Research indicates that students at all levels, from preschool through college, enter instruction with various commonsense but incorrect interpretations of scientific and engineering concepts and skills (e.g., Chinn and Brewer, 1993), such as the well- known misconception1 that the change in seasons is caused by changes in Earth’s distance from the sun, rather than the tilt of Earth’s axis (Schneps and Sadler, 1987). Some of these ideas are more firmly rooted than others, and thus are more resistant to change (Vosniadou, 2008a).

This chapter focuses on what is known about college students’ conceptual understanding of science and engineering. To place discipline-based education research (DBER) in context, the chapter begins with a brief consideration of the broader knowledge base on students’ conceptual understanding, including different theoretical perspectives. The chapter then summarizes DBER on conceptual understanding and on instructional practices to promote conceptual change and concludes with a summary of the key findings and directions for future research.

In this and subsequent chapters, the committee uses expert-novice differences and understandings as a framework for conceptualizing DBER findings. However, we recognize that expertise lies on a continuum, and we were guided by a relevant maxim from cognitive science that it takes 10 years for someone to acquire expertise in a domain (e.g., Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer, 1993). Students are not expected to become experts within a single class, or even across the four years of their undergraduate education. They are, however, expected to progress along the path of increasing expertise. Thus, our frame of reference for this discussion is focused on helping students move toward the more expert end of the continuum.


Understanding what students know about science is the focus of considerable inquiry in cognitive science, educational psychology, and K-12 science education research (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2005; National Research Council, 1999, 2007). A key principle emerging from this research is that:


1In this report, we use the term “misconceptions” to mean understandings or explanations that differ from what is known to be scientifically correct. We recognize that other research refers to these explanations as “alternate conceptions,” “prior understandings,” or “preconceptions,” and that the different terms can reflect different perspectives. When we use the term “misconceptions,” we are following the convention of most DBER on this topic.

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