5a. Conceptual Change

Joan Davis
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia

Introduction to Conceptual Change

Imagine the following scenario:Heather, a very bright ninth grader, is asked to explain the mechanisms causing the seasons and the phases of the moon. She has received no formal instruction on these topics in her ninth grade earth science class although these topics were covered in science lessons from earlier grades. In her explanations, Heather demonstrated some misconceptions. For example, she believes that the earth orbits the sun in a bizarre curlicue pattern and that the seasons are caused by the proximity of the earth to the sun at different points along the orbit.

Figure 1. Graphic representation of Heather’s misconception regarding the 4 seasons. It shows a “curlicue” path around the sun. Read more about her misconception below.

She explains that when the earth is closest to the sun at point X, it is winter in the northern hemisphere because the light rays from the sun hitting the earth are “indirect.” Heather says that when the earth is at point Y, it is summer because the light rays hitting the northern hemisphere are “direct.” She goes on to explain that direct rays are those that originate from the sun and travel in a straight line to the earth, and that indirect rays are rays that “bounce off” somewhere in space before reaching earth. To explain the phases of the moon, Heather explains that the shadow of the earth on the moon is the cause (Mestre, 1994).

The preceding scenario summarizes events documented in the educational video A Private Universe (Pyramid Film & Video, 1988). Heather’s explanation of the seasons includes a mixture of correct and incorrect ideas. Her notion of direct and indirect light does explain, in part, why there are seasons, but her belief that the earth travels in a curlicue orbit is incorrect. Like Heather, all students enter classrooms with a wealth of knowledge about their physical, biological, and social worlds. They construct their own ideas about how the world works and explain scientific phenomena in terms of these ideas. These kinds of notions are referred to as naive beliefs, misconceptions, alternative conceptions; such preconceptions seldom match the scientific explanations that are taught in science courses.

To continue with Heather’s story…

In her earth science class, Heather receives formal instruction explaining the causes of both the seasons and the phases of the moon. Two weeks after instruction begins, Heather is asked the same questions in another interview.

Instruction has helped Heather overcome several of her misconceptions. For example, Heather has revised her theory about the curlicue path of the earth around the sun. She now explains that the earth follows a nearly circular path around the sun. Furthermore, instruction has also changed Heather’s belief that the seasons are caused by the proximity of the earth to the sun; she now knows that the earth is approximately the same distance from the sun throughout the year. She illustrates by drawing a diagram that the seasons are caused by the tilt in the earth’s axis, which causes direct and indirect light to fall on the northern and southern hemispheres of the earth.

However, when asked to explain what she means by “direct” and “indirect” light, Heather resorts to her previous beliefs. She says that indirect light is light that bounces off points in space–similar to light reflecting off a mirror– before hitting the earth. Even a strong hint from the interviewer and a display of diagrams illustrating the differences between direct and indirect sunlight does not change Heather’s mind; she incorporates the hints into her erroneous conception by saying that the indirect light from the sun, which also causes winter in the northern hemisphere, is light that bounces off some other point on the earth before reaching the northern hemisphere (Mestre, 1994).

After formal instruction, Heather has overcome some of her misconceptions. She no longer believes that the earth travels in a curlicue path around the sun. However, even with direct instruction, Heather still holds onto some of her misconceptions. She still believes that light bounces off points somewhere in space before hitting the earth. Heather seems to be relying on her earth-based observation of light bouncing off a mirror to explain the astronomically-based phenomenon of seasons. In the past, Heather’s prior knowledge of the reflection of light may have facilitated learning certain concepts in physical science. In this case, however, the same prior knowledge interferes with learning.

Misconceptions are not prevalent only among school-age children. Even after several years of science instruction, adults maintain incorrect ideas about scientific phenomena. In A Private Universe, recent Harvard graduates (including some physics majors) and their professors were also asked to explain the seasons and the phases of the moon. Surprisingly, most displayed the same naive theories as Heather.

Conceptual Change: Definition

Heather’s story illustrates a learning process called conceptual change. Conceptual change is generally defined as learning that changes an existing conception (i.e., belief, idea, or way of thinking). In the preceding scenario, Heather experiences conceptual change in her understanding of the cause of seasons. Although her conception does not come completely into line with the scientific explanation, there is a major shift in her understanding of seasons. This shift or restructuring of existing knowledge and beliefs is what distinguishes conceptual change from other types of learning. Learning for conceptual change is not merely accumulating new facts or learning a new skill. In conceptual change, an existing conception is fundamentally changed or even replaced, and becomes the conceptual framework that students use to solve problems, explain phenomena, and function in their world.

Conceptual Change in Education

Figure 2. Changing conceptions related to teaching. Instead of the “Sage on the Stage,” teachers become the “Guide on the Side” in the Constructivist approach. 

Teaching for conceptual change primarily involves 1) uncovering students’ preconceptions about a particular topic or phenomenon and 2) using various techniques to help students change their conceptual framework. The vast majority of research on conceptual change instruction has been confined to science education, while research in other subject areas has been scarce. However, outside of school, students develop strong (mis)conceptions about a wide range of concepts related to non-scientific domains, such as how the government works, principles of economics, the utility of mathematics, the reasons for the Civil Rights movement, the nature of the writing process, and the purpose of the electoral college. Conceptual change instruction can help students overcome misconceptions and learn difficult concepts in all subject areas.

Conceptual change is not only relevant to teaching in the content areas, but it is also applicable to the professional development of teachers and administrators. For example, as constructivist approaches to teaching gain popularity, the role of the teacher changes. Teachers must learn different instructional strategies, but they must also reconceptualize or change their conception about the meaning of teaching. This change implies conceiving of teaching as facilitating, rather than managing learning and changing roles from the “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side.”
Likewise, a shift has occurred for school media specialists (formerly known as librarians). Their role in the school has changed from being “keeper of the books” to “collaborative planner,” working in partnership with teachers, school administrators, and the community (Tallman & Tastad, 1998).

Figure 3. Changing conceptions of the role of media specialists. Instead of being the “Keeper of the Books,” media specialists are now the “Collaborative Planner” in the Constructivist approach.

Conceptual Change in Business & Industry

Conceptual change is of particular relevance in business and professional communities. Companies often restructure, changing their business strategies and processes to remain competitive and responsive to the needs of their customers. The advancement of technology has also initiated a trend in the restructuring of industrialization. Lansky states that technological innovation, globalization, and industrial relocation are leaving only two general types of paid work in advanced industrialized countries: technical jobs, which center on problem-solving, and interpersonal jobs, which require a “human touch” (p. 213).

Lansky (2000) observes that the contemporary work force can be divided into three categories. The first is “highly skilled and highly paid technicians [and] providers of interpersonal services”. The second group consists of “lower paid technicians and lower paid providers of interpersonal services”. The third group comprises workers “without the education, skills or connections needed to become technicians or interpersonal workers” (Lansky, 2000). Due to this trend toward “upskilling,” the first and second groups benefit from the changes in industry; the third group faces the possibility of unemployment.

Conceptual change is not limited to the company level; it can also occur at the level of an entire industry. Hospitals are now known as “medical centers.” Those who receive care in such facilities are now termed “clients” rather than “patients.” Banks have been replaced by “financial centers.” Employees of organizations are now considered “associates.” Companies are beginning to view themselves as “learning organizations” instead of “corporations.” These are not simply changes in terminology; the changes signify conceptual change.

Restructuring in companies or entire industries often requires employees to re-conceptualize their roles and responsibilities and change the way they perform their jobs. Teaching new job skills and new procedures to employees is relatively easy to accomplish; bringing about a conceptual change in how these workers view their organizational roles is a far more difficult undertaking. One such example is the shift in scope of practice for health psychologists. The role of these practitioners has shifted away from that of “peripheral case consultants” who simply provide psychological interventions to “primary care case managers,” who actively manage the care of their clients (James & Folen, 1999). In reflecting on training health psychologists as primary care case managers, James and Folen emphasize “that the most arduous task in bringing about this shift was neither the training nor the demanding workload. Rather, it was bringing about a conceptual shift in traditionally trained psychology interns, whose training resists going beyond traditional psychological interventions” (p. 352).

Theoretical Origins: Initial Theory of Conceptual Change

In the early 1980’s, a group of science education researchers and science philosophers at Cornell University developed a theory of conceptual change (Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982). This theory is based on Piaget’s notions of disequilibration and accommodation as well as Thomas Kuhn’s description of scientific revolution (Kuhn, 1970). According to Kuhn, scientific revolutions have followed a consistent pattern. First, a dominant scientific paradigm–a basic way of perceiving, thinking, valuing, and doing (Harmon, 1970)–fell into a “state of crisis” by failing to provide solutions or explanations to deal with significant problems identified by the scientific community. Second, an alternative paradigm with the potential to solve these problems had to be available. The existence of these two conditions increased the probability of a “paradigm shift,”or universal adoption of a new framework for thinking.

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Caption: In the animation: 1) The question is posed: why are there seasons? 2) The child answers: Earth orbits in a curlicue pattern, so the difference in distance of the earth to the sun causes the seasons. 3) The MKO replies (Conceptual Conflict) that Earth in fact travels in a circular orbit; it is the tilt of the earth’s axis that causes the seasons. 4) The child questions the intelligibility of the alternative conception (that the tilt of the earth’s axis causes the seasons). 5) The MKO explains that because of the tilt, some parts of the earth will experience indirect sunlight (winter), while the areas experiencing direct sunlight will have summer. 6) After reflection, the child realizes that the alternative conception is plausible and accepts it. 7) The summary if the northern hemisphere is experiencing summer, then the southern hemisphere is experiencing the opposite season-winter. This Flash animation was designed and developed by Alissa Huelsman-Bell, Matt Lisle, Kathy Sanchez, Khang Sing, Miranda Storey, Lisa Strozier, and Chun-Min Wang.

A Revisionist Theory of Conceptual Change: A Holistic View

Researchers have found that learners’ preconceptions can be extremely resilient and resistant to change, as demonstrated in Heather’s story from the A Private Universe. A major criticism of the original conceptual change theory is that it presents an overly rational approach to student learning–an approach that emphasizes and assumes logical and rational thinking (Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle, 1993). Pintrich et al. refer to this approach as “cold conceptual change,” because it ignores the affective (e.g., motivation, values, interests) and social components of learning. In particular, the notion of conceptual ecology was criticized because it focuses solely on the learner’s cognition and not on the learner as a whole. Furthermore, it does not consider other participants (i.e., the teacher and other students) in the learning environment and how these participants influence the learner’s conceptual ecology, thus influencing conceptual change. Strike and Posner (1992) also recognized similar deficiencies in their original conceptual change theory and suggested that affective and social issues affect conceptual change.

Social constructivist and cognitive apprenticeship perspectives have also influenced conceptual change theory (Hewson, Beeth, & Thorley, 1998). These views on learning encourage discussion among students and instructor as a means of promoting conceptual change. Thus, conceptual change is no longer viewed as being influenced solely by cognitive factors. Affective, social, and contextual factors also contribute to conceptual change. All of these factors must be considered in teaching or designing learning environments that foster conceptual change (Duit, 1999).

Teaching for Conceptual Change

As mentioned above, learner preconceptions are resistant to change. Because learners have relied on these existing notions to understand and function in their world, they may not easily discard their ideas and adopt a new way of thinking. Thus, simply presenting a new concept or telling the learners that their views are inaccurate will not result in conceptual change. Teaching for conceptual change requires a constructivist approach in which learners take an active role in reorganizing their knowledge. Cognitive conflict strategies, derived from a Piagetian constructivist view of learning, are effective tools in teaching for conceptual change (Duit, 1999). These strategies involve creating situations where learners’ existing conceptions about particular phenomena or topics are made explicit and then directly challenged in order to create a state of cognitive conflict or disequilibrium. Cognitive conflict strategies are aligned with Posner et al.’s theory of conceptual change in that their common goal is to create the four conditions necessary for conceptual change. That is, learners must become dissatisfied with their current conceptions and accept an alternative notion as intelligible, plausible, and fruitful.

Conceptual Change Instructional Model

Cognitive conflict has been used as the basis for developing a number of models and strategies for teaching for conceptual change. Among these are the Generative Learning Model (Cosgrove & Osborne, 1985), the Ideational Confrontation Model (Champagne, Gunstone, & Klopfer, 1985), and an instructional strategy using anomalous data (Chinn & Brewer, 1993). Although these models suggest different methods and techniques, they share a structure similar to the conceptual change teaching strategy proposed by Nussbaum and Novick (1982):

  1. Reveal student preconceptions
  2. Discuss and evaluate preconceptions
  3. Create conceptual conflict with those preconceptions
  4. Encourage and guide conceptual restructuring

Reveal Student Preconceptions

A basic assumption in teaching for conceptual change is “the key constructivist idea that construction of new conceptions (learning) is possible only on the basis of already existing conceptions” (Duit, 1999, p. 275). Even though existing knowledge (be it correct or incorrect) allows us to make our way through the world, we are not necessarily conscious of it. Thus, the first and most significant step in teaching for conceptual change is to make students aware of their own ideas about the topic or phenomenon under study.

Present the Exposing Event

To elicit students conceptions, instruction begins with an exposing event. The exposing event is any situation that requires students to use their existing conceptions to interpret that event. Exposing events may be of two types: a situation for which outcome is not known or one in which the outcome is known (Chinn & Brewer, 1993). In the “unknown” case, the teacher asks students to predict the outcome and explain the basis for their prediction. In the “known” case, students make no predictions; however, they must provide an explanation of the event. Heather’s teacher used a “known” exposing event to reveal student preconceptions. She simply asked the students, “What causes the seasons of the Earth?” However, the teacher could have employed an “unknown” exposing event by presenting a physical model of the solar system with the earth positioned at some specific point relative to the sun. She then would ask the student to predict which season(s) the northern and southern hemispheres would be experiencing at the time.

Ask Students to Describe or Represent Their Conceptions

Students can represent their ideas in many ways. They can write descriptions, draw illustrations, create physical models, draw concept maps, design web pages, or create any combination of these to evidence their understanding of a particular concept. If computers and the appropriate software are available, students can develop presentations (using PowerPoint or other software), create models or simulations, or construct concept maps. Regardless of the method, the goal of this step is to help students recognize and begin to clarify their own ideas and understandings. Once students’ conceptions are made explicit, teachers can use them as the basis for further instruction.

Figure 4. Heather chose to draw a picture that explains the seasons.

Discuss and Evaluate Preconceptions

The goal of this step is to have students clarify and revise their original conceptions through group and whole-class discussions. If this is the teacher’s first conceptual change learning activity, it is wise to begin with the latter; such discussions allow the teacher to model the evaluation process before students evaluate each other’s ideas in smaller groups. To begin, the teacher asks various students to describe their representations (conceptions). After all conceptions are presented, the teacher leads the class in evaluating each for its intelligibility, plausibility, and fruitfulness in explaining the exposing event. Nussbaum and Novick (1982) suggest that the teacher accept all representations and refrain from value judgments. The teacher should also refer to the representations by student name, e.g., “who thinks Heather’s drawing is right?”

After the whole-class discussion, students with differing conceptions work in pairs or groups to evaluate each other’s ideas. Each group selects one conception (or a different conception modified through evaluation), provides a rationale for the selection, and presents that rationale to the whole class. Student motivation can be increased by allowing the students to vote for the conception that they think best explains the exposing event.

In the whole-class discussion in A Private Universe, Heather learns that her curlicue orbit theory was incorrect. Most students represent the earth’s path around the sun as circular because that is how it appears on the solar system model the teacher was holding.

Heather works with Roger and Susan in the group discussion in the video. Unlike the other representations, Roger’s depicts the earth’s path around the sun as oval in shape. He says that the oval path explains the seasons: “When the earth is really close to the sun, it’s hot. When it’s far away, it’s cold. If it’s a circle, then the temperature is always the same, ’cause the earth is the same distance from the sun.” Susan adds, “If it’s oval, it’ll be hot twice a year and cold twice a year!”

Create Conceptual Conflict

As students become aware of their own conceptions through presentation to others and by evaluation of those of their peers, students become dissatisfied with their own ideas; conceptual conflict begins to build. By recognizing the inadequacy of their conceptions, students become more open to changing them.

To create greater conflict, the teacher creates a discrepant event. The discrepant event is a phenomenon or situation that cannot be explained by the students’ current conceptions but can be explained by the concept that is the topic of instruction. At this point, if no student has offered the “correct” conception, then the teacher may suggest it as one given by a student in a previous class. If the teacher does not know the range of student (mis)conceptions about a topic or phenomenon before the conceptual change activities begin, it may not be possible to plan a discrepant event in advance. In such cases, the teacher should ask the students to suggest a test or method to determine which of the students’ (and possibly “planted”) conceptions best explains the “exposing event.” If the subject is science, the students may suggest some type of experiment. The teacher could also create a discrepant event by presenting anomalous data evidence that contradicts the students’ current conceptions (Chinn & Brewer, 1993).

Encourage Cognitive Accommodation

Students should be given time to reflect on and reconcile differences between their conceptions and the target theory. The teacher should incorporate reflective activities into lessons to promote cognitive accommodation or restructuring of the student preconceptions.

Learning Environment

A cooperative learning environment is necessary for successful conceptual change instruction. There must be opportunities for discussion; students must feel safe in sharing their viewpoints as they consider and evaluate other perspectives (Bruning, Schraw, & Ronning, 1999; Scott, Asoko, & Driver, 1991). The “safety factor” is especially important when the teaching employs the cognitive conflict strategy presented above. One research study (Dreyfus, A., Jungwirth, E., & Eliovitch, R., 1990) found that low achieving students experienced a loss of self-confidence, viewing the conflict as another failure.

For successful implementation of the conceptual change instructional strategy, the teacher and students should have some experience with constructivist learning and cooperative learning groups. Students who are accustomed to a transmission style of teaching (i.e., direct instruction) may be less motivated to participate in discussion-based activities (Scott, Asoko, & Driver, 1991). The teacher must be adept in managing class groups and able to assume a facilitative role.

Conclusion: Implications for Teaching and Learning

Challenges and Benefits

Teaching for conceptual change is not an easy process; it is more time-consuming than traditional, rote teaching methods. It requires a supportive classroom environment in which students feel confident in expressing and discussing their ideas. Conceptual change instruction also requires that the teacher possess well-developed facilitation skills and a thorough understanding of the topic or phenomenon in question.

Conceptual change learning results in better conceptual understanding by the students. Consistent evaluation and clarification of conceptions helps students develop metaconceptual awareness; that is, they come to understand how they develop their beliefs (Vosniadou, 1994).

Although a specific instructional approach has been presented here, other constructivist teaching approaches may also promote conceptual change learning. The unique features of conceptual change instruction are that

  1. students make their conceptions explicit so that they become aware of their own ideas and thinking, and
  2. that students are constantly engaged in evaluating and revising their conceptions.

The goal of teaching for conceptual change is for students to adopt more fruitful conceptions while discarding the misconceptions they bring to the learning environment. Students are more likely to rid themselves of conceptions that they have evaluated than those that they have not examined at all.

Resources on the Web

This section lists several types of computer tools and Web-based instructional materials that can be used in teaching for conceptual change.

Teaching For Conceptual Change in History

The web site Constructing History: How Historians See the Light illustrates the application of conceptual change to the domain of history (most of the other examples are limited to science topics). This site has two views. One is for the students to learn about history following a conceptual change model. The other is for the teacher to learn how to implement the conceptual change lesson. Click the lesson title to view it.

Concept Mapping Tools

These tools are used to create concept maps. A concept map is a diagram consisting of boxes or graphics that represent concepts and labeled lines that represent relationships between the concepts. Students can create concept maps to present their conceptions about a particular topic at the beginning and throughout the instructional sequence. Concept maps allow students (and the instructor) to see how their conceptions change over time.

Two recommended concept mapping tools are Inspiration and IHMC Concept Mapping Software or C-Map. Concept maps created in C-Map can be shared across a network. C-Map is a free download, and Inspiration can be downloaded for a free 30-day trial. Sample concept maps and background information about concept mapping are available at the C-Map web site.


Simulations can be used to present exposing or discrepant events to individual learners or in a group setting.

MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching), located at http://www.merlot.org, contains simulations for the domains of business, physics, genetics, and medical education among others. Most of the simulations are designed for adult learners, but a few are targeted for K-12 education.

Interactive Physics and Geometer’s Sketchpad are two popular simulation-construction tools.

WISE (Web-based Integrated Science Environment, located at http://wise.berkeley.edu) is a free Web-based learning environment where students examine real-world evidence and analyze current scientific controversies. The curriculum projects are designed to meet standards for grades 5-12. Students can take notes, discuss theories, and organize their arguments using the Web browser. Teachers may explore new projects and grade students’ work on the Web.


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Champagne, A. B., Gunstone, R. F., & Klopfer, L. E. (1985). Effecting changes in cognitive structures among physics students. In L. West & A. Pines (Eds.), Cognitive Structure and Conceptual Change (pp. 163-188). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Chinn, C. A., & Brewer, W. F. (1993). The role of anomalous data in knowledge acquisition: A theoretical framework and implications for science instruction. Review of Educational Research, 63(1), 1-49.

Cosgrove, M., & Osborne, R. (1985). Lesson frameworks for changing children’s ideas. In R. Osborne & F. P. Freyberg (Eds.), Learning in Science: The Implications of Children’s Science (pp. 101-111). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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Mestre, J. P. (1994). Cognitive aspects of learning and teaching science. In S. J. Fitzsimmons & L. C. Kerpelman (Eds.), Teacher Enhancement for Elementary and Secondary Science and Mathematics: Status, Issues, and Problems (pp. 3-1 – 3-53). Washington, DC: National Science Foundation (NSF 94-80).

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Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., & Boyle, R. A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 6, 167-199.

Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66, 211-227.

Pyramid Film & Video. (1988). A private universe. An insightful lesson on how we learn [Film]. Santa Monica, CA.

Scott, P., Asoko, H., & Driver, R. (1992). Teaching for conceptual change: A review of strategies. In R. Duit, F. Goldberg & H. Niedderer (Eds.), Research in Physics Learning: Theoretical Issues and Empirical Studies (pp. 310-329). Kiel, Germany: Institute for Science Education at the University of Kiel.

Stepans, Joseph, Targeting student¹s science misconceptions: Physical science concepts using the conceptual change model (2009). Riverview, FL: Idea Factory.

Strike, K. A., & Posner, G. J. (1992). A revisionist theory of conceptual change. In R. Duschl & R. Hamilton (Eds.), Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Psychology, and Educational Theory and Practice (pp. 147-176). Albany, NY:SUNY.

Tallman, J., & Tastad, S. (1998). Library power: Vehicle for change. Knowledge Quest, 26(2), 17-23.


APA Citation: Davis, J. (2001). Conceptual Change. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from  http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/