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Misconceptions in science classrooms

Sridevi S, Research Associate, Department of Physics, Prayoga, Bengaluru. -


Figure 1: Artistic representation of solar system

Students do not come to school as blank pages to be filled with information. Students often come into the classroom with pre-formed conceptualizations that may or may not be correct. Teachers and researchers generally refer to these conceptualizations as “preconceptions”. These preconceptions are formed through the everyday experiences of the student as well as based on what they have been taught previously.

However, when students' preconceptions are inconsistent with and even contradictory to previously learned concepts, they are termed “alternative conceptions” or “misconceptions”. These misconceptions interfere with learning for several reasons.

1. Students use their previous knowledge to interpret new experiences. If the previous knowledge is incorrect, the interpretation of a new but related concept is most likely to be incorrect. 2. If new information that students hear is incongruent with what they already believe to be true, they may disregard it entirely and learn nothing in class. Conceptual change has to occur before learning can happen. It is the teacher's task to bring about this conceptual change.

How can we address misconceptions? Bringing about a conceptual change in students is a very big challenge for teachers since replacing or augmenting a built-in concept with a new, correct idea can be extremely difficult. But a conscious effort to do so can bring a lot of changes in student’s learning. A first step to initiate a conceptual change is to find out what students know or understand about a topic. There are different ways of doing this. A teacher could:

● Ask students to draw, model or describe a concept. ● Ask students open questions or allow students to discuss amongst themselves. ● Use diagnostic questions where incorrect answers reveal misconceptions.

I would like to share one specific experience of mine where I identified and tried to address misconceptions in a science class. Teaching about celestial bodies

As we are well aware, the covid-19 pandemic took our world by storm. One of the biggest consequences has been that online teaching has become the new normal. Switching over to the online mode of teaching is a huge challenge for teachers, but at the same time there cannot be a compromise in the quality of teaching and effectiveness in delivering the content.

It was in this context that I prepared to teach the lesson “Stars and the Solar System” for Class 8 in a CBSE school in Bengaluru. The strength of the class was 30. The platform chosen for the lesson delivery was Zoom.

I planned for students to have “active engagement” during the online sessions. An active classroom gives learners an opportunity to explore and know more about the topic in an engaging manner. These methods can also play a key role in motivating, creating interest about the topic and in having an active participation of most students in class. In order to achieve active engagement from the students, I employed the following tools/methods : Powerpoint presentations (with pictures, rich text, GIFs etc), videos, and specific apps (Star Walk 2, NASA app and Skysafari).

While teaching, I was able to identify and correct certain misconceptions in students. I will list them below.

1. “Moon makes its own light, the same way the Sun does.” Student RK had the misconception that the moon reflects the sun's light partially and makes its own light partially. But we know it is wrong because the moon does not produce its own light. The light that we see, is the sunlight that is reflected.

In order to address this misconception, an activity can be done. For example, by shining a torch and showing its reflection from another surface.

2. “Moon changes its shape every day.” Most of the students in class had the misconception that the moon changes its shape every day. But this is not true. The amount of sunlight reflected off the side of the moon that we are able to view changes as it revolves around the earth. The different shapes we see are called “phases”. The 4 main phases of the moon are: New moon, first quarter, Full moon and third quarter.

In order to address this misconception, animation of the moon changing shape from New Moon to Full Moon and back again, covering the 29 days of the lunar cycle can be shown, role play can be done in class or a relevant video can be shown to students. 3. “The physical reality of orbits” “What is the distance from a planet to the orbit?” was a question raised by student S in class. S had the misconception that an orbit is an object which can be seen physically. But an orbit in reality is just the path of a planet (or some other celestial object).

So here it becomes important to make students understand the difference between a representation of a physical concept and the actual concept. A visualization of the solar system model can be helpful here. “Orrery” is one such example. It is a mechanical model of the solar system. This could be used in class to explain what is orbit, how planets revolve around the sun, etc. 4. “Shooting stars are actual stars” Student RA raised the question “Why do stars fall?” and was referring to ‘shooting stars’. RA had this misconception that meteors are stars. This is actually not true. Meteors are the bright flashes of light seen in the night sky. They are caused by meteoroids — small, solid objects moving through space that have entered Earth's atmosphere. Usually, the meteoroids burn up in the atmosphere and never reach the ground. A meteorite is a chunk of material that does reach the ground.

Visualizations like video, animation can make this concept clear. Also using the sky safari app would be a great idea here.

Some other interesting points that came up include:

● Is the sun a star?

● All stars twinkle.

● Saturn is the only planet that has rings around it.


During the implementation of the lesson, I was able to identify and address certain misconceptions. It is possible that there were a few more which may not have been addressed or documented. A teacher has to be diligent and put in time and effort consciously in order to succeed in this endeavor.

Generally, traditional forms of instruction - lectures, labs, or simply reading textbooks - do not address student misconceptions. Thus, misconceptions can be hard for teachers to crack if they stick to traditional instruction. However, there are several instructional strategies that have been proven to address alternative conceptions of students, effectively achieve conceptual change, and help them embrace the correct conceptual ideas or theories.

One such form of instruction is active learning, where teaching is student-centric and the teacher’s role is that of a facilitator. There is a lot of freedom for students to voice their opinions and ideas about any given topic. This approach could also be the first step to identify students' misconceptions.

Acknowledgement I would like to thank my colleague Dr. Prathik Cherian for his valuable inputs and suggestions.

References useful for teaching celestial bodies:

  1. Planets and the Solar System Misconceptions and Educational Research. (accessed August 19,2020)

  2. Making sense of astronomical misconceptions. (accessed August 19, 2020)

  3. Children's Misconceptions about Science (accessed August 19, 2020)

  4. Amazing Space. (accessed August 22, 2020)

  5. Star Walk 2. August 5, 2020).

  6. Solar system exploration. August 19, 2020).

  7. Sky Safari. August 15, 2020).

  8. How Do My Students Think: Diagnosing Student Thinking. (accessed September 3, 2020).

  9. Korur F. Exploring seventh-grade students’ and pre-service science teachers’ misconceptions in astronomical concepts. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education. (2015) Aug 25;11(5):1041-60.

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