Investigation of Students' Difficulties in Understanding Fundamental Thermodynamic Concepts in Everyday Contexts

Project Number
OER 18/08 ZHE

Project Duration
April 2009 - September 2013


Over the last three decades, several studies have indicated the existence and resilience of students' various na�ve understandings about the physical world (Osborne & Freyberg, 1985). Reasons for the existence of these na�ve understandings have been proposed as well by researchers (Pfundt & Duit, 2004). Despite the diversity of na�ve understandings and theories, different researchers have repeatedly reported similar results and patterns across age groups (Bendall, Goldberg, & Galili, 1993; Kesidou & Duit, 1993; Meltzer, 2004). Previous studies of learners enrolled in a university physics bridging program indicated that students experienced difficulties in making connections between scientific concepts and their everyday life experiences (Chu, Treagust, & Chandrasegaran, 2008a). In addition, students could not apply scientific concepts in different contexts, even though the contexts were designed for such a purpose (Chu, Treagust, & Chandrasegaran, 2008b). It is important to elucidate what kinds of students' conceptual misunderstandings hinder them from applying the same scientific concepts in different everyday contexts. This approach is necessary in view of the growing emphasis on the relevance of contextualized science in elementary and secondary school levels. Therefore, this study proposes to investigate students' conceptual understanding of fundamental thermodynamic concepts in everyday contexts using open-ended questionnaires and interviews in the first phase of the study. The questionnaire will consist of multiple-choice items that require students to provide a reason for choosing the answer in each item. Also, interviews will be conducted with several students to probe deeper into their reasoning behind their answers in the questionnaire. Students' explanations for their choice of responses to the items will be used to develop a two-tier multiple-choice diagnostic instrument in the second phase of the study. Supporters of alternative approaches to assessment have recommended assessment items ''require an explanation or defence of the answer, given the method used'' (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, p.14), which is precisely the purpose of the second tier options in two-tier test items. This is also supported by Tamir (1971) who proposed the use of multiple-choice test items that included responses with known student alternative conceptions, and that also required students to justify their choice of options by giving a reason. Using the two-tier multiple-choice instrument as a formative assessment tool, teachers will be able to identify the conceptions held by students that are not in agreement with accepted scientific views. Relevant strategies may then be formulated that will challenge students' understandings in order to help them develop more scientifically acceptable conceptions (Treagust & Chandrasegaran, 2001).

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