What Do Students Really Know About Energy?

Given the key role that energy plays in modern life, how can teachers find out what their students actually know about this important topic?  Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is creating a set of three tests—one each for students at the elementary, middle and high school levels—that teachers  can use to monitor what their students know about a wide range of energy concepts.  Composed of multiple-choice questions, the tests are designed to measure students’ knowledge of the forms of energy and energy transformations, the different ways energy can be transferred, conservation of energy, and energy dissipation and degradation, all topics that are included in Next Generation Science Standards

So far, more than 20,000 students from across the U.S. have participated in field testing of the items, and final versions of the tests are expected to be available in late 2017. “Our goal is to give teachers an effective and practical way to evaluate what their students are learning about energy” said Cari Herrmann Abell, principal investigator for this project.  “When teachers have better insights into what their students know and don’t know, then they can make better instructional decisions,” she added.

Supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the Project 2061 research team has also used data from the field tests to analyze how students’ thinking about energy changes as they make progress in their learning. For example, their analyses have shown that certain types of common misconceptions about energy are more prevalent at specific grade levels. They also were able to confirm a theoretical progression of students’ understanding of energy concepts from (1) having an understanding of simple energy relationships and easily observable effects of energy processes to (2) using basic energy concepts to explain real-world events, to (3) using more advanced energy concepts to explain phenomena, often requiring an atomic/molecular model.  In addition, the team is conducting a comparison study to see whether the tests perform equally well in paper and online formats.  

To find out more, watch this brief video in which Cari Herrmann-Abell discusses the work with Project 2061 deputy director George DeBoer.