4. Gaps and misconceptions

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Chloe Wardle

As pupils learn something new, they begin to form and modify complex mental models in their memory. They connect new content to existing knowledge that they hold. Whilst it would be great to think that they will only add accurate information to their mental models, the reality is somewhat different. Along the way pupils are likely to pick up lots of misconceptions. Gaps may also appear in pupils’ mental models. Teachers need to identify the gaps and misconceptions that pupils may hold so that they can help their pupils to correct them.

Presenter main

Misconceptions are beliefs which conflict with what is to be learned. This differs from lack of knowledge, where pupils have gaps in their understanding about a topic. Misconceptions also differ from mistakes. An example of a mistake might be spelling a word wrong. The pupil knows how to spell the word correctly but has forgotten in that moment. It’s just an oversight. A misconception on the other hand can often be deeply rooted.

Misconceptions exist in every subject and phase. In early years, pupils might think that when leaves fall off the trees in autumn, the trees are dying, or in science pupils often think that when liquids evaporate they have disappeared. Misconceptions like this can cause a significant barrier to pupils’ learning so we need to do something about them.

Here’s one approach that teachers can take to misconceptions. First, identify what misconceptions pupils may hold. Next, plan a series of questions to check if your pupils do hold them or not. Lastly, adapt your teaching to address misconceptions that you find.

When identifying misconceptions it’s best to focus first on the most significant misconceptions that many pupils hold. Individual pupils will hold lots of specific misconceptions depending on their prior knowledge. But to make this process manageable for teachers it is good to prioritise the most important misconceptions that will create a barrier to learning.

Another thing to bear in mind is that anticipating misconceptions can be hard to do so it’s important to draw on the experience of subjects and phase colleagues, which may help. If teachers think about the misconceptions that their pupils are likely to hold about particular content before they teach it to them, then they will be more likely to know what to do when they spot them. They can aim to guide their pupils around misconceptions to prevent them forming part of their mental model.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see a model of how to identify misconceptions. As you listen, pay particular attention to how the coach does the following:

  • Identifies common misconceptions
  • Uses assessments to check for prior knowledge and pre-existing misconceptions

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

The purpose of this model, imagine that I will be teaching my year seven geography class about plate boundaries and their interactions. I need to make sure that pupils have a really firm understanding of plate tectonics. As part of my planning for the lesson, I discuss this with a colleague who had taught the topic before, and she reminded me that this is something that pupils often get quite confused about. She highlighted two misconceptions that are particularly common. Here are the misconceptions.

  1. Each continent has its own plate.
  2. Continents sit on top of (but apart from) plates.

In this instance, a simple true or false question will help. I can get pupils to read each statement and tell me if they think it is true or false. This will give me a really quick snapshot of what the whole class believe. If I find out they hold either misconception, I can deliver a pre-prepared response to address it there and then.

Presenter exemplification analysis

Let’s focus on a couple of things in this model. First, the teacher made sure that they thought about potential misconceptions in advance of teaching their lesson. They worked with an experienced colleague who made sure that they were focusing on a common misconception that many pupils held.

Second, the teacher planned a really quick way of assessing to see if pupils held either misconception by asking a direct question. If they said that either statement was true the teacher can be fairly safe to assume that pupils hold this misconception and so they can adapt their teaching.

Notice how they checked for one misconception at a time. It is important to do this so that you can pinpoint the precise misconception that the pupils hold and then address it.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we considered what the term misconception means and how teachers can begin to identify them. Before we finish, take a moment to read through the key ideas that the video has covered. Which of the following ideas do you think that the example illustrated the best?

  • Being aware of common misconceptions and discussing with experienced colleagues how to help pupils master important concepts
  • Using assessments to check for prior knowledge and pre-existing misconceptions
  • Structuring tasks and questions to enable the identification of knowledge gaps and misconceptions (e.g. by using common misconceptions within multiple-choice questions)

Presenter summary

Knowing your pupils’ prior knowledge of misconceptions can help you address barriers to learning. With sufficient planning to expose gaps in prior knowledge and misconceptions, you can ensure pupils get the support they need.

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Teaching challenge

Ms Brown is confident about what she wants pupils to learn. However, she is often surprised by the gaps in pupils’ knowledge and the misconceptions they sometimes hold. How can she plan to address gaps and misconceptions so all pupils can access the curriculum?

Key idea

Teachers should proactively find out about pupil prior knowledge and deliberately address common misconceptions and pupil knowledge gaps.

Evidence summary

Gaps in pupil prior knowledge and implications for individual needs

Pupils enter the classroom with different prior knowledge. For example, some may have been exposed to a concept intentionally the previous school year, while other teachers did not prioritise the same concept; some may have been introduced to it at home or through personal interest, while others may not. These knowledge gaps have consequences for pupils’ understanding: for example, if they lack important vocabulary, they may not be able to read a text, or may simply misunderstand it (Willingham, 2006). Ms Brown needs to identify who knows what if she is to make new ideas comprehensible by linking them to pupils’ existing knowledge.

Watching out for misconceptions

Misconceptions are potentially more problematic than knowledge gaps. Misconceptions are distinct from knowledge gaps (where pupils know nothing about a topic) and from errors (for example, a spelling mistake): they are beliefs which conflict with what is to be learned (Chi, 2009). A knowledge gap or an error can be addressed relatively simply but a misconception, whether held by pupils already or developed during a topic, may be harder to address. For example, if pupils believe that an apostrophe should be added whenever they see a plural ‘s’, this is harder for Ms Brown to influence than if a pupil forgot or had never been introduced to the rule.

Most misconceptions are specific to the topic being taught. For example, a common misconception in adding fractions is that pupils should add the numerators and the denominators together. Ms Brown needs to identify common misconceptions: her more-experienced colleagues may have valuable knowledge here. Once Ms Brown has identified likely misconceptions in an upcoming topic, she can check whether pupils have those misconceptions and can seek to overcome them.

Responding to pupil needs

Ms Brown can anticipate and respond to pupils’ knowledge gaps and misconceptions. Once she has identified the knowledge pupils need to understand a new idea, and the potential misconceptions they may hold or develop, she can design checks of pupil understanding to uncover these barriers for this knowledge (Christodoulou, 2017).

Where she identifies knowledge gaps, she can address them by explicitly teaching anything pupils must know to understand a topic, for example, prerequisite vocabulary, or knowledge which has been introduced in previous years. Where she identifies misconceptions, she can address them by offering analogies which bridge between pupils’ existing knowledge and their misconception (Luciarello & Naff, n.d.). For example, if pupils believe objects sink because they are heavy (a misconception which confuses weight with density), she can give the example of a ship – which is obviously heavy, but floats – and use this to help pupils appreciate their misconception.

Developing pupils’ subject knowledge also helps all pupils in two ways:

  1. By ensuring pupils have increasingly developed and organised mental models upon which they can draw.
  2. By reducing the new information actively being processed in pupils’ limited working memory (Sweller et al., 1988).

Nuances and caveats 

While there is much overlap between what pupils know, each pupil will also have unique areas of prior knowledge (and lack of knowledge), based on individual experiences. Identifying exactly what each pupil knows would be impossible for Ms Brown: it’s more important that she identifies the most important knowledge for a topic and whether all pupils know that than that she identifies everything they do and don’t know (Christodoulou, 2017).

Key takeaways

Ms Brown can better tackle pupil knowledge gaps and misconceptions by understanding that:

  • A key reason for differing pupil needs is their different levels of prior knowledge.
  • Pupils may have – or develop – misconceptions: incorrect beliefs about a topic or subject.
  • Teachers can identify and overcome these incomplete mental models by using knowledge of subject and common misconceptions, for example to generate analogies based on existing knowledge.

Further reading 

Ball, D. L., Thames, M. H., & Phelps, G. (2008). Content knowledge for teachers: What makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education.


Chi, M. T. (2009). Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. In International handbook of research on conceptual change, 89-110.

Christodoulou, D. (2017). Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: OUP.

Lucariello, J. & Naff, D. (n.d.). How Do I Get My Students Over Their Alternative Conceptions (Misconceptions) for Learning? American Psychological Association.

Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J., & Paas, F. G. (1998). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), 251–296.

Willingham, D.T. (2006). How knowledge helps. American Educator.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Brown can better tackle pupil knowledge gaps and misconceptions by understanding that:

  • A key reason for differing pupil needs is their different levels of prior knowledge.
  • Pupils may have – or develop – misconceptions: incorrect beliefs about a topic or subject.
  • Teachers can identify and overcome these incomplete mental models by using knowledge of subject and common misconceptions, for example to generate analogies based on existing knowledge.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?