Louisa et al., 2007

Portuguese researchers analysed teachers' and secondary students' scientific and naturalistic language when describing the energy concepts, temperature and heating. They identify a range of misconceptions influenced by teachers' language. 

Evidence-based suggestions

  • Teachers must be careful with their description of ‘heat’ and ‘temperature’, distinguishing them clearly while avoiding the impression of them being physical materials which flow or causes events.
  • Heating should be referred to as a process by which internal energy transfers can occur.
  • Temperature must be described as being independent of the quantity of matter.

Learners’ ideas

  • Many students at the secondary-school level think of heat as an intangible substance that can flow into and out of objects.
  • Many pupils have difficulties distinguishing between the ideas of ‘temperature’ and ‘heat’ and using these terms appropriately.
  • Pupils use the term ‘temperature’ less frequently than ‘heat’ when talking about thermal phenomena.
  • Many pupils think of temperature as a measure of the amount of heat an object contains, and that the temperature of objects is related to their size, e.g., that the temperature of a large block of ice is lower than that of a smaller block.
  • The vast majority of students’ alternative ideas about energy could be classified into seven alternative frameworks:
    • anthropocentric (energy is mainly associated with human beings) or depository (some objects have energy)
    • Energy is a causal agent (makes things happen when something triggers its release; other things or processes need energy)
    • ingredient (energy is dormant within some objects and can be released by some trigger)
    • activity (energy is identified by overt displays – the display itself is energy)
    • product (energy is a relatively short-lived by-product of some situations)
    • functional (energy is a very general kind of fuel for technical devices)
    • flow-transfer (energy is a physical fluid that is transferred in certain processes)

Further suggestions

  • Energy should be taught as a measurable quantity, corresponding to the state of particle motion.
  • While teachers should use naturalistic language that pupils are familiar with, they must be aware of the possible conflicting ways of interpreting it which could slow good learning down.

Study Structure


To explore the idea that teachers reinforce wrong ideas about thermal energy and temperature by the way they teach.

Evidence collection

Evidence was collected through observation of lessons taught by seven different secondary school teachers with six observations for each teacher over one term. Each of the 42 observations lasted approximately 50 minutes during which field notes were taken by the observer. These notes focussed on the specific use of language around the concepts of ‘temperature’, ‘energy’ and ‘heat’ used with the lessons.

The use of the keywords was categorised and analysed using qualitative methods to form a picture of both student and teacher understanding of the concepts.

Details of the sample

A representative sample of 7 science teachers in the central region of Portugal allowed for their lessons to be observed.

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