Misconceptions in Mathematics

Post updated: January 2022

I must start this post with something Dan Meyer said at the MEI Conference 2021 that really struck a chord with me, he said “There are no mistakes or misconceptions, just takes and conceptions.” Dan Meyer mentioned WW Sayer who said:

Most remarks made by children consist of correct ideas very badly expressed. A good teacher will be very wary of saying ‘No, that’s wrong’. Rather he will try to discover the correct idea behind the inadequate expression. This is one of the most important principles in the whole art of teaching.

WW Sayer

classic mistakes 2
Nevil Hopley’s excellent Classic Mistakes site.

For a starter addressing common misconceptions try the excellent Classic Mistakes resources by Nigel Hopley.


A superb resource to use in class (or for students to use at home) to address misconceptions is of course Craig Barton’s and Simon Woodhead’s Diagnostic Questions site. The site has many thousands of questions with carefully designed multiple-choice responses to address common misconceptions.

The Insights feature is so helpful for learning about misconceptions, suppose we look at a White Rose Quiz on Algebraic Notation, for example, looking at the Insights we can see for any question the number of responses for each option from the many students who answered this question.


NCETM – resources for supporting KS3 Maths Topics

From NCETM, these videos and resources for teaching Key Stage 3 maths topics include common misconceptions and pitfalls; looking at Directed Numbers for example we find slides and a pdf support document including as illustrated here, “What things typically go wrong?”

Some years ago a website, counton.org which is now no longer available published a very useful document on misconceptions. In 22 sections, in each section misconceptions are given along with the correct version. Further explanations are also provided and also follow up exercises with answers.

The above pdf document includes all 22 sections. The first 8 of these documents, by Ilan Samson & David Burghes, are on the CIMT website.

Malcolm Swan’s excellent ‘Improving Learning in Mathematics‘, includes a section (5.3) on exposing errors and misconceptions. An activity suggested there is to let your students become examiners and mark the work of others, this works very well, I have highlighted some excellent resources for this on the ‘Spot the mistake!‘ page.

Andy Lutwyche

See for example from Andy Lutwyche, his excellent Erica’s Errors series for Spot the Mistake activities or, also, on TES, Andy’s Clumsy Clive series. Andy’s many Spot the Mistakes resources.

Many of the outstanding resources from the Standards Unit address common misconceptions; see PD2, learning from mistakes and misconceptions.

On the SERP website before see MathByExample and AlgebraByExample which is a set of Algebra 1 assignments that incorporate worked examples and prompt students to analyze and explain. These resources can provide prompts for discussing common misconceptions.

SERP – Algebra by Example

From this page you can access all the resources.

From Michael Pershan, see his Math Mistakes site, to quote the Author:

The purpose of this site is to collect, organize and make sense of the mistakes that students make while doing math. I’m also increasingly interested in using mistakes to help us create worked examples that students can learn from.

Michael Pershan


Steve Blades’ site www.m4ths.com has many excellent resources; on the GCSE page we see under ‘Miscellaneous Worksheets‘, several documents including 18 Common Misconceptions.

All the examination boards publish helpful material which addresses common misconceptions, such resources can promote very useful class discussion as can examiners’ reports.

From Cambridge University, see Common Errors in Mathematics.

One comment on “Misconceptions in Mathematics

  1. Pingback: Spot the mistake! | Mathematics, Learning and Technology

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