Respiration as Breathing

Misconception: Respiration is breathing
In biology the word respiration is commonly associated with breathing. Physiologically this would be correct but on a biochemical level the concept of respiration cannot be defined as simply breathing. Respiration on a cellular level requires more than a physiological gas exchange. This can be a particularly challenging idea to convey to junior high and high school students alike

How is this misconception developed?
I recently taught photosynthesis and respiration to a group of sixty five 8th grade students at a local junior high school in northern Utah. A pretest was given the first day to assess their knowledge on respiration. The question was asked: In your own words define respiration. 20 of the 65 students wrote “breathing” with no other explanation. For the rest of the week we explored respiration and photosynthesis in more detail then on the last day of the week the students were to retake the same pretest from the beginning of the week and discover how much they had learned. The same question was asked: In your own words define respiration. 11 of the 65 students wrote “breathing” again with no further explanation. I asked a few why they had defined respiration as just breathing and they said that’s just what respiration was or respiration was another word for breathing. This misconception of respiration meaning breathing stems from a deep rooted idea that the term respiration has one meaning and one meaning only. These students were unable to part with their original concept of respiration even after receiving instruction about cellular respiration. This misconception could also come from the fact we as scientists and educators use the word respiration on a biochemical level as well as a physiological level which can be confusing to people who do not look at science on a physiological and biochemical level.

The correct explanation
Respiration is the process by which cells obtain glucose and oxygen then release carbon dioxide, water and energy as products. More simply stated, particularly in 8th grade science, cellular respiration is the process by which cells in our body obtain energy from glucose.