A Concise Summary of Chemical Misconceptions

boiling and condensation of water demo

Last year I came across a report entitled Beyond Appearances: Students’ Misconceptions about Basic Chemical Ideas on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s website, and it has proven a wonderfully handy document to have around. The report is the work of Dr. Vanessa Kind of Durham University (formerly of The University of London) and briefly summarizes student misconceptions and possible pedagogical remedies in eleven different content areas. These content areas include:


  1. States of matter
  2. Particle theory
  3. Changes of state
  4. Distinguishing between elements
  5. Compounds and mixtures
  6. Physical and chemical change
  7. Open and closed system chemical events
  8. Acids, bases and neutralisation [sic]
  9. Stoichiometry
  10. Chemical bonding
  11. Thermodynamics and chemical equilibrium


Some of the misconceptions were not surprising to me, especially in the first few sections, but there is no doubt that some teachers, especially new teachers, may be unaware that these persist in the minds of students. These include naïve ideas such as matter is continuous, water boiling produces hydrogen and oxygen, and particles expand when heated. In fact, I think this article shines most in the first seven sections, and in the section on stoichiometry. A review of these sections would help any chemistry teacher get their students off on a good foot. Notably, most of the pedagogical interventions include a heavy emphasis on the particulate nature of matter.

The sections on acid-base chemistry provided some misconceptions I had never considered, especially one that shows that the “continuous nature of matter” misconceptions creep up here because students perceive acids as singular “things” that cause harm. Another surprise was the revelation that some students view a large equilibrium constant as indicative of a fast reaction. While I have witnessed the misconception that a negative Gibbs Free Energy value indicates a fast reaction, I have not seen a student make the jump to the equilibrium constant, but that does not mean they haven’t done it without voicing it in class. This is a reminder to me to emphasize that “favored” or “thermodynamically favored” do not equate to “fast”.

The document is easy to read and includes extensive references if you want to do further research. Additionally, it is open access, which is great for teachers who do not have access to journal subscriptions.

I highly recommend reading each section as you plan for that particular unit and make sure to address each of the misconceptions in your teaching. Even if I don’t use the exact activities recommended, it helps orient my mind to the struggles my students might face before we get there.

What misconceptions do you find most inhibit your students’ learning? Do any surprise you more than others? Happy Reading!

Publication information
Pick Attribution: 

Vanessa Kind, DPhil. School of Education Durham University, Durham DH1 1TA

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, October 4, 2017