University students’ conceptions about familiar thermodynamic processes and the implications for instruction

Helen Georgiou, Manjula Sharma, John O’Byrne, Ian Sefton, Brian McInnes


A large proportion of research in science education is either centred on or influenced by studies concerning conceptual change - in particular, the topic of students’ misconceptions. This is justified by the observation that studies involving conceptual change or troublesome knowledge capture an aspect of science education that seems to be extremely significant for successful learning and vital for developments in instructional methods. This paper is an examination of conceptions about fundamental thermodynamic concepts held by university students. A ‘pre-test’ was developed and administered to 858 first year and 80 second year university students to probe conceptions and inform a subsequent study. Questions included both multiple choice and free response types. The results indicate that the first year students experienced varied and considerable difficulties with the thermodynamic concepts presented in the pre-test, particularly with respect to heat transfer and thermal equilibrium. It is significant to note that these particular concepts appear as part of formal instruction in science in NSW, and that they are embedded in familiar everyday situations. The results and analysis of this quiz are presented.

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