The quality of teachers has long been believed to be one of the key factors impacting student achievement. Several studies have indicated that better the subject knowledge of the teacher, the higher are the students’ learning gains. Another important factor that has been reported to be positively linked to student achievement is teachers’ qualifications. Qualified teachers are expected to possess: i) the required content knowledge to be able to impart understanding related to the subject-specific concepts ii) the required pedagogical content knowledge to be able to teach the subject in a holistic manner, ensuring that children learn with understanding.

While it is important for the teacher training courses to build the required skills related to content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge for the potential teachers/pre-service teachers, it is equally important for them to ensure that the in-service teachers undergo required trainings, at frequent intervals, to bridge any existing gaps and ensure that they succeed. It is the in-service teachers who can have a direct impact on the student performance.

Recent research that looked at student performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and teacher performance in the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) indicates that one of the aspects that impacts students’ performance is teachers’ professional development. It concluded that teachers who did not undergo any level of professional development activities in the previous twelve months negatively impacted students’ performance.

The quality of teachers and the need for high quality training has been a concern for a lot of schools. Traditionally ‘teacher trainings’ have been proposed as a generic solution to handle this concern. While schools may know that they need to build teachers’ capacity and expose them to good trainings, they may not know the exact areas where the teachers may need training. Moreover, if a teacher is going to spend a significant amount of time undergoing the training, it may be worthwhile to understand if the training is going to meet that teacher’s needs or not. One of the ways to identify such areas where teachers need support is through assessment of teachers’ needs. Ei’s Teacher Impact Programmes (TIPs) aims at identifying such needs through an assessment of teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge.

Based on the data collected from 1178 teachers across 151 schools over two-and-a-half years, we aimed to check the level of understanding and misconceptions of in-service science teachers on some of the fundamental science concepts that their students are expected to understand. These teachers attempted the science content knowledge paper for the grade range 3 to 6. The questions used in the assessment focused on measuring the teachers’ understanding of concepts included in the school’s curriculum. All questions – were multiple choice questions (MCQs) with four options. The distractors in the questions were carefully designed to capture any misconception that may be prevalent in that concept. The selection of questions was based on a predefined skill and topic blueprint, arrived at by analysing the curricular goals important for grades 3 to 10. The test used questions that were previously administered to students and served as a link to compare student and teacher performance and the extent of misconceptions.

On an average, teachers were able to answer only around 44% of the questions correctly. We observed that at the 90th percentile level, teachers were able to answer 95% of the questions correctly. However, the difference in performance of the 90th percentile level and the 75th percentile level was found to be wide with the performance dropping to 55% at the 75th percentile level.

Analysis of the incorrect answers selected by teachers revealed specific misconceptions that they possessed in different concepts. In 29 out of the 40 questions in the test, teachers were found to have misconceptions, with extent ranging from 20% to 80%. When classified by the severity of the misconceptions, in 30% of the questions, the extent of misconceptions was moderate (extent 20% to 30%), in 15% of the questions, it was high (extent 30% to 40%) and in 7.5% of the questions, it was very high (extent >40%). In 20% of the questions, multiple misconceptions were observed whose extent was either moderate or high.

Here are some examples of the misconceptions based on the extent of the misconception found. For each question, the extent of misconception is reported in terms of percentage of teachers selecting that particular incorrect option.

Question Displaying ‘Moderate’ Extent of Misconceptions

Misconception (M2): Water vapour does not have any weight.
Sample Question 1:

Which of the following statements can be said about BOTH water and water vapour?

A.    Only water has weight and occupies space.

B.     Both water and water vapour occupy space and have weight.

C.     Water occupies space but water vapour does not occupy any space.

D.    Both water and water vapour occupy space but only water has weight.

Figure: Teachers’ responses to Sample Question 1

M2: Misconception | CA: Correct Answer |

NA: Not Attempted

Sample question 1 shown above tests whether teachers understand that both water as well as water vapour have matter and so both will have weight and will occupy space. The correct answer, option B, was selected by 59.4% of the teachers. Option D was selected by 22.8% teachers. They seem to think that water vapour occupies space but cannot have weight. They don’t realise that water vapour is made of water, which is matter, and all matter has mass.

Question Displaying ‘High’ Extent of Misconceptions

Misconception (M4): Only surfaces that reflect light or only surfaces that absorb light are opaque.
Sample Question 2:
The figure here shows a ray of light interacting with three different surfaces.

Which surface(s) is/are LIKELY to be OPAQUE?

A. only surface 2
B. only surface 3
C. only surface 1 and surface 3
D. only surface 2 and surface 3

Figure: Teachers’ responses to Sample Question 2

M4: Misconception | CA: Correct Answer |

NA: Not Attempted

Sample question 2 shown above tests whether teachers can interpret the different interactions of light with surfaces and identify surfaces which are opaque. The correct answer, option D, was selected by 26.6% of the teachers.. Nearly 33% of the teachers selected the incorrect option B and 24.4% teachers selected the incorrect option A, resulting in 57.4% teachers displaying misconceptions related to the identification of opaque surfaces based on the reflection by the surface. The extent of the misconception related to option B, that ‘only surfaces that reflect light are opaque’ seems to be the most prevalent one amongst teachers. Teachers selecting option B seem to think that only surfaces that reflects light are opaque. They don’t seem to be considering surface 2, which is absorbing light, as opaque. Conversely, teachers selecting option A seem to think that only surfaces that absorb light are opaque. They don’t seem to be considering surface 3, which is reflecting light, as opaque.

Question Displaying ‘Very High’ Extent of Misconceptions

Misconception (M6): Metals will always be hotter than other materials when kept in a hot surrounding irrespective of the time for which they are kept.
Sample Question 3:
A metal spoon, a wooden spoon and a plastic spoon are placed in hot water for half a day. The water is maintained at the same temperature throughout.

At the end of the experiment, the objects are taken out and their temperature is measured immediately. Which of the following is likely to have the highest temperature?


A.    the metal spoon

B.     the plastic spoon

C.     the wooden spoon

D.    (All the three spoons will have almost the same temperature.)

Figure: Teachers’ responses to Sample Question 3

M6: Misconception | CA: Correct Answer |

NA: Not Attempted

Sample question 3 shown above tests whether teachers understand the concept of heat transfer. Heat transfer occurs between objects, and between objects and their surroundings till they achieve a thermal equilibrium. Objects kept in contact for a sufficiently long time achieve equilibrium. In the given case, all the three spoons will exchange heat with the hot water and eventually achieve the same temperature as the surrounding water and in effect will have the same temperature. So when their temperature is measured, it will be the same. The correct answer, option D, was selected by 6.7% teachers. 80% of the teachers selected the incorrect option A. They may have thought that metals being good conductors would transfer heat faster, but may not have realised that half a day is perhaps long enough for all the spoons to come to the same temperature as the surrounding water.

When compared to the performance of students who had attempted the same questions, the extent of the misconceptions was found to be comparable to that found in students and in a few cases even more than that demonstrated in students. Misconceptions ranged from very fundamental ones like ‘Seeds need sunlight and soil for growth in addition to air, water and suitable temperature’ and ‘Water vapour does not have any weight’ to advanced ones like ‘Proteins are made of cells, which in turn are made of atoms’. The misconception where the extent was found to be the highest was ‘Metals will always be hotter than other materials when kept in a hot surrounding irrespective of the time for which they are kept’. 80% of the teachers and 86.4% of the grade 4 students were found to possess this misconception. It demonstrates the lack of understanding related to the concept of heat and heat transfer.

The findings from the study raise questions around the specific content knowledge of in-service teachers and the need to have formal ways to get actionable feedback to the teachers and school managements. In India, while there are state and central eligibility tests that screen teachers for their ability to teach in schools, they are primarily used as a screening test for pre-service teachers. Private schools in India are not mandated to follow the teacher recruitment guidelines as prescribed for the government schools and so many teachers that join the teaching force may not have even appeared or qualified for the teacher eligibility tests. This is further aggravated by the fact that there are no checks once the teacher has started the teaching career. In the absence of any diagnosis of teachers’ subject knowledge, there is a risk that teachers are unable to impart quality education to their students and end up passing on their own misconceptions/alternate conceptions to students.

India’s National Education Policy 2020, approved by the Union Cabinet of India, outlines the vision of India’s new education system. The policy aims to ensure that students at all levels of school education are taught by passionate, motivated, highly qualified, professionally trained, and well-equipped teachers. One of the steps that could help in achieving this goal would be such large-scale studies used to establish benchmarks of performance of in-service as well as pre-service teachers across private and government schools. Such studies may further provide insights into the teacher training institutes and their curriculum setters regarding specific gaps and concern areas that the teacher education courses could focus on. If used as a post-training assessment, it can also provide inputs around the effectiveness of the training itself.

Nishchal Shukla

Nishchal Shukla

AVP, Pedagogical Research at Educational Initiatives
Nishchal Shukla leads the Pedagogical Research division at Educational Initiatives (EI). Pedagogical Research team goes deeper into understanding how students think and how they learn different concepts, and different subjects. Nishchal also oversees the project to create a Comprehensive Assessment System for the US market.
Nishchal Shukla