Research in Science Education

, Volume 34, Issue 3, pp 267–289

Students' Understandings of Gravity in an Orbiting Space-Ship


  • Manjula D. Sharma
    • University of Sydney
  • Rosemary M. Millar
    • University of Sydney
  • Andrew Smith
    • University of Sydney
  • Ian M. Sefton
    • University of Sydney

DOI: 10.1023/

Cite this article as:
Sharma, M.D., Millar, R.M., Smith, A. et al. Research in Science Education (2004) 34: 267. doi:10.1023/


We report on an investigation of students' ideas about gravity after a semester of instruction in physics at university. There are two aspects to the study which was concerned with students' answers to a carefully designed qualitative examination question on gravity. The first aspect is a classification of the answers and a comparative study of the ways the problem was tackled by two large groups of students who had different backgrounds in physics and were exposed to different teaching styles. The second aspect is to investigate how students link concepts to solve the problem. We used a phenomenographic analysis of student responses to extract patterns of reasoning and alternative conceptions behind the solutions. We found no differences between the classes of answers given by students in the two courses. Our analysis also identifies a hierarchy in the complexity of the hypothetical reasoning pathways, which we interpret as reflecting the ways in which students may link concepts and resolve conflicts as they solve the problem. The hypothetical reasoning pathways may help educators to develop instructional material or lecture room dialogue in order to tease out key issues. An unexpected finding is that there is a discrepancy between our conclusion that the two groups of answers are similar and the distribution of marks awarded by the examiner – which implies that the quality of the answers is different for the two groups.

acceleration and gravityassessment using examination scriptsconceptual understandingphenomenographical analysisproblem solvingqualitative reasoningunderstanding mechanics

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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004