Christensen et al., 2009

A US paper examined 318 students' understanding of entropy in an introductory physics course. Initial findings showed low levels of correctness, with two-thirds demonstrating conservation-type reasoning. Even after instruction, these outcomes remained largely unchanged. However, targeted instruction highlighting entropy as a non-conserved quantity improved performance on related qualitative questions.

Evidence-based suggestions

  • A research-based tutorial that explicitly addressed students' misconceptions of entropy was effective in improving their performance on questions regarding the principle of entropy increase in spontaneous processes.

Learners’ ideas

  • Students tend to argue that the “system entropy” must always increase, even in cases where inadequate information is available to make such a determination and students are slow to accept the idea that the total entropy of a system and surroundings must increase during naturally occurring (“spontaneous”) processes.
  • Students generalised a thermodynamic principle beyond the specific conditions under which it applies.
  • Students who are aware that energy ideas and terms are used differently in science and everyday life may have difficulties deciding which perspective to use when answering questions. The words used in the question may cue different responses.

Study Structure


The study aimed to lay the framework for the creation of instructional materials and strategies which can help students improve their understanding of second-law concepts.

Evidence collection

Evidence was collected via a simple survey employed pre- and post-instruction. A quantitative comparison of responses to questions took place.

An additional survey was used to determine the effectiveness of specific intervention measures designed to address the misconceptions shown in the survey also took place.

Details of the sample

A convenience sample of 18–19-year-old undergraduate students.

  • 127 students with normal tutorial sessions.
  • 191 students with additional intervention sessions.
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