Dunlop (2000)

This study looked at the development of students’ understanding of a range of astronomical models and explanations presented by children and young adults visiting an observatory in Aukland. It revealed some of the expected misconceptions, and some new misconceptions but also noted a lower-than-expected number of misconceptions than previous work in this area has reported.

Learners’ ideas

The researcher reported a range of misconceptions held by the students about Earth and Space. These included:

  • A general inability to discuss the cause of day and night
  • Not all the Sun emits light (half in darkness like the Earth)
  • The night is caused by the Moon blocking light.
  • The Earth orbits the Sun daily
  • The day-night cycle is caused by the orbit of the Earth (rather than the rotation)
  • The Moon orbits the Sun
  • The Earth orbiting the Sun and/or the Moon in a figure-of-eight pattern
  • The phases of the Moon are caused by shadows.
  • Winter is caused by clouds
  • The Earth’s distance from the Sun causes of summer/winter

Evidence-based suggestions

The researcher makes the following suggestion based on their work:

  • Complete before and after surveys of children's understanding to note the development of ideas.
  • Use realistic models of the Earth-Sun-Moon system
  • Beware of written test results as they may under-report real understanding.
  • Compare before and after drawings to see the development of ideas.
  • Listen to children's explanations and discuss them.

Further suggestions

  • Invest in improved teacher training.

Study Structure


The aim of the study was to identify children’s understanding of a range of astronomical questions and whether these had been changed by the effect of teaching during their visit to the observatory.

Evidence collection

Evidence was collected via a questionnaire developed by the researcher. This involved multiple-choice questions and drawing tasks. Participants completed the survey before and after their visit to the observatory. The responses were calculated and analysed qualitatively while the images drawn were discussed and analysed qualitatively.

Details of the sample

A sample of 67 child visitors.

Limit Less Campaign

Support our manifesto for change

The IOP wants to support young people to fulfil their potential by doing physics. Please sign the manifesto today so that we can show our politicians there is widespread support for improving equity and inclusion across the education sector.

Sign today