Osbourne et al. (1994, part 1)

This paper discusses part of a wide-ranging classroom-based study into student understanding of Earth in space. Many students were questioned, through diagnostic tests, and their responses to questions were analysed to find the percentage of them having different ideas about the relationships of the Sun, Earth, Moon and planets of the solar system. They were also questioned about their responses and a range of interventions were trialled.

While this paper does not reach many actionable conclusions about teaching and learning solutions it shows good practice in data collection and analysis to find misconceptions.

Learners’ ideas

  • Students could not identify the correct position of the Sun and how it varies during the year.
  • Many students did not understand the motion of the Sun and thought it travelled around the static Earth.
  • Many students did not understand why the Sun did not shine at night, giving reasons such as:
    • “It is hidden by other planets and our moon”
    • “Goes to America, then goes around the world.”
    • “It goes to the other side of the Earth.”
    • “The Earth faces away from the Sun.”
    • “It changes into a moon.”
    • and so on.
  • Students could not identify the curved path of the Sun across the sky and some did not know the direction of apparent travel.
  • A significant percentage of the children (11% of infants, 19% of lower primary school pupils and 26% of upper primary school pupils) showed the sequence of the daily movement of the Sun in the reverse order from West to East.
  • Students could not explain the change in shadows' lengths due to the Sun's changing position in the sky.


  • It was unclear why the difficulties arose. It may be due to a lack of perspective and drawing skills rather than any lack of knowledge.
  • It is possible that living in an urban environment makes regular observation of the Sun unlikely. Rural scenes could be used to describe the path.

Study Structure


To establish:

  • The ideas which primary school children have in particular science concept areas.
  • The possibility of children modifying their ideas as the result of relevant experiences.
Evidence collection

Interviews with students containing a wide range of questions covering all of the main areas of physics study. Diagnostic questions were used and the percentage of students answering correctly was calculated in various categories.

Details of the sample

A total of 106 pupils aged between 5 and 11 years were grouped into age bands of (5-7) (8-9) and (10-11). Classes from ten schools in London were used.

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