Harrison et al. (1999)

This South African paper reports on one student’s (age 16-17) cognitive and affective changes which occurred during the topic of heat and temperature. It identifies poorly differentiated conceptions of heat and temperature in the subject and how these were challenged during an eight-week course which included teaching methods informed by Ausubel’s theory of meaningful learning.

Evidence-based suggestions

  • Frequent class discussions can help students refine both their scientific language and conceptions. Language difficulties both in deciphering and using scientific terms have been well documented.
  • Conceptual change is often piecemeal and incremental, and rarely revolutionary. Conceptual evolution is much more effective than conceptual revolution.

Learners’ ideas

  • Many students at the secondary-school level think of heat as an intangible substance that can flow into and out of objects during a process; this can persist even after teaching.
  • Some pupils see the more obvious ‘heat’ of very hot objects as different from that of objects at lower temperatures (such as the human body, or a cup of tea).
  • Many pupils think of temperature as a property of a material (some substances are ‘naturally’ warmer or colder than others).
  • Many pupils think that objects of different materials in the same room will have different temperatures.
  • Many pupils have difficulties distinguishing between the ideas of ‘temperature’ and ‘heat’ and using these terms appropriately.
  • Heat capacity and specific heat capacity are commonly confused.
  • Heat transfer mechanisms are poorly differentiated by pupils.
  • The notion that objects react to thermal environmental changes based on their macroscopic properties, functions, use, and imposed events, rather than by the principles of thermal interaction.

Further suggestions

  • Use concept substitution to evolve students' thinking instead of telling them what is correct and incorrect. So, students reveal their conceptions, and during the discussion, the appropriate ideas are reinforced, and the correct term or/part concepts are substituted for inappropriate terms and/or part concepts.
  • Use student cues to extend and consolidate key concepts. For example, a response to a question may be incorrect but it may signal quite sophisticated thinking and so it should not be dismissed.
  • Make explicit to students how and where they have changed their conceptions.

Study Structure


The paper reports a study to describe the learning process that favoured a change from intuitive student conceptions to the desired scientific view of heat and temperature.

Evidence collection

Evidence was collected as part of a qualitative longitudinal case study: an inquiry-led approach coupled with concept substitution strategies aimed at restructuring alternative conceptions which had been identified using pre-tests.

Formal and informal discussions were recorded and transcribed, and students were asked to draw concept maps and complete tests. All evidence for each student was compiled into a portfolio, each of which was analysed to extract the data that were qualitatively interpreted and used to write individual case studies documenting each student’s learning of heat and temperature. One student was chosen for more detailed analysis based on the clarity of their initial misconceptions through the lens of Ausubel's theory of meaningful learning.

Details of the sample

The sample consisted of a class of five students in grade 11 (ages 16-17) but focused on only a single student with some mention of comments by the other students.

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