Conceptual change in introductory-level astronomy courses

September 2, 2014, 1:51:16


Zeilik, M., Bisard, W. J. , 2000, Journal of College Science Teaching, 29, 4, 229-232

The authors carried out pre- and post-assessment of hundreds of students at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and Central Michigan University (CMU) over one semester to identify and track student misconceptions and how they change, comparing non-science majors to science majors. The authors were particularly interested in tracking structural vs factual misconceptions, and seeing whether there were differences in gains in each of these two types. Structural misconceptions are defined as incorrect pre-existing ideas that are strongly held, very resistant to even interactive teaching methods, and are assumed to be "imbedded in a well-developed alternative cognitive structure." Factual misconceptions, meanwhile, are defined as those that are simple to change with basic instruction. The authors found no difference in gains in factual vs structural misconceptions, and no significant difference in gains between the science majors and non-science majors at UNM. Significance was measured at 1 sigma. There was, however, a significant difference when looking at the very small number of astronomy majors (N=7), who exhibited greater gains than other students.

The authors took two introductory astronomy courses for non-science majors, one based at CMU and one at NMU, plus a general astronomy class for science majors at NMU.The classes were restructured into a conceptual format as presented in Zeilik et al. 1997, American Journal of Physics, 65(1), 987-996. At UNM, all sections used traditional lecture-style teaching methods for half the time and cooperative methods for the other half. At CMU, one section used only traditional teaching methods, while the second used only cooperative learning teams. The students were assessed pre- and post-course for their gains in factual misconceptions and structural misconceptions.

No control group.

The authors developed pre- and post-assessment multiple-choice instruments to measure misconceptions, based on an instrument developed for Project STAR (Sadler 1992; Lightman & Sadler, 1993). The instrument used at CMU included 25 questions, and at UNM it was made up of 14. These questions probed both structural and factual misconceptions to see how they changed from pre- to post-instruction for science majors and non-science majors at both institutions. The measured variable was the gain index, g, defined as the actual gain in percentage of questions correctly answered divided by the total possible gain in percentage. This was then normalised to give g between 0 and 1. These gains are presented in the paper where significant, with significance defined as 1 standard deviation. Differences in teaching style (collaborating vs lecture-style classes) are not controlled for.

The participants were all students in the introductory astronomy class at CSU and UMN, and in the general astronomy class for science majors at UNM.

Not reported.


The authors found, to their surprise, that gains were not significantly different between science majors and non-science majors, or between factual misconceptions and non-factual misconceptions. The only significant difference they found was when separating out the very small number of self-declared astronomy majors (N=7) who showed significantly greater gains than their peers (at the 1 sigma level).

The authors advocate that all instructors of introductory courses track misconceptions and their changes over the duration of their courses, to provide insight into conceptual gains that arise from their classes.


Introductory astronomy sources for nonscience majors at CMU (in Spring 1996) and UNM (Fall 1994 - Spring 1996). General astronomy course for science majors at UNM (Fall 1994 - Spring 1996).




Higher ed: Undergrad, Non-majors

Higher ed: Undergrad, Majors, lower division


Formal Education

Educational pedagogy

STEM content learning

STEM literacy

Astronomy: Origin and/or evolution of the universe

Astronomy: Size and/or scale of the Universe

Astronomy: Stars, nebulae, and/or galaxies

Solar System: Asteroids and/or comets

Solar System: Comparative planetology

Solar System: Heliosphere

Solar System: Origin and/or formation of the solar system

Solar System: Planetary atmospheres

Solar System: Planetary geology

Solar System: Planetary science

Solar System: Planets

Solar System: Plasma physics

Solar System: Solar Physics

Solar System: Solar-Terrestrial interactions

Solar System: Space weather

Solar System: Sun's Magnetosphere

Solar System: The Moon

Solar System: The Sun



Comments (0)