Earlier this year I had a college project to do concerning what people understand about some basic astronomy concepts. This was a fun project that produced what I thought were startling results. Feel free to leave your comments on how I did and what you think of the project results. My final evaluation by the teacher was great!
Students were assigned a Science Concepts Task. The instructions were to survey approximately 10 people concerning basic science concepts, analyze the information gathered from the survey and then interpret the results in a report with graphs.
Students were to choose one of two science questions to conduct a survey about. I chose to use both questions during my surveys with the objective of then doing a report about one of the questions that resulted in the most interesting results. Students were instructed to ask the question(s) and record the results without assisting the interview subject in any way. The questions were:
What makes the seasons?
What makes the phases of the moon?
When I asked these questions, though, I found that the subjects’ answers tended to be very simple and vague. I was afraid of influencing their answers by probing with questions of mine. So, to further refine the subjects’ answers, I used five multiple-choice questions found on the “A Private Universe Project” website (http://www.learner.org/teacherslab/pup/). These questions directly related to the two main questions and helped the subjects express their understanding in more detail.
When I approached each subject, I first made sure we had uninterrupted time to conduct the survey. I then briefly introduced the reason for the survey: This is a school project of mine about understanding science concepts. I explained that there would be two open questions and five multiple-choice questions, all about two aspects of basic astronomy. Once the subject understood, I then posed the two open questions one at a time. I made sure the subject understood each question when asked and then had the subject answer without any further prompting from me. I wrote down the answers as they were verbally given to me.
Without discussing the answers, I then gave the subject a packet of papers containing the five multiple-choice questions. I had the subject take his/her time reading each question and giving me each answer that I then recorded.
Two bar graphs are provided (at the end of this post) to help articulate the results of the multiple-choice part of the survey. Graph #1 shows how many times each of the five questions was answered correctly. Graph #2 shows how many questions each subject answered correctly.
Rather than present from just one of the main concepts covered–seasons or moon phases–I chose to present both so as to provide an abundance of material to discuss and draw conclusions from.
First, the concept question about the cause of the seasons showed that subjects understood at least part of this concept. All 10 subjects correctly started off with an explanation of the Earth’s tilt on its axis. However, every subject then said that the next factor influencing seasons was a change in distance from the Earth to the sun or from the hemispheres to the sun. The fully correct answer is that the Earth’s tilt leads to one hemisphere receiving direct sunlight whereas the other hemisphere only gets indirect sunlight. (Correction: a reader pointed out to me that I was using incorrect terminology. Indirect sunlight would be like the light we get from the moon. More accurately, I should have said that one hemisphere gets light striking it almost perpendicularly and for a longer time. The concentrated heat for longer times makes for summer months. The other hemisphere gets light at an angle for a shorter time during the day, leading to colder months. Thanks for setting me straight!) On a basic concept level, distance from the sun has no relevance.
The results of the multiple-choice questions that relate to seasons show that only two people modified their stance by choosing the corresponding correct answer on question two: “Which of the following responses most closely explains why it is hotter in New York in June than it is in December?” The eight other subjects reinforced their initial answer by choosing multiple-choice answers that talked about distance in some way.
The concept question about the phases of the moon presented startling results. Nine out of 10 subjects gave wrong explanations, but all nine gave the exact same wrong answer: the Earth’s shadow falls on the moon, causing the phases. The correct explanation is that we are seeing the different views of the moon’s sunlit side from Earth.
The results of the multiple-choice questions that relate to the moon show that only two people chose the corresponding correct answer on question four: “What causes the moon to change its appearance?” One subject had known the correct answer from the start of his survey, and another subject had modified his stance upon reading this question. It can further be seen that incorrect answers to multiple-choice question five demonstrate how subjects can believe that the Earth’s shadow plays a significant roll in the moon phases. If the subjects think that the Earth’s shadow creates the moon phases, then it stands to reason that the two bodies are rather close together. Unfortunately, that is incorrect.
After their surveys, many of the subjects rationalized a poor performance by saying that this is the kind of knowledge that the average person doesn’t use in a lifetime. As such, the information learned in school is easily forgotten over the years. It should be noted that all subjects were adults over the age of 25.
I believe the subjects were approaching this in the wrong way. I can understand not remembering the date of the start of the U.S. Civil War as that is a rote memory fact that can be forgotten once a test is over due to not needing the information ever again. However, the concepts covered in this survey are not necessarily facts to be learned, but rather ideas to be understood.
I know that my son and his friend, both 12 years old, can intuitively figure out how to play a new shoot-‘em-up computer game without reading the instruction booklet because they understand the basic concepts of how most computer games are set up. They rely on past hands-on experience and simple logic, which leads to understanding the concepts common to most of their computer games. There isn’t really any rote memorization needed.
Science instruction in schools could benefit from emphasizing the difference between memorization and understanding. There are many facts to be memorized in science classes, but first students need to be introduced to concepts through observation and hands-on experimentation. Such instruction can then, hopefully, serve as a foundation of understanding onto which the facts can later be added.
Highlighting understanding versus memorization can also address a problem posed by the “A Private Universe Project” website. Students’ minds are not blank slates when they enter the classroom. They already have some idea as to how things in the world work, even if those ideas are grossly off the mark. Teachers need to work with students to discover their possible misconceptions, and then from there work on rebuilding a framework for understanding the correct concepts.
It’s important for a science teacher to realize that students entering the classroom already have formed ideas about various science subjects. So, the teacher should take some time to discover what those ideas are. This will enable the teacher to tailor instruction to directly address any initial misconceptions.
Also, teachers should try to engage students’ imaginations and natural sense of wonder and discovery. Two of my subjects did well on the survey primarily because they had a fascination with science from an early age. The correct astronomy concepts had stuck because they were predisposed to wanting to learn about the subject.
I got some firsthand experience in correcting misconceptions. After each subject completed the survey, I explained the correct answers. I was able to address their misconceptions in a one-on-one setting using drawings and simple models. It was interesting to see that every subject was able to understand the explanation and accept it as something that “makes sense.” No one resisted the correct concept or doubted what I was explaining.