciplines.

Addressing student misconceptions

A number of lines of evidence suggest that the recognition and revision of student misconceptions involves active, rather than passive, involvement with the material. A common approach is through metacognition, that is to encourage students to think about their thinking on particular problem. In part this requires students to verbalize, defend and reformulate their understanding - essentially a Socratic method. Recognizing the realities of the modern classroom, a number of variations have been introduced. These include Eric Mazur's Peer Instruction, as well as various tutorials in physics developed groups at University of Washington and the University of Maryland


Altran, S. & A. Norenzayan. 2005. Religion's evolutionary landscape: counterintuition, commitment, compassion, and communion. Behavior and Brain Science. 27:713-770.

Barker, V. 2004. Beyond appearances : students’ misconceptions about basic chemical ideas 2nd edition (accessed on-line 9 Sept. 2008:

Charles, E.S. & S.T. d'Apollonia. 2003. A systems approach to education. PEREA report.

Hake, R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: a six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. Am. J. Physics 66: 64-74.

Krebs, R.E. 1999. Scientific Development and Misconceptions Through the Ages. Greenwood Press.

James P. Morton, J.P., D.A. Doran and D.P.M. MacLaren. 2008. Common student misconceptions in exercise physiology and biochemistry. 32: 142-146

Visscher PM, Hill WG, Wray NR. 2008. Heritability in the genomics era--concepts and misconceptions Nat Rev Genet. 9:255-66.

How Students Learn 2005. A National Academy of Sciences Report.

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