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15. The Research Base

  1. The Role of Research
  2. The Nature of the Research Literature
  3. Research Findings By Chapter and Section
    1. The Nature of Science
    2. The Nature of Mathematics
    3. The Nature of Technology
    4. The Physical Setting
    5. The Living Environment
    6. The Human Organism
    7. Human Society
    8. The Designed World
    9. The Mathematical World
    10. Historical Perspectives
    11. Common Themes
    12. Habits of Mind
  4. References

The references that follow are organized to match chapters and sections of Benchmarks, which in turn mostly match those of Science for All Americans. The list is very selective and includes only those references that met two criteria. One was relevance—some excellent papers were not included because they did not bear on one of the Benchmarks topics. The other criterion was quality—papers, however relevant, were bypassed if they were seen to have design flaws or their evidence or argument was weak. Even then, however, not all relevant and good papers are included. In many cases, a single paper has been used as representative of a number of similar reports.

It will immediately be clear that mathematics and the physical sciences have had the benefit of many more studies than have other fields. Perhaps that is because the subject matter lends itself to research more easily; in the next few years, though, perhaps the attention to cognitive research will increase in all fields.

Research Findings for Chapter 4: The Physical Setting

There is more research on student conceptions about The Physical Setting than in any other area. The Pfundt and Duit (1991) bibliography reveals that more than 70% of the published papers about students' conceptions in science were concerned with topics related to The Physical Setting benchmarks. Much research has focused on topics related to The Earth, Structure of Matter, Energy Transformations, and Motion. Topics related to The Universe and Forces of Nature have also received attention, but for the Processes That Shape the Earth, there is little research. Even in the frequently researched areas, relatively few studies report on long-term teaching interventions that try to improve students' ideas about the physical setting. The available literature on students' understanding of topics related to The Physical Setting has been reviewed in Driver, Guesne, & Tiberghien (1985). Conference proceedings on these topics include Driver & Millar (1985); Duit, Goldberg, & Niedderer (1992); Jung, Pfundt, & Rhoeneck (1981); Lijnse (1985); and Lijnse et al., (1990).

Research available on student understanding about The Universe focuses on their conceptions of the sun as a star and as the center of our planetary system. The ideas "the sun is a star" and "the earth orbits the sun" appear counter-intuitive to elementary-school students (Baxter, 1989; Vosniadou & Brewer, 1992)and are not likely to be believed or even understood in those grades (Vosniadou, 1991). Whether it is possible for elementary students to understand these concepts even with good teaching needs further investigation.

Shape of the earth

Student ideas about the shape of the earth are closely related to their ideas about gravity and the direction of "down" (Nussbaum, 1985a; Vosniadou, 1991). Students cannot accept that gravity is center-directed if they do not know the earth is spherical. Nor can they believe in a spherical earth without some knowledge of gravity to account for why people on the "bottom" do not fall off. Students are likely to say many things that sound right even though their ideas may be very far off base. For example, they may say that the earth is spherical, but believe that people live on a flat place on top or inside of it—or believe that the round earth is "up there" like other planets, while people live down here (Sneider & Pulos, 1983; Vosniadou, 1991). Research suggests teaching the concepts of spherical earth, space, and gravity in close connection to each other (Vosniadou, 1991). Some research indicates that students can understand basic concepts of the shape of the earth and gravity by 5th grade if the students' ideas are directly discussed and corrected in the classroom (Nussbaum, 1985a).

Explanations of astronomical phenomena

Explanations of the day-night cycle, the phases of the moon, and the seasons are very challenging for students. To understand these phenomena, students should first master the idea of a spherical earth, itself a challenging task (Vosniadou, 1991). Similarly, students must understand the concept of "light reflection" and how the moon gets its light from the sun before they can understand the phases of the moon. Finally, students may not be able to understand explanations of any of these phenomena before they reasonably understand the relative size, motion, and distance of the sun, moon, and the earth (Sadler, 1987; Vosniadou, 1991).

Water cycle

Students' ideas about conservation of matter, phase changes, clouds, and rain are interrelated and contribute to understanding the water cycle. Students seem to transit a series of stages to understand evaporation. Before they understand that water is converted to an invisible form, they may initially believe that when water evaporates it ceases to exist, or that it changes location but remains a liquid, or that it is transformed into some other perceptible form (fog, steam, droplets, etc.) (Bar, 1989; Russell, Harlen, & Watt, 1989; Russell & Watt, 1990). With special instruction, some students in 5th grade can identify the air as the final location of evaporating water (Russel & Watt, 1990), but they must first accept air as a permanent substance (Bar, 1989). This appears to be a challenging concept for upper elementary students (Sere, 1985). Students can understand rainfall in terms of gravity in middle school but not the mechanism of condensation, which is not understood until early high school (Bar, 1989).

Students of all ages may hold the view that the world was always as it is now, or that any changes that have occurred must have been sudden and comprehensive (Freyberg, 1985). The students in these studies did not, however, have any formal instruction on the topics investigated. Moreover, middle-school students taught by traditional means are not able to construct coherent explanations about the causes of volcanoes and earthquakes (Duschl, Smith, Kesidou, Gitomer, & Schauble, 1992).

Nature of matter

Elementary and middle-school students may think everything that exists is matter, including heat, light, and electricity (Stavy, 1991; Lee et al., 1993). Alternatively, they may believe that matter does not include liquids and gases or that they are weightless materials (Stavy, 1991; Mas, Perez, & Harris, 1987). With specially designed instruction, some middle-school students can learn the scientific notion of matter (Lee et al., 1993).

Middle-school and high-school students are deeply committed to a theory of continuous matter (Nussbaum, 1985b). Although some students may think that substances can be divided up into small particles, they do not recognize the particles as building blocks, but as formed of basically continuous substances under certain conditions (Pfundt, 1981).

Students at the end of elementary school and beginning of middle school may be at different points in their conceptualization of a "theory" of matter (Carey, 1991; Smith et al., 1985; Smith, Snir, & Grosslight, 1987). Although some 3rd graders may start seeing weight as a fundamental property of all matter, many students in 6th and 7th grade still appear to think of weight simply as "felt weight"—something whose weight they can't feel is considered to have no weight at all. Accordingly, some students believe that if one keeps dividing a piece of styrofoam, one would soon obtain a piece that weighed nothing (Carey, 1991).

Conservation of matter

Students cannot understand conservation of matter and weight if they do not understand what matter is, or accept weight as an intrinsic property of matter, or distinguish between weight and density (Lee et al., 1993; Stavy, 1990). By 5th grade, many students can understand qualitatively that matter is conserved in transforming from solid to liquid. They also start to understand that matter is quantitatively conserved in transforming from solid to liquid and qualitatively in transforming from solid or liquid to gas—if the gas is visible (Stavy, 1990). For chemical reactions, especially those that evolve or absorb gas, weight conservation is more difficult for students to grasp (Stavy, 1990).


Students of all ages show a wide range of beliefs about the nature and behavior of particles. They lack an appreciation of the very small size of particles; attribute macroscopic properties to particles; believe there must be something in the space between particles; have difficulty in appreciating the intrinsic motion of particles in solids, liquids and gases; and have problems in conceptualizing forces between particles (Children's Learning in Science, 1987). Despite these difficulties, there is some evidence that carefully designed instruction carried out over a long period of time may help middle-school students develop correct ideas about particles (Lee et al., 1993).

Chemical changes

Middle- and high-school student thinking about chemical change tends to be dominated by the obvious features of the change (Driver, 1985). For example, some students think that when something is burned in a closed container, it will weigh more because they see the smoke that was produced. Further, many students do not view chemical changes as interactions. They do not understand that substances can be formed by the recombination of atoms in the original substances. Rather, they see chemical change as the result of a separate change in the original substance, or changes, each one separate, in several original substances. For example, some students see the smoke formed when wood burns as having been driven out of the wood by the flame (Andersson, 1990).

A clear picture has emerged of students' misunderstanding of the nature and behavior of matter. There is still a need, however, for detailed research on effective teaching strategies to correct this, especially to identify ways of leading students from a macroscopic to a microscopic understanding of matter. Although some likely precursors to a microscopic view have been suggested—for example, the notion of invisibly small constituents of substances (Millar, 1990)—they have not been formally evaluated.

Heat and temperature

Even after some years of physics instruction, students do not distinguish well between heat and temperature when they explain thermal phenomena (Kesidou & Duit, 1993; Tiberghien, 1983; Wiser, 1988). Their belief that temperature is the measure of heat is particularly resistant to change. Long-term teaching interventions are required for upper middle-school students to start differentiating between heat and temperature (Linn & Songer, 1991).

Heat transfer

Middle-school students do not always explain the process of heating and cooling in terms of heat being transferred (Tiberghien, 1983; Tomasini & Balandi, 1987). Some students think that "cold" is being transferred from a colder to a warmer object, others that both "heat" and "cold" are transferred at the same time. Middle- and high-school students do not always explain heat-exchange phenomena as interactions. For example, students often think objects cool down or release heat spontaneously—that is, without being in contact with a cooler object (Kesidou, 1990; Wiser, 1986). Even after instruction, students don't always give up their naive notion that some substances (for example, flour, sugar, or air) cannot heat up (Tiberghien, 1985) or that metals get hot quickly because "they attract heat," "suck heat in," or "hold heat well" (Erickson, 1985). Middle-school students believe different materials in the same surroundings have different temperatures if they feel different (for example, metal feels colder than wood). As a result, they do not recognize the universal tendency to temperature equalization (Tomasini & Balandi, 1987). Few middle- and high-school students understand the molecular basis of heat transfer even after instruction (Wiser, 1986; Kesidou & Duit, 1993). Although specially designed instruction appears to give students a better understanding about heat transfer than traditional instruction, some difficulties often remain (Tiberghien, 1985; Lewis, 1991).

Energy conceptualization

Students' meanings for "energy" both before and after traditional instruction are considerably different from its scientific meaning (Solomon, 1983). In particular, students believe energy is associated only with humans or movement, is a fuel-like quantity which is used up, or is something that makes things happen and is expended in the process. Students rarely think energy is measurable and quantifiable (Solomon, 1985; Watts, 1983a). Although students typically hold these meanings for energy at all ages, upper elementary-school students tend to associate energy only with living things, in particular with growing, fitness, exercise, and food (Black & Solomon, 1983).

Energy forms and energy transformation

Middle- and high-school students tend to think that energy transformations involve only one form of energy at a time (Brook & Wells, 1988). Although they develop some skill in identifying different forms of energy, in most cases their descriptions of energy change focus only on forms that have perceivable effects (Brook & Driver, 1986). The transformation of motion to heat seems to be difficult for students to accept, especially in cases with no obvious temperature increase (Brook & Driver, 1986; Kesidou & Duit, 1993). Finally, it may not be clear to students that some forms of energy, such as light, sound, and chemical energy, can be used to make things happen (Carr & Kirkwood, 1988).

Energy conservation

The idea of energy conservation seems counter-intuitive to middle- and high-school students who hold on to the everyday use of the term energy, but teaching heat-dissipation ideas at the same time as energy-conservation ideas may help alleviate this difficulty (Solomon, 1983). Even after instruction, however, students do not seem to appreciate that energy conservation is a useful way to explain phenomena (Brook & Driver, 1984). Middle- and high-school students tend to use their intuitive conceptualizations of energy to interpret energy conservation ideas (Brook & Driver, 1986; Kesidou & Duit, 1993; Solomon, 1985). For example, some students interpret the idea that "energy is not created or destroyed" to mean that energy is stored up in the system and can even be released again in its original form (Solomon, 1985). Although teaching approaches that accommodate students' difficulties about energy appear to be more successful than traditional science instruction, the main deficiencies outlined above remain despite these approaches (Brook & Driver, 1986; Brook & Wells, 1988).


The majority of elementary students and some middle-school students who have not received any systematic instruction about light tend to identify light with its source (e.g., light is in the bulb) or its effects (e.g., patch of light). They do not have a notion of light as something that travels from one place to another. As a result, these students have difficulties explaining the direction and formation of shadows, and the reflection of light by objects. For example, some students simply note the similarity of shape between the object and the shadow or say that the object hides the light. Middle-school students often accept that mirrors reflect light but, at least in some situations, reject the idea that ordinary objects reflect light (Guesne, 1985; Ramadas & Driver, 1989). Many elementary- and middle-school students do not believe that their eyes receive light when they look at an object. Students' conceptions of vision vary from the notion that light fills space ("the room is full of light") and the eye "sees" without anything linking it to the object to the idea that light illuminates surfaces that we can see by the action of our eyes on them (Guesne, 1985). The conception that the eye sees without anything linking it to the object persists after traditional instruction in optics (Guesne, 1985); however, some 5th-graders can understand seeing as "detecting" reflected light after specially designed instruction (Anderson & Smith, 1983).

The concept of force

Students hold various meanings for the word "force." Typically, students think force is something that makes things happen or creates change. Their descriptions of force often include related words such as energy, momentum, pressure, power, and strength. Younger students associate the word "force" with living things (Watts, 1983b).

Students tend to think of force as a property of an object ("an object has force," or "force is within an object") rather than as a relation between objects (Dykstra, Boyle, & Monarch, 1992; Jung et al., 1981; Osborne, 1985). In addition, students tend to distinguish between active objects and objects that support or block or otherwise act passively. Students tend to call the active actions "force" but do not consider passive actions as "forces" (Gunstone & Watts, 1985). Teaching students to integrate the concept of passive support into the broader concept of force is a challenging task even at the high-school level (Minstrell, 1989).

Newton's laws of motion

Students believe constant speed needs some cause to sustain it. In addition, students believe that the amount of motion is proportional to the amount of force; that if a body is not moving, there is no force acting on it; and that if a body is moving there is a force acting on it in the direction of the motion (Gunstone & Watts, 1985). Students also believe that objects resist acceleration from the state of rest because of friction—that is, they confound inertia with friction (Jung et al., 1981; Brown & Clement, 1992). Students tend to hold onto these ideas even after instruction in high-school or college physics (McDermott, 1983). Specially designed instruction does help high-school students change their ideas (Brown & Clement, 1992; Minstrell, 1989; Dykstra et al., 1992).

Research has shown less success in changing middle-school students' ideas about force and motion (Champagne, Gunstone & Klopfer, 1985). Nevertheless, some research indicates that middle-school students can start understanding the effect of constant forces to speed up, slow down, or change the direction of motion of an object. This research also suggests it is possible to change middle-school students' belief that a force always acts in the direction of motion (White & Horwitz, 1987; White, 1990).

Students have difficulty appreciating that all interactions involve equal forces acting in opposite directions on the separate, interacting bodies. Instead they believe that "active" objects (like hands) can exert forces whereas "passive" objects (like tables) cannot (Gunstone & Watts, 1985). Alternatively, students may believe that the object with more of some obvious property will exert a greater force (Minstrell, 1992). Teaching high-school students to seek consistent explanations for the "at rest" condition of an object can lead them to appreciate that both "active" and "passive" objects exert forces (Minstrell, 1982). Showing them that apparently rigid or supporting objects actually deform might also help (Clement, 1987).

The earth's gravity and gravitational forces in general form the bulk of research related to Forces of Nature. Elementary-school students typically do not understand gravity as a force. They see the phenomenon of a falling body as "natural" with no need for further explanation or they ascribe to it an internal effort of the object that is falling (Ogborn, 1985). If students do view weight as a force, they usually think it is the air that exerts this force (Ruggiero et al., 1985). Misconceptions about the causes of gravity persist after traditional high-school physics instruction (Brown & Clement, 1992) but can be overcome by specially designed instruction (Brown & Clement, 1992; Minstrell et al., 1992).

Students of all ages may hold misconceptions about the magnitude of the earth's gravitational force. Even after a physics course, many high-school students believe that gravity increases with height above the earth's surface (Gunstone & White, 1981) or are not sure whether the force of gravity would be greater on a lead ball than on a wooden ball of the same size (Brown & Clement, 1992). High-school students have also difficulty in conceptualizing gravitational forces as interactions. In particular, they have difficulty in understanding that the magnitudes of the gravitational forces that two objects of different mass exert on each other are equal. These difficulties persist even after specially designed instruction (Brown & Clement, 1992).

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