Approach – Alternative Conceptions

Summary of Approach

Pupils can have preconceptions or misunderstandings about computing science concepts.  They may have developed these elsewhere or may have missed or misinterpreted a teaching point in class. These may not be mistakes but instead are alternative conceptions.

Pupils may bring prior knowledge from other curricular areas and apply them to how they think a computer will work (for example applying their understanding of BODMAS from Maths to how they think a programming language will perform calculations). It’s not wrong exactly, but sometimes doesn’t work in the field of computing.

This alternative conceptions approach challenges pupils current ways of thinking and refocuses them to how understand how the notional machine underneath would complete tasks.


  • Why don’t we just say misconceptions?  That’s the word that most teachers use to talk about students not understanding something.  What we need to be careful using this approach is that we do not label our students understanding as permanently wrong.
  • The use of the word alternative implies that there are many different conceptions, all equally valid.  In many ways, that is right, because so much is new and the students are struggling to find their feet.
  • The student has done the best they can to make all the computing stuff meaningful – often relying on their prior knowledge, something that humans do all over the place – but sometimes this prior knowledge is misleading and doesn’t apply in this situation.


  • Not all mistakes are caused by alternative conceptions. Learners should be able to justify why they chose that answer. If it was just a random guess then a lack of relevant knowledge is the cause not an alternative conception. Several question have wrong answers that point to the same alternative conception so you need to look at the overall results quite carefully.
  • Even with diagnostic questions it’s difficult to say for certain whether someone definitely has a particular alternative conception or not.
  • Conceptual change is difficult so an alternative conception may be difficult to shake once it’s firmly established.
  • Each question will only really give information about how learners understand one concept.

PLAN C Techniques

There are collections of possible alternative conceptions for structured and modular programming as well as relational databases.

Creating good quality Peer Instruction questions relies on whether a teacher has a deep enough awareness of what the most likely alternative conceptions are.

The use of various TRACS techniques can help to prevent alternative conceptions from forming in the first place. Tracing with a greater level of annotation appears to be a way to develop learners understanding of the notional machine.

Reasons for Recommendation

  • Allows opportunity to clarify any incorrect understanding of key concepts
  • Very often we have seen pupils get frustrated when something they think should work does not.  This approach will give the learners the skills they need to identify their own misconceptions.
  • Allows teachers the opportunity to assess pupil knowledge.
  • Allows teachers to easily identify Alternate Conceptions.

Teacher Experiences of Benefits

“For many years, a lot of teachers have made incorrect assumptions of their pupils knowledge base, for example that the pupils understood the correct difference between Verification and Validation.  Using this approach, in conjunction with peer instruction questions, really helped pupils to fully understand key concepts and enabled me to better assess the pupils understanding.

“I have used this approach when giving feedback on homework where I have identified a lot of my pupils have either answered incorrectly or chosen not to answer. This led to using peer instruction questions to give them a fuller understanding of areas they struggled with.”

C Henderson- Computing Teacher, Arbroath Academy

“My awareness of why a pupil holds an incorrect view of a concept has significantly improved. When they make the same mistake again and again I know what to check for to see if they have an alternative conception. I can now effectively target additional exercises or small group tutorials  to help them. When I introduce a difficult concept I’m careful with the analogies I use and I can assess whether they’ve fully understood it.”

P W Donaldson- Principal Teacher, Crieff High School

Alternative conceptions are really useful when writing code questions or peer instruction questions. It means questions can be challenging and expose the real issues with understanding. It also helps when producing questions – when I am coming up with reasons for each possible answer, it justifies the choice of answers I have written and makes sure that there is rich discussion with pupils about each answer.

P Liddle, Principal Teacher, Bearsden Academy.

Research References

Sadler P, Sonnert G, Coyle H, Cook-Smith N, Miller J. (2013) The influence of teachers’ knowledge on student learning in middle school physical science classrooms. Am Educ Res J 2013;50:1020-1049.

CS Specific Identifying student misconceptions of programming Teemu Sirkiä , Juha Sorva (2012), Exploring programming misconceptions: an analysis of student mistakes in visual program simulation exercises, Proceedings of the 12th Koli Calling International Conference on Computing Education Research, p.19-28, November 15-18, 2012, Koli, Finland

Clancy, M. (2004). Misconceptions and attitudes that interfere with learning to program. Computer science education research, 85-100.

Soloway, E. (1986). Learning to program= learning to construct mechanisms and explanations. Communications of the ACM, 29(9), 850-858. Pea, R. D. (1986). Language-independent conceptual” bugs” in novice programming. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 2(1), 25-36. Jeffrey Bonar , Elliot Soloway (1985), Preprogramming knowledge: a major source of misconceptions in novice programmers, Human-Computer Interaction, v.1 n.2, p.133-161, June 1985


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