Alternative conceptions

The term alternative conceptions refers to ideas that people have which are inconsistent with scientifically acceptable ideas. The term 'misconception' is also sometimes used. (Terms such as alternative conception and misconception are sometimes used synonymously, but some authors given them different meanings. Unfortunately within the literature there is a range of uses for these and other related terms (conceptual framework, intuitive theory etc).

The terms 'alternative conceptions' and 'alternative conceptual frameworks' derive from an approach to thinking about student learning known as 'personal constructivism'.

An example of a common alternative conception is the full shells explanatory principle where students explain chemical phenomena in terms of atoms striving to obtain full electron shells. This idea, whilst being inconsistent with scientific thinking, is commonly adopted by student and forms a core part of a alternative conceptual framework labelled as the octet rule framework that relates common student thinking about chemical stability, chemical bonding, and chemical reactions, as well as patterns in ionisation energies.

Examples of alternative conceptions:

Chemical bonding

Atoms within an element don’t need to be bonded because they’re all the same sort

Conservation of mass

Sophia Exploring A Thought Experiment On Plant Growth And Mass

Forces as interactions between bodies

Bert's Understanding Of The Reciprocal Nature Of Forces

The sharing-out of nuclear charge

For other examples of learners' thinking in science, see the pages for a wide range of science topics.

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Exploring Conceptual Learning, Integration and Progression in Science Education

Dr Keith S Taber

University of Cambridge Faculty of Education

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© Keith S Taber, 2012