Thomas and Schwenz (1998)

US researchers examined undergraduate understanding of thermodynamics and equilibrium conduction in chemistry. They identified 29 misconceptions, grouped them into six themes, and compared them with textbook content to determine the most common ones.


  • Instructors should consider supplementing a lecture format with a variety of active learning teaching strategies.   

Learners’ ideas

  • Students define fundamental thermodynamic concepts according to their usage in everyday language, instead of according to their precise scientific meaning.
  • Students use informal prior knowledge from everyday experience to explain the thermodynamics of chemical phenomena.
  • Students generalised a thermodynamic principle beyond the specific conditions under which it applies.
  • Students used kinetics concepts to explain the thermodynamics of chemical phenomena.
  • Some students consider the addition of energy as a reactant to be the driving force behind the presented reaction.
  • Students sometimes assume that no heating occurs under isothermal conditions.
  • Students revealed a belief that, according to the first law of thermodynamics, energy is conserved because the internal energy of the system in the initial state equals the internal energy of the system in the final state.                                                                                                  

Study Structure


Two aims are described:

  1. To identify, classify, and characterise student conceptions of chemical equilibrium and fundamental concepts of chemical thermodynamics for students nearing the completion of their undergraduate studies. Such conceptions may appear throughout the student’s professional life.
  2. To compare the student’s conceptions with those of experts, as expressed in textbooks.

Evidence collection

A set of clinical hour-long interviews with 16 volunteer students were carried out. Each interview was parsed into 30 codes and individual student responses were characterised by these codes, compared to the accepted meanings, explanations, and theories of contemporary physical chemistry.

Student conceptions expressed in their interviews were compared with those expressed by experts in textbooks and rated using a 6-point rubric and correlation indices were computed.

Details of the sample

The sample consisted of 14 chemistry undergraduate students ages 19 to 22 and 2 chemistry graduate students in a range of classes. Students were volunteers, not necessarily a representative sample.

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