Osbourne et al. (1994, part 2)

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 were analysed to find the percentage having different ideas about the shape of the Earth, distances in space and the nature of stars and planets. 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

  • Some students still view the Earth as a flat disk rather than a sphere.
  • Students had misconceptions about the nature of the sky, sometimes as a second disk placed above the flat Earth.
  • Students had a reasonable ability to rank distances between places on Earth and to the Moon or Sun but some struggled to express the scale of these distances.
  • The sizes of the objects (planets and stars) relative to the distances between them, were not well understood by many students.
  • Many students did not have a clear understanding of what a star was and some could not link the Sun to other stars.


  • Students should discuss shapes, specifically the relationship between two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes.
  • Students should imagine journeys between objects to help them gain a greater understanding of scale.
  • The use of secondary sources, typically books and posters, provides support where experimental procedures and direct observation cannot be used. The use of DARTS (Directed Activities Related to Text) can assist in learning from these secondary sources.
  • It is possible that living in an urban environment makes regular observation of the Sun, Moon and stars 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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