Neumann et al. (2013)

This German empirical study on a learning progression of energy describes how 1,856 students’ understanding (ages 10-14) and literacy progress as they study. They map students’ development in key areas such as ‘energy forms’, ‘energy transformations’, ‘dissipation’ and ‘conservation’ during their education. 

Evidence-based suggestions

  • Initial teaching should focus on developing an understanding of energy concerning forms and sources. Then, the concept of transfer and transformation should be covered, before introducing energy dissipation and conservation.
  • It is not wise for all possible forms (and sources) of energy to be covered in the curriculum before the concept of energy transfer and transformation is introduced. This is because students seem to develop an understanding of energy transformation while still not having fully developed an understanding of all energy forms and sources.

Learners’ ideas

  • Students exhibit difficulties in developing more elaborate conceptions of energy such as dissipation or conservation (a "remarkable number" of students have not developed a proper concept of energy by age 14).
  • Students may not develop an understanding of energy conservation until ages 14-15.
  • Students often develop an understanding of energy transformation in parallel with an understanding of energy degradation (into heat).
  • Students typically develop an understanding of energy forms and sources, then transformation and degradation of those energies, and later still, an understanding of the conservation of energy.

Further suggestions

  • The assumption that students develop an understanding of the individual conceptions of energy by obtaining an increasingly complex knowledge base about each conception may be wrong.
  • A proper grasp of the energy concept manifests as a student's ability to apply that concept in a wider range of situations.

Study Structure


  1. To what extent is the developed measurement instrument suitable for assessing students’ understanding of energy with respect to the hypothesized learning progression?
  2. To what extent does the hypothesized learning progression describe students’ progression in understanding the energy concept?

Evidence collection

The researchers developed the Energy Concept Assessment, a collection of 80 diagnostic questions, for this study. Two pilot phases were used to test the design of the instrument, using 72 students’ responses, before the main study took place. A large sample of students took part in the assessment and then the responses were analysed across the age groups to measure the learning progression using a range of analytical techniques including Rasch analysis, and the construction of a Wright Map.

Details of the sample

The sample consists of 1856 German 'gymnasium'-level students in grades 6, 8 and 10, an age range of 10-14 years. The students are described as being typically very capable, with suggestions that most will go on to university.

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