What Do Students Know?

February 12, 2010
This chart plots the mean score of students (blue dots) and their teachers (black triangles) to sets of questions in the science categories labeled, and grouped by Grade. 1.00 means all correct answers, and 0.00 means all wrong answers. Red circles are the teachers estimate of how their students would do - they are uniformly too optimistic. A score of .8 was defined as signaling "proficiency" - no student groups were found to be proficient in any subject; in a few cases even teachers were not proficient. Credit: P. Sadler, et al, 2010

Black holes, frozen worlds, the "big bang," supernovae -- when it comes to telling strange and compelling stories, astronomy and space science educators can draw upon these and other denizens of a celestial zoo more outlandish than the animals in any earthly zoo. There is more to astronomy, however, than incredible objects and extreme theories. The underlying concepts on which astronomy is based are the traditional elements of physics, chemistry, and earth science. Interest in astronomy can thus provide the motivation for learning these fundamentals.

The National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of have for years been working to determine what know about science and how they learn it, and to find better ways to teach them. States have adopted their guidelines and standards to establish their own science education goals. Astronomy education is an important part of the overall picture.

Students have many disturbing misconceptions about the universe, and a team of researchers at SAO have been studying what they are and quantifying their effects. Phil Sadler, Harold Coyle, Jaime Miller, Nancy Cook-Smith, Mary Dussault, and Roy Gould have just published their findings and recommendations in the Astronomical Review. They analyzed hundreds of different K-12 tests, multiple choice and otherwise, that were administered to both students and their teachers.

The SAO group has long been expert in the study of popular misconceptions that are hard to shake, and that color a person's basic understanding of the underlying science; thinking that the earth experiences summer when it is closer to the sun is one example.

Here are some other common and disturbing misconceptions reported by the team: for , that telescopes are put into space to get closer to astronomical objects, that the universe is getting hotter, and that astronauts have traveled beyond the moon; for grades 5-8, that there is no gravity in space, that the sun is not a star, and that other stars are closer to us than is Pluto.

There are lots of other examples; occasionally some teachers share the misconceptions. The SAO group has over the years authored textbooks and other tools that are particularly attentive to explaining and preventing science misconceptions.

The SAO researchers studied how these apparently seductive misconceptions could distract students away from choosing the correct answer in multiple-choice tests. They argue that such "distractors" should be included in evaluation tests but note that most often are not, and therefore that results from tests designed to measure student understanding are misleading, and that evaluation of the pedagogy is therefore inadequate. The team also found that teachers across the board overestimate their students' understanding of basic ideas, in part because of emphasizing detailed memorization over basic conceptual understanding as probed by misconceptions.

One result of their work, besides a new appreciation of the importance of identifying and addressing misconceptions, is a set of new assessment tools for K-12 astronomy and space science that can be used to determine the strengths and weaknesses of students, and help schools plan for teachers' professional development.

Explore further: Study: Some students confused by genetics

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Feb 12, 2010
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5 / 5 (2) Feb 12, 2010
It's disturbing how even the teachers didn't know some of these answers. Who got "There are different objects in the sky" wrong? Do they only go outside during the day? Also I wonder what the "correct" answer was for the Big Bang theory question.
not rated yet Feb 12, 2010
What makes that graph frustrating is that they don't tell you what questions were asked or whether there were certain questions that had high incorrect rates (i.e., may make the question invalid). Perhaps the test was 100% valid but I find it highly probably that a bunch of "smarter than the rest of the world" Harvard students probably used misleading verbage, causing students to fail due to symantics rather than flawed understanding
not rated yet Feb 12, 2010
Hey I wanted to know more details about this. I browsed around the journal and here's a link:
http://bit.ly/ckUmd0 I am working on reading it now.
not rated yet Feb 12, 2010
as a follow-up: in the pdf of the paper, after page 10 include various charts and information over what was tested. there were 26 questions for "different objects in the sky" and only 1 for "stars in galaxies"
1 / 5 (2) Feb 12, 2010
Regarding stars with "fixed positions" the answer is NO they don't have fixed positions.

All stars move relative to all other stars, even "reference stars" move, they just move more slowly. So this question is more than likely a trick question, or else gives a "negative" result no matter what the student answers.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 13, 2010
Knowledge should be based on the understanding, not so much on the memory, or you know nothing, you just think you do. For memorizing we have books and machines.
I think the problem is, teachers don't understand things either, or at least not enough to be able to explain them in simple words.
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 13, 2010
Many people lack the ability to simplify knowledge as to explain it to someone who is not as knowledgeable.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 13, 2010
A few of the questions seem ambiguous to me. "light takes time to travel"?
Well, for us: yes (i.e. if we observe a photon)

For the photon concerned: no (i.e. from the point of view of the photon no time passes between being
emitted and hitting something)

"Stars are fixed relative to each other?"
From our point of view (and for short time spans) they seem to be so (that's why we call them fix-stars). Again this is ambiguously worded. Do they mean from our POV? Or do they mean whether stars really move relative to each other.

"Solar system objects move predictably"
Again ambiguous. For short periods of time we can do good predictions. For times greater than Lyapunov time (10-20 million years) we can't (see wikipedia entry on pluto).

"Gravity is the key force in the solar system"
Hello? Without the electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear forces there wouldn't even BE a solar system. Gravity is the _weakest_ of all forces so it is the least important.
2 / 5 (4) Feb 13, 2010
Not to brag, I've just asked my 7 year old the questions in the article, other than the gravity question (he thought gravity is only on planets) he got every other one correct.
3 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2010
Gravity is the _weakest_ of all forces so it is the least important.
Don't confuse the kids here. Gravity is the most interesting force if you don't confine yourself to the standard models. And on astronomical scale it isn't weak at all.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2010
Well, you see - that's my point: The wording of the questions is badly chosen. What does "key force" mean? Does it mean: "The force without which planets wouldn't be moving like they do?"

Then the answer can't be gravity. In that case it should be "all the four forces". Take any of them away and see what happens (and whether you would call that "key" or not).

As Carl Sagan said: "If you want to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe."

The thing is: while the students' answers are probably closer to what was intended the teachers' answers could very well be 'wrong' because the teachers were more intelligent than the people making up the questions.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2010
anitalias, I think you are confusing what your teachers made you memorize as opposed to what they should have made you learn and didn't.

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