Students Writing on Board

Identifying and planning for misconceptions

Understanding a potential common misconception in a subject will inform your planning, how you deliver your explanations, and the scaffolds you will provide. It will also support the assessment opportunities you include and dictate where they will be most needed in the lesson. You will use those opportunities to check understanding and assess whether a misconception has occurred.

ECF strands: 3.2, 3.4, 3e and 3i

Why is it important to anticipate misconceptions?

A misconception is a wrong or inaccurate idea based on faulty thinking or understanding. A common misconception is a wrong idea that many people have. For pupils, the most important common misconceptions to anticipate are the ones which relate to foundational concepts. This is because misconceptions can be difficult to shift but doing so can lead to big gains in learning, particularly for threshold concepts (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018). Therefore, anticipating common misconceptions within subject areas is also an important aspect of curriculum knowledge and working closely with colleagues to develop an understanding of likely misconceptions is valuable.

So good curriculum design includes being aware of common misconceptions and this requires secure subject knowledge:

“The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach… As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods and identify students’ common misconceptions.” 

(Coe and others, 2014, page 2)

Consequently, when embarking on a new topic with pupils, it is good practice to first consider your own subject knowledge and any potential knowledge gaps you may need to close, particularly those concerning foundational concepts and knowledge. It might sound obvious but making sure your subject knowledge is secure is one of the best ways to enable you to teach the content well and help pupils to master the critical components of the subject.

How can you monitor for misconceptions?

Despite careful planning and sequencing of knowledge, and in spite of checking for understanding at key points in the lesson, pupils can still develop misconceptions. It is often during independent practice that these come to light, and you discover there has been some misunderstanding earlier in the lesson. It is therefore essential that you monitor independent practice and act where appropriate.

A good strategy to help you monitor independent practice is to circulate around the class during the session.

Some teachers move around the classroom checking to make sure pupils are ‘on track’. However, this can often mean they are focusing on completion of work, as opposed to mastery of skills.

When circulating effectively, you will notice two things:

  • Examples of success (these could be showcased to the class)

  • Examples of specific mistakes/errors (these should be considered before the lesson)

The amount of assessment data you could collect by circulating can be overwhelming. You may notice layout issues, poor handwriting, spelling mistakes and more, so it is important to plan to look for specific data and consider a way to track this data that will allow you to refer to it after the lesson.

One straightforward method of tracking data during the independent practice is by printing out the class register and completing the following steps:

  • Prior to the lesson, consider what it is you are wanting to monitor during the practice

  • Create a simple code that can signal pupil understanding

How can you tackle misconceptions?

It is important to remember that adults hold misconceptions as well as children. Pupils needs to feel comfortable to share their ideas with you, so that you can support the development of their thinking over time. So, an important way in which you can help pupils to master foundational concepts and knowledge is to foster a classroom climate where the sharing and discussing of ideas is encouraged.

In terms of your teaching practice, here are some other ways you can respond to common misconceptions:

  • Explicitly address misconceptions through explanation

  • Provide evidence that might conflict with their thinking

  • Provide activities to support them to restructure their thinking

  • Use formative assessment to check that pupils’ thinking is changing

  • Revisit misconceptions to remind pupils of what they thought in the beginning and acknowledge how their thinking has changed

Activities

Review the content of your sequence of work and record any potential knowledge gaps or areas you want to strengthen. If you have identified a need for subject knowledge development, be prepared to share this with you mentor and discuss the best steps you can take to address it.

Select an upcoming lesson plan to review. Identify a moment in the lesson where pupils would engage in independent practice. What might be the two or three potential errors they could make during this time? Make sure that the errors you select will help you monitor their understanding and check for a misconception. 

Watch the video below and consider how it can aid your planning around misconceptions. 

Reflection

  • Can you recall any misconceptions that you have held in the past?

  • What helped to change your thinking?

  • What common misconceptions are pupils likely to have?

  • What would help pupils to develop their thinking and to master the concepts?

  • Can you identify any analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations or demonstrations that could help?

Further Reading

Review the content of your sequence of work and record any potential knowledge gaps or areas you want to strengthen. If you have identified a need for subject knowledge development, be prepared to share this with you mentor and discuss the best steps you can take to address it.