Elementary Teachers’ Understanding of Students’ Science Misconceptions: Implications for Practice and Teacher Education

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  • Elementary Teachers Understanding of StudentsScience Misconceptions: Implications for Practiceand Teacher Education

    Susan Gomez-Zwiep

    Published online: 11 June 2008

    Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2008

    Abstract This study sought to determine what elementary teachers know aboutstudent science misconceptions and how teachers address student misconceptions in

    instruction. The sample included 30 teachers from California with at least 1-year of

    experience teaching grades 3, 4, and 5. A semistructured interview was used. The

    interview transcripts were transcribed and coded under the following categories:

    definition of misconceptions, sources of misconceptions, development of miscon-

    ceptions, and teaching strategies for addressing misconceptions. The results suggest

    that, although most of the teachers are aware of misconceptions, they do not

    understand how they develop or fully appreciate their impact on their instruction.

    Keywords Inservice teacher education Science education Concept formation Teaching methods Preservice teacher education Misconceptions


    Misconceptions appear across all areas of science and within all age groups.

    Empirical evidence has shown that children have qualitative differences in his or her

    understanding of science that is often inconsistent with what the teacher intended

    through his or her instruction (Bar 1989; Bar et al. 1994; Pine et al. 2001; Tao and

    Gunstone 1999; Trend 2001). Research findings consistently show that misconcep-

    tions are deeply rooted, often remaining even after instruction (Eryilmaz 2002).

    However, misconceptions are more than misunderstandings about a concept.

    Misconceptions are part of a larger knowledge system that involves many

    interrelated concepts that students use to make sense of their experiences

    S. Gomez-Zwiep (&)Science Education, California State University, Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd.,

    Long Beach, CA 90840, USA

    e-mail: sgomezwp@csulb.edu


    J Sci Teacher Educ (2008) 19:437454

    DOI 10.1007/s10972-008-9102-y

  • (Southerland et al. 2001). Misconceptions are extensions of effective knowledge

    that function productively within a specific context. These misconceptions become

    apparent when students attempt to use their knowledge beyond the context in which

    the knowledge functions effectively (Smith et al. 1993). Thus, since misconceptions

    are often integrated with other knowledge, they may include aspects of both expert

    and novice understandings and may be useful in constructing accurate scientific


    A gap remains between what research has revealed about misconceptions and

    knowledge of how this research is applied in the classroom. There is a significant

    body of research on instructional strategies shown to be effective at dealing with

    student misconceptions (Ausubel 1968; Guzzetti 2000; Posner et al. 1982). The

    research-based strategies have demonstrated some success at addressing miscon-

    ceptions by expanding student thinking through dialogue and experimentation.

    Although these strategies often involve some form of activity, these activities are

    selected to specifically confront the misconception by presenting unexpected results

    not previously considered by the learner. The teacher is a vital piece in the success

    of these strategies, often facilitating student thinking through questioning and

    student discourse. What limited research exists regarding teachers and misconcep-

    tions has shown that preservice and novice teachers are often unaware that their

    students may have misconceptions. In addition, even when teachers are aware of

    misconceptions, they are unlikely to use any knowledge of misconceptions in their

    instruction (Halim and Meerah 2002). Meyer (2004) also examined expert teachers

    and found that they have very complex conceptions of prior knowledge and made

    significant use of their students prior knowledge, such as misconceptions, in

    instruction. Past research has focused on the extremes of the teaching experience

    spectrum, novice to expert (Halim and Meerah 2002; Meyer 2004). However, there

    remains a gap regarding the teacher who falls somewhere between an expert and a

    novice. Little is known about what the teachers know about this topicteachers

    who have experience teaching elementary school, but do not have any particular

    training in the area of misconceptions and natural sciences beyond what they have

    experienced in their teacher preparation programs, teacher professional develop-

    ment, or both. This study will attempt to identify to what extent teachers across a

    range of experience are aware of how misconceptions develop in students and if

    these teachers are aware of and use techniques to mediate misconceptions in their




    There are several terms in the research used in this area: misconceptions (Bar and

    Travis 1991; Eryilmaz 2002; Schmidt 1997; Sneider and Ohadi 1998), nave views

    or conception (Bar 1989; Hesse and Anderson 1992; Pine et al. 2001), preconcep-

    tions (Benson et al. 1993), alternative views (Bar and Travis 1991; Gabel Stockton

    et al. 2001; Sequeira and Leite 1991; Trend 2001), and alternative conceptions

    438 S. Gomez-Zwiep


  • (Hewson and Hewson 2003). Teachers were found to be much more familiar with

    the term misconception in the pilot study used to craft the interview questions and

    it is for that reason that this term is used in this study.

    Research Participants

    The sample consisted of 30 teachers, representing 12 schools in seven different

    districts across the state of California. The teachers had experience teaching third,

    fourth, and fifth grade students. The level of experience ranged from 1 to 30 years of

    teaching (Table 1). The intent of the study was to investigate teachers with

    experience teaching elementary school, but teachers who would not be considered

    an expert or a novice. Thus, the only requirements for participation were at least

    1 year of teaching experience in a K8 setting and a valid elementary teaching

    credential (certified to teach multiple subjects grades K8). The sample included

    teachers from a wide range of school environments covering bilingual and English-

    only classrooms, high-performing and low-performing schools, rural and urban

    schools, and all levels of socioeconomic neighborhoods. It was assumed that some

    level of expertise is necessary for a teacher to understand misconceptions in general.

    Therefore, the selection of these teachers was based on recommendations from

    principals, colleagues, and professional development consultants who were

    contacted via telephone and e-mail. These individuals were requested to recommend

    elementary teachers who taught in grades three, four, or five and who did not have

    any specialized science training beyond the their credential program. In addition,

    teachers were requested who were responsible for teaching science in a general

    education setting, rather than a science-specific setting. Once a teacher was

    recommended, I (the author of this article) contacted them either by telephone or by

    e-mail to arrange a time and place for the interview.

    Construction of Interview Questions

    A pilot study was used to identify guiding variables and relationships for the current

    study. The pilot study used qualitative data-collection methods to investigate the

    level of understanding of students science misconceptions among a group of

    preservice teachers. Twenty-five preservice teachers were interviewed about their

    Table 1 Summary of years ofexperience

    Years of teaching


    3rd grade 4th grade 5th grade Total

    13 1 3 2 6

    46 1 4 4 9

    79 1 3 1 5

    1012 2 1 0 3

    1315 2 0 2 4

    15+ 1 (28 years) 1 (28 years) 1 (35 years) 3

    Total 8 12 10 30

    Teachers Understanding of Student Misconceptions 439


  • current use and understanding of student misconceptions in science. A semistruc-

    tured interview process was used to address issues, including what a misconception

    is, what role misconceptions play in learning, and how might such misconceptions

    be addressed in instruction, among other questions. The interviews required that the

    students had little prior explicit instruction in constructivism as a philosophical

    orientation toward teaching and learning. Common themes were identified,

    analyzed, and evaluated. The results were used as the basis for the formulation of

    the interview questions for this study (Table 2).

    Interview Protocol

    This exploratory research study was designed to address two research questions:

    1. To what extent do teachers understand what students misconceptions are and

    how science misconceptions develop?

    2. What do teachers know about how to address misconceptions?

    The interviews were used to explore practicing elementary teachers understanding

    about misconceptions, namely, what they are, how they develop, and how

    instruction can address a misconception. The interview questions were designed

    to give an indication of a teachers understanding of misconceptions, origins and

    longevity of misconceptions, and what they as teachers can do about dislodging

    student misconceptions. Thirty interviews were conducted from January to April,

    2005. Teachers were interviewed individually or in small g