Challenging the conceptual understanding of first year intake students

ARE students too rigid in their understanding of their subject matter when they join university and would an initial learning level assessment aid their learning journey? LITE Teaching Enhancement Project leader, Nimesh Mistry, writes here about some of the findings from his project and investigates further.

How many times in your life have you believed something to later find out it’s not quite true? Or to go through your education learning something at one level to discover later down the line, it’s actually more complicated when you move up to the next?

But how easy is it to change your old ways of thinking to understand something in a new way?

Different levels

In my LITE Teaching Enhancement Project I set out to investigate why students find certain concepts we teach difficult, and to develop methods to overcome them.

We looked into students’ conceptual understanding of chemistry here at the University of Leeds and at another Russell group institution.

What we discovered were that students had discrete levels of understanding based on what concepts they understood well and what they found difficult or had misconceptions of.

READ Nimesh’s final Teaching Enhancement Project leader’s report: A strategy to enhance conceptual understanding using active learning

Levels of understanding

To our surprise, the pattern between well-understood and difficult concepts/misconceptions was consistent no matter what the concepts were.

LITE Teaching Enhancement Project Leader: Dr Nimesh Mistry.

LITE Teaching Enhancement Project Leader: Nimesh Mistry.

The defining factor seemed to be whether students had been taught the concepts at school or at university.

Students who could correctly solve our diagnostic test problems could understand and apply concepts that are taught at school and university.

Students whose answers were partially correct, could correctly apply school-level concepts but failed to consider university-level concepts.

Students who were incorrect, wrongly used school-level concepts and failed to consider university-level concepts.

For both partially correct and incorrect students, engaging with university-level concepts would have given them the correct answer.

READ Dr Mistry’s first LITE blog: Can higher education learn from child’s play? 

Bespoke teaching

So why didn’t some students engage with the higher – university level – concepts?

We believe this was because they didn’t see the value in doing so.

They had grasped the simpler concepts so were happy to continue using them, which also lead to them failing to learn the higher-level concepts.

When thinking about how to improve the teaching of higher-level concepts, therefore, we need to consider the level of understanding students already possess and integrate it in our ways of teaching methods.

Test case

So how can we do this?

I’m going to use the concept of gravity to help me explain the approach we used.

If we want students to adopt a new way of conceptualising something we need to consider how we can get them to become dissatisfied with their old ways of thinking.

With the concept of gravity, it used to be accepted that heavy objects will fall to the ground quicker than lighter objects.

In the late 16th century Galileo disproved this by dropping two balls with different masses from the leaning tower of Pisa.

After seeing the two objects hit the ground at the same time people’s understanding changed to what we now understand about gravity.

In fact, this particular activity helps people to accept that gravity causes objects of different mass to accelerate to the ground at the same rate because it also dispels the misconception that one will fall faster than the other.


To help students understand some of the concepts we introduce in our first year undergraduate course, we designed problem-based workshops that first showed up the limitations of the school-level concepts students would be familiar with.

We then move onto problems that only an understanding of university-level concepts could solve.

This will help those students who previously wouldn’t have seen the value of the higher-level concepts appreciate their importance and therefore lead to improvements in their understanding.

We’ll be assessing if this approach has been successful later this year.

And we’ll be moving forward with the project based on our work, to see if this link between school/university concepts is mirrored in other disciplines.

Is there a general pattern, is it discipline-wide?

This will help with our core project aim to develop a model of teaching difficult concepts.

If you’d like to know more about my project you can find a link to the report here or contact me at