MiddleSchoolPortal/Misconceptions at the Middle

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Although the term “misconception” simply means an idea or explanation that differs from the accepted scientific concept, students’ misconceptions are anything but simple. Some misconceptions arise as students try to make sense of the world around them and naturally occurring phenomena. These misconceptions are developmental in nature, often change as students develop their ability to think abstractly, and do not change as a result of instruction. Other misconceptions form when students construct explanations with insufficient information. Finally, misconceptions can also result from incorrect or partially correct explanations given by teachers, parents, or the media.

Once formed, misconceptions can be tenacious – persisting even in the face of discrepant events or careful instruction. Research has documented that students may be able to provide the “correct” answer in science class yet still not abandon their previously formed idea.

Even though targeting student misconceptions is difficult, teachers should be cognizant of their students’ beliefs before, during, and after instruction. Formative assessment can provide insight and guidance for planning lessons and meeting student needs.



What kinds of misconceptions might middle school teachers encounter in their classrooms? We share some examples from physical, life, and earth and space science. Far from an exhaustive list, this sampling is meant to stimulate your thinking about what ideas your students might hold.

Physical Science

Heat, Temperature, and Insulation

According to the National Science Education Standards Science Content Standard B: Physical Science (National Research Council, 1996):

In 5-8, students begin to see the connections among those phenomena [light, heat, sound, electricity, magnetism, and the motion of objects] and to become familiar with the idea that energy is an important property of substances and that most change involves energy transfer.

Heat is an important type of energy, but, like other forms of energy and energy transfer, it is one students typically hold misconceptions about. The web page Children's Misconceptions about Science provides a list of misconceptions in several areas of physical science, including heat and temperature. Here are a few that teachers may have encountered:

Students may think...Instead of thinking...
Heat is a substance. Heat is not energy.Heat is energy.
Temperature is a property of a particular material or object. (For example, students may believe that metal is naturally cooler than plastic.)Temperature is not a property of materials or objects. Objects exposed to the same ambient conditions will have the same temperature.
The temperature of an object depends on its size.Temperature does not depend on size.
Heat and cold are different.Cold is the absence of heat. Heat and cold can be thought of as opposite ends of a continuum.
Cold is transferred from one object to another.Heat is transferred from one object to another. Heat moves from the warmer object to the cooler object.
Objects that keep things warm (sweaters, mittens, blankets) are sources of heat.Objects keep things warm by trapping heat.
Some substances (flour, sugar, air) cannot heat up.All substances heat up, although some gain heat more easily than others.
Objects that readily become warm (conductors of heat) do not readily become cold.Conductors gain (and lose) heat easily.

Read more at Common Misconceptions about Heat and Insulation.

Life Science

The National Science Education Standards Science Content Standard C: Life Science (National Research Council, 1996) states that

In the middle-school years, students should progress from studying life science from the point of view of individual organisms to recognizing patterns in ecosystems…. For example, students should broaden their understandings from the way one species lives in its environment to populations and communities of species and the ways they interact with each other and with their environment.

We've highlighted some common misconceptions about food chains and webs, predator/prey relationships, ecosystems, and ecological adaptations that might be encountered in the middle school classroom. A more complete list can be found at the Overcoming Ecological Misconceptions web site.

Food Chains and Webs

Students may think...Instead of thinking...
Food webs are interpreted as simple food chains.Food webs most accurately depict the flow of energy within an ecosystem. They depict a complex set of relationships that is not easily simplified to a food chain.
Organisms higher in a food web eat everything that is lower in the food web.Organisms higher in a food chain eat some, but not necessarily all, of the organisms below them in the food web.
There are more herbivores than carnivores because people keep and breed herbivores.There are more herbivores than carnivores because of the decreasing amount of energy available at each level of the food web.
Food chains involve predator and prey, but not producers.Producers are an essential part of all food chains and webs.
Decomposers release some energy that is cycled back to plants.Decomposers break down dead organisms, returning nutrients to the soil so they can be used by plants. Some decomposers are eaten by carnivores.
Carnivores have more energy or power than herbivores do.While some carnivores may be larger and require more food than some herbivores, they do not have more energy or power.
Carnivores are big or ferocious, or both. Herbivores are small and passive.Although some carnivores may be big and ferocious and some herbivores small and passive, there is a great diversity among each group of organisms.

Predator/Prey Populations and Relationships

Students may think...Instead of thinking...
Predator and prey populations are similar in size.Prey populations tend to be larger than predator populations.
The relative sizes of predator and prey populations have no bearing on the size of the other.The sizes of predator and prey populations influence each other.


Students may think...Instead of thinking...
Varying the population size of a species may not affect an ecosystem because some organisms are not important.All organisms are important within an ecosystem. Varying a species' population size may not affect all other species equally, but it will affect the ecosystem as a whole.
Ecosystems are not a functioning whole but simply a collection of organisms.Ecosystems include not just the organisms but also the interactions between organisms and between the organisms and their physical environment.
Ecosystems change little over time.Ecosystems change as a result of natural hazards, environmental changes, and human activity.
Species coexist in ecosystems because of their compatible needs and behaviors; they need to get along.Within an ecosystem, species compete for resources and feed on one another. Species live in the same ecosystem because of similar adaptations and environmental needs.

Ecological Adaptations

Students may think...Instead of thinking...
Traits are developed by individuals in response to the needs of the individual.Traits are developed across generations in response to environmental demands.

Read more at Common Misconceptions about Biomes and Ecosystems.

Earth and Space Science

The Water Cycle

The National Science Education Standards Science Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science (National Research Council, 1996) states that

A major goal of science in the middle grades is for students to develop an understanding of earth and the solar system as a set of closely coupled systems. The idea of systems provides a framework in which students can investigate the four major interacting components of the earth system – geosphere (crust, mantle, and core), hydrosphere (water), atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (the realm of all living things)….Students can investigate the water and rock cycles as introductory examples of geophysical and geochemical cycles.

Research indicates that misconceptions about the water cycle abound, and that these ideas are related to students’ understanding of conversation of matter, phase changes, clouds, and rain. Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993, 2009) cites research that documents some of these misconceptions:

Students' ideas about conservation of matter, phase changes, clouds, and rain are interrelated and contribute to understanding the water cycle. Students seem to transit a series of stages to understand evaporation. Before they understand that water is converted to an invisible form, they may initially believe that when water evaporates it ceases to exist, or that it changes location but remains a liquid, or that it is transformed into some other perceptible form (fog, steam, droplets, etc.) (Bar, 1989; Russell, Harlen, & Watt, 1989; Russell & Watt, 1990). With special instruction, some students in 5th grade can identify the air as the final location of evaporating water (Russell & Watt, 1990), but they must first accept air as a permanent substance (Bar, 1989). This appears to be a challenging concept for upper elementary students (Sere, 1985). Students can understand rainfall in terms of gravity in middle school but not the mechanism of condensation, which is not understood until early high school (Bar, 1989).

Read more about the research that underlies the Benchmarks for Science Literacy online.

Other misconceptions related to the water cycle might include the following:

Students may think...Instead of thinking...
The water cycle involves freezing and melting of water.The water cycle involves evaporation of liquid water, condensation of water vapor, and precipitation (rain, sleet, hail, or snow).
Water only gets evaporated from the ocean or lakes.Water can evaporate from plants, animals, puddles, and the ground in addition to bodies of water.
The water cycle only includes rain and snow.Ice in all its forms (sea ice, glaciers, ice sheets, icebergs, permafrost) is part of the global water cycle.

Read more at Common Misconceptions about States and Changes of Matter and the Water Cycle.

Interested in misconceptions about other science content? We ran a regular column on the subject in the online magazine Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears. You can use the magazine’s Browse by Column feature to view all the misconception articles.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is a useful tool for learning about student misconceptions, tailoring instruction to challenge them, and continually evaluating the effectiveness of your instruction in promoting conceptual change.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has launched a website (which requires free registration) with more than 600 multiple-choice test questions to help educators assess more precisely what students know about key ideas in science and, just as importantly, the incorrect ideas they have. The website presents detailed information on how a national sample of middle and high school students answered each question, along with an analysis of both their correct and incorrect responses to assess whether students truly understand the science concepts they are being taught. The site also features information on hundreds of misconceptions students have about everything from the size of atoms to whether all organisms have DNA. Knowing these misconceptions and how pervasive they are - which is not typically part of the analysis of test results from state testing or from leading national and international testing organizations - can help teachers improve instruction and better design their own test questions. In addition to the test questions themselves, the website includes data on student performance by gender, grade level, and whether or not English is the student's primary language.

Several resources from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) provide valuable information for teachers wishing to incorporate formative assessment into their science instruction.

Science Formative Assessments: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning by Page Keeley provides specific techniques that use assessment to inform instruction and learning in K-12 science classrooms.

Another useful set of resources from NSTA Press is the Uncovering Student Ideas in Science series. Each volume contains 25 formative assessment probes for use with students as well as research, suggestions for classroom use, and inquiry-based teaching ideas. To date, there are four volumes in the series:

Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volume 1: 25 Formative Assessment Probes by Page Keeley, Francis Eberle, and Lynn Farrin
Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volume 2: 25 More Formative Assessment Probes by Page Keeley, Francis Eberle, and Joyce Tugel
Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volume 3: Another 25 Formative Assessment Probes by Page Keeley, Francis Eberle, and Chad Dorsey
Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volume 4: 25 New Formative Assessment Probes by Page Keeley and Joyce Tugel

Finally, a new series, also from NSTA Press, follows the Uncovering Student Ideas in Science series but focuses on Physical Science.

Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science, Volume 1: 45 New Force and Motion Assessment Probes by Page Keeley and Rand Harrington

Targeting Misconceptions Through Instruction

How can teachers structure instruction to promote conceptual change among their students? One research-based strategy is to create cognitive conflict through situations in which students’ misconceptions are challenged. Discrepant events, in which the outcome is unexpected (and usually the opposite of what is expected), are one method for creating cognitive conflict. While discrepant events are usually conducted as teacher demonstrations, they can also involve students or even rely on videos or animations.

Discrepant event resources include the following:

The Motivational Power of Science Discrepant Events This page includes an overview of a teaching model and sample discrepant events.

Using Discrepant Events in Elementary Classrooms This article discusses using time-lapsed video clips of the Sun’s path as discrepant events with elementary students as part of a study of day and night or seasons.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related science-focused virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of science-related careers (click on the Science link at the bottom of the home page).


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Author and Copyright

Jessica Fries-Gaither is a Science Resource Specialist in the College of Education and Human Ecology, School of Teaching and Learning, at The Ohio State University. She is the Project Director for Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, a National Science Foundation-funded elementary science and literacy project. Jessica has taught middle school science and mathematics as well as the upper elementary grades.

Please email any comments to Connect with colleagues at our social network for middle school math and science teachers at

Copyright September 2010 — The Ohio State University. This page last updated April 11, 2011. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.