Tackling Misconceptions Through Conceptual Change – Part 2

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

In our last blog, we discussed what misconceptions are and that they’re very hard to eradicate. In this blog, we dive into some examples of misconceptions to make it a bit more concrete and to understand, as learning professionals, what types of misconceptions people can have so that we can design accordingly. To recap: When we learn new concepts, we either have no prior knowledge (although we might have some related knowledge) or we have some prior knowledge. When we have some prior knowledge, this knowledge can be either correct (if so, it’s easy to add new knowledge via assimilation), incorrect and incomplete (also relatively easy to change via accommodation), correct and incomplete (after all, there’s always more to learn 😊) or incorrect and complete/coherent (coherent as in ‘within itself logical and consistent’; really difficult to change).

According to Micki Chi (2008), ‘shifting’ misconceptions requires making conceptual changes in how we think. Strangely enough, some misconceptions, even when they’re confronted by strong contradictory evidence, just stay put (Chi & Roscoe, 2002). The question we’re trying to answer is why such incorrect knowledge is so resistant to change. Chi suggests that the representation of knowledge occurs at three different levels: a) individual beliefs, b) mental models, and c) categories. The amount of resistance depends on the level of the knowledge representation. We explore each of them.

Knowledge representation 1: False beliefs

To begin, we’re not talking about beliefs where an individual has an emotional connection with something instead of a rational one. Although this is a fascinating category as well, we’re not going to discuss it here.

Let’s start with an example where learners have false beliefs about the human circulatory system, for example when they believe that the heart is responsible for reoxygenating our blood (Spoiler: The lungs serve this function). When this is the case, we can expect that targeting instruction at refuting these false beliefs will be able to successfully correct them, resulting in belief revision.

How to correct false beliefs

In this case, the instruction could have been as simple as explaining how the heart and lungs work and that the lungs are actually responsible for reoxygenating blood. To put it simply, to correct such false beliefs, you need to include explicit explanations that directly refute the false beliefs. However, sometimes, it’s not easy for learners to change their beliefs. According to Chi (2008) that’s the case when misconceptions don’t conflict with correct ideas. Let’s look at what this means by exploring flawed mental models.

Knowledge representation 2: Flawed mental models

A mental model is an organised collection of individual beliefs (Chi, 2008). Similar to beliefs, a mental model can conflict with the correct model to varying degrees. Some learners might have a missing or non-existing mental model, or they may have an incomplete one. It can also be the case that someone has a complete and coherent mental model, but that it’s incorrect. Stella Vosniadou (1994) emphasises that it’s this latter category that causes problems. When we’re dealing with a mental model with a coherent structure, it becomes easier to understand why it’s sometimes so hard for people to let go of their beliefs.

Take, for example, when the learner in the previous example thinks of the human circulatory system as a ‘single loop’ system. This means that they think that the blood travels from the heart to all parts of the body including the lungs and then returns to the heart (see the left part of the figure below).heart

Differences in the assumptions between a flawed single-loop metal model and the correct double loop model (Chi & Roscoe, 2002)

In reality, our circulatory system is made up of two separate loops (one is the heart-to-body loop which sends oxygenated blood to all parts of the body and the other is a heart-to-lungs loop which reoxygenates the deoxygenated blood returning from the body parts, see the right-hand side of the figure above). Although the single loop concept is wrong, it’s still coherent, because it differs from the correct, double-loop model in systematic ways. For example, it makes sense to reason that if the source of oxygen is considered is to be the heart, the purpose of the blood flow to the lungs is to deliver oxygen to the lungs. A second model consistent with the first is that the deoxygenated blood goes to the rest of the body via the lungs where it is first oxygenated. With either of these flawed mental models, learners will give systematic and predictable answers to questions around the human circulatory system.

Things are a bit more complicated here, compared to just a false belief. For example, if the instruction includes a sentence like “Blood from the heart goes to the rest of the body to deliver oxygen to organs and muscles”, the learner might not see this as contradicting their belief that the heart delivers oxygen to the body or that the lungs are just an organ in the single loop and will just add this information to their existing model. As long as a statement doesn’t contradict what a learner believes, it can be understood or misunderstood in the context of the existing knowledge structure (i.e., mental model). Thus, assimilation can’t repair such a flawed mental model (it can enrich both flawed and correct mental models); the model needs to be accommodated (i.e., be changed to fit the new information). As long as the learner doesn’t perceive a conflict, the new information will simply be added to the flawed model. It makes sense to the learner even when it’s wrong.

How to correct flawed mental models

Only when learners are confronted with information that contradicts their current belief, will they consider revising it. For example, the instructor could say: “Some of you might think that the heart is the source of oxygen, while in fact it’s the lungs that allow the air you breathe in oxygenate your blood. This oxygenated blood returns to the heart and is pumped through the rest of the body. The heart pumps the blood around but doesn’t oxygenate it.” Chi calls this type of mental model restructuring a mental model transformation (successful modification of a flawed mental model).

Even this type of transformation doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, misconceptions are terribly stubborn, or the concepts are too complex to tackle at the belief or mental model level. In that case, according to Chi, we’re dealing with a category mistake.

Knowledge representation 3: Category mistakes

Some misconceptions can be very robust and difficult to revise. Chi suggests that these are tough to change because they’ve mistakenly been assigned to an inappropriate ontological category (see our previous blog). It would have been nice if we could have continued with the heart/lung example, but we haven’t been able to find a heart/lung category mistake, so we use one that Chi herself introduces: The concept of heat. In this context, an example of a category mistake is where ‘heat’ is interpreted by a learner as ‘the sensation of hotness’ instead of ‘the speed at which molecules move: the greater the speed, the hotter the molecules feel’. So, the learner incorrectly conceives heat to be the same as ‘hot stuff’ or ‘hot molecules’ (= ENTITY), instead it’s the speed of molecule movement (= PROCESS).

Chi suggests that one of the reasons why the concept heat is prone to category mistakes is because we use a noun (heat) to represent a transfer process. The terminology itself seems to encourage learners to maintain their misconception that heat is an ENTITY, since they can continue to conceive of the term ‘energy’ as a kind of ‘substance’. This type of confusing terminology might cause robust misconceptions that can’t be easily refuted by simply presenting scientific information in technical terms.

How to correct category mistake misconceptions

Chi suggests two instructional steps. First, learners need to be aware that they’ve made a category mistake and second, they must be knowledgeable about the category to which the concept actually belongs.

In order to figure out if learners have this type of misconception, you need to somehow force learners to externalise and formalise their ideas. Only when they make their ideas explicit and explorable, we can discover if they have misconceptions and what type they are. Chi explains that (and the way we articulate it here is rather simplified) we can assume that we’re dealing with category mistakes if we see that learners aren’t resistant to changing their approach and repeatedly adjust their approach to solving a problem based on feedback, but still get it wrong.

Let’s assume you’re an instructor and you give an assignment like the one below. Though it’s a very simple example, it will make the point as to how you can figure out if learners have a category mistake misconception.


Assignment: Draw an arrow between the air and the ice water below, showing the direction of heat transfer and explain why that’s the right direction.

Through this assignment we can discover the type of misconception through their causal explanations of the concept of ‘heat’.

For example, if learners look at you as if you’re from another planet because the whole concept of ‘movement’ has never crossed their minds, this might be a sign that they’re making a category mistake and that they perceive heat to be an ENTITY and not a PROCESS. We then need to make them aware of their miscategorisation and explicitly explain how they can discriminate between the two phenomena heat and temperature. What this looks like overall, of course depends on the concept at hand.

In the context of the assignment, after they’ve showed their confusion, you can ask them the following to get them thinking: Think about a hot drink. It FEELS hot, right? Now, think about what happens with a hot drink when you leave it for a while….It will cool off to the ambient temperature. Why is that? Let the learner reason through. This will give you insight into their thought processes. Based on that, you can adapt your approach to their needs.

[Answer: Atoms inside of liquids and gases are always jiggling and bouncing around (i.e., Brownian motion). They have kinetic energy. The higher the temperature, the faster the atoms jiggle. The energy always flows ‘downhill’, from higher to lower states of energy. So, the thermal energy of the drink transfers to the energy in the room because heat always flows from hot to cold (to achieve thermal equilibrium). The heat moves from drink to room and hence it’s a PROCESS (based on https://www.teachengineering.org/lessons/view/ucd_heat_lesson01)]

What this requires from learning designers and instructors alike, is a) an awareness of the possible underlying theoretical constructs for the concept/topic at hand and b) a focus on presuppositions instead of just explaining a concept/topic (Vosniadou, 1994). For example, letting a child explain what (s)he thinks the earth looks like and letting her/him draw it, will give insight into the (mis)conceptions (also see our previous blog). If, as an instructor, you then discover that a child believes that people live on flat ground inside a hollow sphere, explaining that the earth isn’t hollow isn’t going to fix the child’s misconception of a spherical earth. Instead, you need to focus on the underlying theoretical concepts of gravity and on how round things can sometimes appear to be flat. Exploring presuppositions first and focusing on foundational theoretical concepts (the ‘why’) next helps tackle misconceptions and can largely improve the effectiveness of any learning experience.


Chi, M. T. (2008). Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. In (AAA & BBB (eds.), International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 89-110). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Chi, M. T. H., & Roscoe, R. (2002). The processes and challenges of conceptual change. In M. Limon & L. Mason (Eds.), Reframing the process of conceptual change: Integrating theory and practice (pp. 3–27). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer

Vosniadou, S. (1994). Capturing and modeling the process of conceptual change. Learning and instruction, 4(1), 45-69.


6 thoughts on “Tackling Misconceptions Through Conceptual Change – Part 2

  1. Alice Flarend says:

    As a science teacher, I appreciate all of the science examples. Physics, which is my main teaching assignment, is rife with misconceptions and has a strong research base on them and ways to move students closer to a scientist’s way of thinking about the physical world.
    I am also beginning a role as a teaching coach for my small rural high school. Do you know of any similar research in other areas such as language or history?


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