From things to processes: A theory of conceptual change for learning science concepts

Michelene T.H. Chi, James D. Slotta, Nicholas De Leeuw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

615 Scopus citations


Conceptual change occurs when a concept is reassigned from one category to another. The theory of conceptual change in this article explains why some kinds of conceptual change, or category shifts, are more difficult than others. The theory assumes that entities in the world belong to different ontological categories, such as MATTER (things) and PROCESSES. Many scientific concepts, for example light, belong in a subcategory of PROCESSES, which we call constraint-based interactions. However, students' initial conceptions of these concepts are categorized as MATTER. The ontological status of the initial and scientific conceptions determines the difficulty of learning. If the two conceptions are ontologically compatible (e.g., both are MATTER), conceptual change is easy. If the two conceptions are ontologically distinct, learning is difficult. Evidence for these two cases is presented from studies of learning about the human circulatory system and about key physics concepts, such as heat and light.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-43
Number of pages17
JournalLearning and Instruction
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1994
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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