Research Paper: Plummer 2009

Paper Title

Julia D. Plummer, A Cross-age Study of Children’s Knowledge of Apparent Celestial Motion, 2009, International Journal of Science Education Vol. 31, No. 12, 1 August 2009, pp. 1571–1605.


This study looked at the development of students’ understanding of the apparent movement of the Sun and Moon across the sky and how these vary. A comparison is made between students of a wide age range. The study used an innovative interview technique, allowing the students to model the movement directly on a ‘sky’ during the interviews. The research was carried out by a university researcher in the USA.

Findings about learners’ ideas

  • Some students believe the Sun rises and sets in the same place
  • The majority of students aged 6-7 years could not draw an accurate path of the Sun
  • Many students could not accurately demonstrate that the Sun passes below the zenith in winter
  • Some students indicated that the Sun's motion is not continuous and uniform
  • None of the students accurately demonstrated that the Sun's path is shorter in winter compared with summer
  • The majority of the students believed there is no difference in the Sun’s highest altitude between summer and winter
  • Most of the students aged 6-7 years (55%) described the Moon’s motion as rising straight up to the zenith, remaining there throughout the night, and then setting at the end of the night
  • Some students indicated that the Moon is always in the sky and never sets
  • A small number of students indicated that the Moon never moves
  • Some students did not think that the stars ever seem to move
  • Over one-half of the students aged 6-7, 8-9 and 13-14 did not think that we see different stars in the sky during the night

Teaching and Learning implications

Evidence-based suggestions
  • The results of this study demonstrate the need for further research on successful instructional strategies relating to the apparent celestial motion for teaching early elementary students. Successful instruction will need to consider that children’s ideas about the apparent motion of the Sun, Moon, and stars are not primarily based on accurate observations of these objects in the sky and will be able to provide convincing alternatives to the common non-scientific ideas presented in this paper. These non-scientific ideas may hinder students from accurately incorporating the actual motions of celestial objects into their understanding as well.
  • Many of the students' (aged 13-14 years) answers showed that they know about the rotation of the Earth, often in relation to their description of the motion of the Sun. However, this knowledge did not lead to a corresponding knowledge of the pattern of motion of the Moon or stars.
Further suggestions
  • It may be that most students are not able to develop a full scientific description of the patterns of apparent celestial motion without also understanding the underlying explanations for these motions, including the shape of the Earth and gravity.

Study Structure


This study examined children’s understanding of the patterns of apparent celestial motion among students aged 6-7, 8-9 and 13-14. It also aimed to investigate the extent to which these concepts develop from elementary to middle school in students without targeted instruction.

Evidence collection

Evidence was collected via an interview, conducted in a small dome used to represent the sky. During the interview, students were able to model their understanding of patterns of motion using flashlights.

The analysis of the interviews focused both on how the students demonstrated the apparent motion of the Sun, Moon, and stars and their verbal descriptions of these motions. Responses were coded and analysed statistically.

Details of the sample

The research sample consisted of 60 students:

  • 20 in grade 3 (mean age 6.6 years)
  • 20 in grade 5 (mean age 8.7 years)
  • 20 in grade 8 (mean age 13.8 years)

None had studied astronomy before.

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