Barriers to learning for 'How science works'

Use these lists to address pupils' common misconceptions and confusions when teaching this science strand. These can be built into your scheme of work and addressed throughout the learning journey.

Common misconceptions

Pupils often think that:

  • science is a body of facts and that scientific proof is absolute (therefore it is important to help pupils recognise the uncertainty of science)
  • a fair test is about 'keeping everything the same' (therefore they fail to identify the independent variable)
  • taking repeat readings will create a fair test because they see this as 'keeping everything the same'
  • all graph scales have to begin at zero and all graph lines have to pass through the origin.

Common confusions

Pupils are often confused:

  • when planning an investigation, so they pick random quantities for the variables without understanding if these are sensible amounts (therefore, they need to have the opportunity to carry out trial runs)
  • by which variables to change or measure that will answer their question (e.g. when investigating 'Does the type of stomach powder affect how quickly the acid is neutralised?', pupils might change the type of stomach powder but then measure how much acid is needed to dissolve it)
  • by safety and don't take investigations seriously, thinking that science teachers wouldn't use anything that was really dangerous! (if in doubt, consult CLEAPSS to see which practical activities are banned)
  • by reliability, accuracy and validity (they are mistakenly used as interchangeable terms)
  • between the scientific and everyday use of the word 'models' – they may not have the correct language to talk about and explore their thinking in relation to models
  • by models that contain different kinds of information (e.g. orbit of the Earth showing the seasons) – if the weaknesses of the model are not made explicit, misconceptions can persist despite challenging them.

Ways to overcome learning barriers

Pupils can overcome misconceptions and confusions if they are given opportunities to:

  • use science to develop the discussion skills they use in other subjects
  • distinguish between evidence and opinion, and to see how this can be used to bias an argument
  • consider how their own frameworks (or set of ideas) fit or relate to the 'scientifically accepted' framework (it's important to recognise that pupils may hold and use different frameworks in different contexts)
  • experience a range of writing genres in science so that they develop their ideas and understanding of science, i.e. they don't end up thinking that 'Aim, Method, Results, Conclusion' approach is the only 'scientific way' of writing up an investigation
  • use planning frames to support their writing (which can be gradually withdrawn when they can write more independently).