Misconceptions – Identifying misconceptions and using them in education

A misconception is defined as a view or opinion that is incorrect because it is based on faulty thinking or understanding [1]. University students also have misconceptions, some of them persistent [2], [3]: for example the assumption that the Earth’s magnetic field has always pointed in the same direction, when it has actually changed its orientation at least nine times in the past 4 million years. Such mistaken thinking is problematic because it can become an obstacle to deeper learning and understanding [4].

Studies have shown that even repeated presentation of correct concepts does not simply sweep misconceptions from the board [5]. Some false knowledge seems to reconfirm itself over and over, particularly when it concerns subjective, simplified interpretations of complex events or objects (mental models) [6]. People retain such misconceptions because they make reality appear less complex and seem to explain things. Thus they remain ubiquitous, and are difficult to uproot – even where newer information contradicts them. Either no one knows about the new thinking, or it is neglected or ignored because complexity and the resulting cognitive conflict can be uncomfortable.

One way out is to consciously bring about specific situations in teaching which are no longer explainable via misconceptions [7]. An example might be where an old concept can no longer believably explain the obvious result of an experiment. If the explanatory power of a new, correct concept is clearly greater, this makes way for a durable change in thinking. With the active help of the instructor the knowledge is restructured and the correct concept consolidated. Dealing with misconceptions in this way also shows students something important: for real learning it is a good thing to regularly question your view of things, and if necessary be prepared to responsibly redefine what you think you know.

Projects at ETH

In this context ETH is running various projects which aim to identify student misconceptions and thereby improve teaching. At D-PHYS, for example, several faculty are using a database of (currently) 306 concept questions (multiple-choice, with explanatory answers). These questions are deployed throughout the semester, giving students direct feedback at short intervals regarding their understanding of central concepts [8]. In this way faculty can check as the semester progresses whether their learning objectives have been reached to the desired degree, and take corrective action if needed.

At D-BIOL test results are collected systematically (pre-post setting at the beginning and end of the first year of studies) to facilitate an evaluation of what themes have repeatedly been insufficiently understood and which misconceptions remain, resulting in possible adjustments to the curriculum [9].

At D-USYS (in the lecture course ‘Erd- und Produktionssysteme’) the most common misconceptions observed during the correction of examination essay questions are collected and quantified. These misconceptions are then deployed as answers (false, as ‘distractors) to multiple-choice questions because they sound plausible.


In university teaching best practice is to use systematic approaches to counter the most common student misconceptions. Otherwise they greatly hinder learning, and especially the development of progressively deeper learning and understanding (Nakleh, 1992). In this context multiple-choice questions are an appropriate instrument for deducing the frequency distribution of misconceptions. They also have certain advantages: they take less effort to correct, examiners are not influenced by difficult-to-read text answers, and answer statistics are available simply and quickly. The effort involved in developing them, however, should not be underestimated. Additional resources can be obtained via an Innovedum project application.

In tackling misconceptions, even comparatively small steps can achieve something. When correcting examination essay questions, for example, the observed misconceptions can be documented in some simple form. Further data can be gathered by questioning Assistants, who often encounter problems of understanding during exercises. Online multiple-choice examinations, as mentioned above, provide detailed answer statistics. What is important here is that all of these results are passed to the right faculty, so that they can use them in course planning for the coming semesters.

In any case we recommend investigating misconceptions not only in the context of session and end-of-semester examinations but also during the semester, where student problems of understanding can be recognised early and addressed. During the semester, however, faculty do not always have time to sufficiently untangle all misconceptions. Students should be informed where to seek further help (independent study possibilities, faculty office hours, opportunities to speak with Assistants or fellow students etc.


[1] Oxford Dictionaries; http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
[2] Galley, W. C. (2004). Exothermic Bond Breaking: A Persistent Misconception. Journal of Chemical Education, 81(4), 523-525.
[3] Chinn, C. A., & Brewer, W. F. (1993). The role of anomalous data in knowledge acquisition: A theoretical framework and implications for science instruction. Review of Educational Research, 63(1), 1-49.
[4] Nakhleh, M. B. (1992). Why some students don’t learn chemistry: Chemical misconceptions. Journal of Chemical Education, 69(3), 191-196.
[5] Gregg, V. R., Winer, G. A., Cottrell, J. E., Hedman, K. E., & Fournier, J. S. (2001). The persistence of a misconception about vision after educational interventions. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8(3), 622-626.
[6] Chi, M. T. H. (2008). Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation and categorical shift. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.), Handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 61-82). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
[7] Nussbaum, J., & Novick, N. (1982). Alternative frameworks, conceptual conflict, and accommodation: Toward a principled teaching strategy. Instructional Science, 11, 183-200.
[8] ETH D-PHYS: Innovedum-Project: Konzeptfragen-DB: Collection of concept questions for introductory physics lectures
[9] ETH D-BIOL: Innovedum Project: Investigating misconceptions in biology held by Swiss students at the threshold between Gymnasium and University


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