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Best Teaching Practices

Teaching for Conceptual Change

Teachers help their students build understanding of complex scientific concepts by disassembling the concept into component parts according to the level of intellectual development of their students. This process, however, is only half of what needs to be done to facilitate students' correct understanding. Students come to school with their own explanations of natural phenomena. The teacher must ascertain students' prior knowledge and naïve or inaccurate conceptual understanding must be addressed at the same time as new concepts are being taught in the science classroom. For purposes of brevity and at the risk of oversimplification, we use the term "misconception" to mean a student's belief that is incorrect from the perspective of the scientific community. The process of replacing a misconception with a scientifically acceptable concept is called "conceptual change".

Steadfastly students hold on to their own ideas about the way the world works, may be very reluctant to change these ideas, and may be little influenced by instruction with a contrary perspective. In the well-known production, A Private Universe, selected Harvard graduates, despite their many years of schooling, provide inaccurate explanations of the cause of Earth's seasons. Even after intensive re-teaching of the accurate, scientific concepts, these subjects still persisted in their own uninformed explanations.

How do teachers go about ascertaining their students' misconceptions? Communication - both oral and written - is essential. Use questions to elicit students' prior knowledge in the lesson's engagement before an exploration takes place (see Learning Cycle as a best teaching practice). Listen to students' explanations of their conjectures when they are working collaboratively with their peers. Ask questions, such as how do you explain what you observed? when students are explaining the results of their investigations. Interview students in formal and informal ways.

According to Smith (1991), four conditions must be present to bring about conceptual change:

  • The student must be dissatisfied with the current understanding.
  • The student must have an available intelligible alternative.
  • The alternative must seem plausible to the student.
  • The alternative must seem fruitful (useable) to the student.

How do teachers go about teaching for conceptual change? Use teaching methods that emphasize constructivist philosophies. That is, de-emphasize cookbook-like activities in favor of open-ended investigations that engage students in discussions of scientific ideas in cooperative group work. Provide opportunities for students to confront their own beliefs with ways to resolve any conflicts between their ideas and what they are now experiencing in a laboratory activity and/or discussion, thereby helping them accommodate this new concept with what they already know. Make connections between the concepts learned in the classroom with everyday life. Have students make concept maps as both a teaching/learning strategy and also an assessment tool.


Journal Articles - To access most of these Journal Articles, you must be a student, faculty or staff member at an OhioLINK affiliated institution. Access to OhioLINK may be available to Ohioans through their local, public, or school libraries. Contact OPLIN, INFOhio, or your local library for more information.

The Conceptual Change Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning: An Evaluation of a Hong Kong Staff Development Programme
Higher Education, Vol. 42, Issue: 2, September 2001. pp. 143-169
Ho, Angela; Watkins, David; Kelly, Mavis

This paper reports a study of the effectiveness of an innovative approach to staff development, the conceptual change approach, which attempts to change teachers' frameworks for conceptualising teaching and learning. The evaluation investigated the programme at three levels: the impact on the conceptions of teaching of the participants, the resultant impact on teaching practices, and the consequential effect on student learning. Encouraging results were obtained. The programme brought about...

Effects of Conceptual Assignments and Conceptual Change Discussions on Students' Misconceptions and Achievement Regarding Force and Motion
Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 39, Issue: 10, December 2002. pp. 1001 - 1015
Eryilmaz,, Ali

The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of conceptual assignments and conceptual change discussions on students' achievement and misconceptions about force and motion. The study was conducted with 6 physics teachers and their 18 classes, consisting of 396 high school physics students. The teachers administered the Force Misconception and Force Achievement Tests to their physics classes as a pretest. The results obtained were used to match the 18 classes statistically. Students...

Number Concept and Conceptual Change: Towards a Systemic Model of the Processes of Change
Learning and Instruction, Vol. 14, Issue: 5, October, 2004. pp. 519-534
Merenluoto, Kaarina; Lehtinen, Erno

The research on conceptual change has so far mainly dealt with cognitive outcomes, but especially during the last few years there has been a growing interest in and discussion about the processes of conceptual change. The purpose of the article is to contribute to this discussion and to present a theoretical model of the dynamics among the cognitive and motivational factors in conceptual change. Several researchers in science education have proposed cognitive conflict as instructional strategy...

A Conceptual Change Teaching Strategy to Facilitate High School Students' Understanding of Electrochemistry
Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 12, Issue: 2, June 2003. pp. 129-134
Niaz, Mansoor; Chacon, Eleazar

Recent research in chemistry education has shown an increasing interest in the facilitation of conceptual change in student understanding of chemical concepts. Most of the studies have tried to show the difference in student performance on algorithmic and conceptual problems. The objective of this study is to go beyond and design a teaching strategy based on two "teaching experiments" that could facilitate students' conceptual understanding of electrochemistry. The study is based on two...

"Is Heat Hot?" Inducing Conceptual Change by Integrating Everyday and Scientific Perspectives on Thermal Phenomena
Learning and Instruction, Vol. 11, Issue: 4-5, August - October, 2001. pp. 331-355
Wiser, Marianne; Amin, Tamer

An account of conceptual change within the domain of thermal physics is described. In particular, the difficulties of inducing an ontological change in students' concept of heat is examined. While the overall goal of this research is to document microgenetically the process of conceptual change that takes place as students learn thermal physics, this paper describes the specific role of metaconceptual teaching. It is argued that metaconceptual teaching that addresses the fact that students and...

Process Based Investigations of Conceptual Development: An Explorative Study
International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, Vol. 4, Issue: 4, December 2006. pp. 689 - 725
Aufschnaiter, Claudia

Research on conceptual change is still a powerful framework for empirical investigations on students' learning of science. During recent years, an increasing body of research has explored students' concepts prior and subsequent to instruction, leading to an extensive documentation of students' concepts including the difficulties and opportunities of teaching for conceptual change. Though the research on conceptual change can inform practitioners about students'...


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This article describes 4 differing views of conceptual change that illustrate the ongoing interaction of epistemology and the psychology of learning. However, the conceptual change model is widely accepted among science educators. Though there are competing views of how conceptual change occurs, there seems to be no argument about whether conceptual change occurs; it is central to learning in science.