A comparative cross-cultural study of the prevalence and nature of misconceptions in physics amongst English and Chinese undergraduate students

Ian Abrahams, Matthew Homer, Rachael Sharpe, Mengyuan Zhou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Despite the large body of literature regarding student misconceptions, there has been relatively little cross-cultural research to directly compare the prevalence of common scientific misconceptions amongst students from different cultural backgrounds. Whilst previous research does suggest the international nature of many misconceptions, there is little evidence as to whether the prevalence of such common misconceptions varies from culture to culture. Purpose: To undertake a preliminary examination of the prevalence and reasons for some previously studied scientific misconceptions amongst English and Chinese undergraduate students so as to ascertain whether there is any evidence of cultural difference. Such a finding could help to identify teaching approaches in either country that are more effective in reducing the prevalence of common student misconceptions. Sample: The study involved a convenience sample of 40 undergraduate students – 20 English and 20 Chinese drawn equally from two universities in the North of England – whose formal science education ended at ages 16 and 15 respectively. Design and methods: The study employed semi-structured interview schedule containing eight questions. Results: Whilst similar misconceptions existed amongst both English and Chinese undergraduates, their prevalence was significantly higher amongst the English students (Overall mean score for scientifically correct answers amongst Chinese students was 27.7% higher, p<.01, r = .64). Often when English and Chinese undergraduates had similar misconceptions, they tended to explain these by drawing upon very similar erroneous analogies and these appear to be only nominally culturally independent in that they are based on globally shared everyday experiences. Conclusion: Differences in the prevalence of misconceptions amongst English and Chinese undergraduates appear to arise from differences in the way in which specific areas of physics are taught in both countries. It might be possible to reduce the prevalence of misconceptions in both countries if a better understanding could be developed of how, and why, undergraduates use certain erroneous analogies, and why some teaching approaches seem more effective in reducing the prevalence of misconceptions than others.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111-130
Number of pages19
JournalResearch in Science & Technological Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jan 2015


  • misconceptions
  • cross-cultural
  • undergraduates
  • physics

Cite this