Assessing pupil thinking


Substantial evidence suggests that the holding of misconceptions can prevent pupils’ further understanding of physics. As such, a key element of teaching physics is assessing pupils’ current understanding, and deciding how to proceed accordingly. 

There are many different ways of doing this. You could:

  • Ask pupils to draw, model or describe a phenomenon.
  • Ask pupils open questions, or listen to the way they discuss a phenomenon.
  • Use diagnostic questions (where incorrect answers reveal misconceptions).  
  • Ask pupils to draw concept maps or knowledge organisers.

So how might we put this into practice? 

Suppose we were teaching Newton’s Second Law, and came across the following misconception: “Many pupils are unable to apply Newton’s Second Law to examples of motion in 2D.”

Now we are aware of this potential stumbling block, we could assess pupils’ thinking by asking them to explain, discuss or draw the motion of a bowling ball being thrown out of a horizontally-moving aeroplane. 

This question appears in a well-known research tool called the Force Concept Inventory, developed in the 1980s. Here, pupils are asked to choose between five different possible trajectories for the ball, and their answer reveals something about their thinking. Those who select a trajectory in which the ball falls straight downwards, for example, may not have understood that the horizontal momentum of the ball inside the aeroplane will be conserved.

Learning, of course, isn’t always a simple matter of going from ‘incorrect’ to ‘correct’ in a linear fashion. Learning involves continually developing ways of thinking. For instance, returning to the example above, a pupil may later recognise that the ball will move forwards and downwards. But they may think that it first moves forwards, and then falls straight downwards. Here, the pupil’s thinking has developed, but is still not fully correct.

This suggests a couple of things for educators to be aware of. Firstly, that a decision on when to assess pupils must be made: assessing a pupil before first teaching them, say, atomic physics might not be useful, since they are unlikely to have developed misconceptions about this fairly abstract topic. Conversely, pupils may already have ideas about motion and forces from everyday experience. Secondly, assessment should be an ongoing and open process: assessing once, and then tailoring one’s teaching to the static picture given by the assessment is unlikely to capture how pupil thinking develops over time.

The resources on the IOPSpark Misconceptions pages can help you familiarise yourself with patterns of student thinking, and, where possible, offer tools to help you assess and diagnose misconceptions in the classroom.

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