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A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Learning involves interpreting and trying to make sense out of what we read, hear, watch and do. As a result, we often develop misconceptions and misunderstanding about what we are trying to learn. Some misconceptions are inconsequential and will be resolved in due time.  Others are stubborn and intractable, and don’t go away simply because the instructor provides the correct perspective or right answer.

A common research finding is that students enter a course with misconceptions about the subject. They appear to overcome these during the course well enough to pass the exams. However, after the course is over they may revert back to their original misconceptions.    


  1. Exhortation is not effective. Simply telling students they are wrong and then telling them the correct idea may work for simple misunderstandings but not for well-developed misconceptions.   

  2. Use concept inventories to identify student misconceptions in your course or subject area. In some disciplines there are concept inventories that identify common student misconceptions. These tools can help you identify and anticipate the types of misconceptions you may confront in your class.   

  3. Comparison Table. For misconceptions that lend themselves to direct comparisons, create a table that puts students’ misconceptions side by side with the consensually held conceptions. Compare the two on as many dimensions as possible, e.g., assumptions, predictions, applications, implications, evidence for and against, etc. The table is a graphic representation that makes it easier for students to identify specific differences between the two ideas.

  4. Refutational teaching. Some research indicates that a combination of refutational readings and refutational lecture can help students revise misconceptions. That is, students read material that refutes their misconception and the instructor also addresses it in class.   

Tips to Implement Revising Misconceptions Effectively

  • Misconceptions are conceptions; a misunderstanding is an understanding. Misconceptions are not simply incorrect factual knowledge; they are students’ conceptual understanding. That is one reason why misconceptions can be so difficult to change. They aren’t incorrect factoids that can be swapped out for the correct factoids.

  • Sometimes misconceptions are easier to understand, and simply make more sense to students than the consensually held belief. Helping the student overcome the misconception involves conceptual change, which entails developing a new understanding.


  • A Private Universe an 18 minute video that explores the difficulty students experience in overcoming their misconceptions.
  • The Debunking Handbook a 6-page guide about strategies to debunk myths and misconceptions.

Cerbin, W. (2015). Misconceptions. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from