Journal of Science Education and Technology

, Volume 18, Issue 5, pp 415–428 | Cite as

Constructivist Learning and Teaching of Optics Concepts Using ICT Tools in Greek Primary School: A Pilot Study



This pilot study documents the design and evaluation results of an innovative teaching approach with the use of ICT regarding the optics concepts of light reflection and diffusion, and vision in Greek primary school. First there was a survey of 140 students to ascertain their initial ideas regarding these concepts. On the basis of the results of that survey, a range of ICT tools were developed, including a multimedia software application and a piece of Greek physics educational software. They were then used in the classroom together with an applet on the Web and printed students’ worksheets, and their effectiveness was evaluated. Teaching was implemented in four Greek primary school classes with 81 students. Another 59 students were taught the subject traditionally. Before and after instruction all students answered a written questionnaire. Data analysis revealed that students of the experimental group achieved statistically better performance and manifested conceptual change whereas students in the control group students presented only a minimal evolution in their initial ideas.


Teaching optics concepts Primary education ICT use in teaching and learning Conceptual change 


For almost four decades science education research has revealed a considerable number of students’ ideas in all areas of science. Science education research has revealed that the majority of students enter school with pre-instructional knowledge or beliefs about natural phenomena and concepts, and many students develop only a limited understanding of science concepts following instruction (Driver and Oldham 1986; Duit and Treagust 1998; Driver et al. 2000). These beliefs are incorporated into students’ cognitive structures and interfere with subsequent learning. It is widely accepted that students’ prior ideas and knowledge influence what is learned through teaching. Furthermore, it is possible that students may apply scientific ideas in solving traditional text-book problems in science in school examinations, but not in explaining natural phenomena in everyday life (Driver 1989; Driver et al. 2000). Consequently it is essential for teachers to become aware of their students’ conceptions and misunderstandings in order to organize their teaching more effectively.

The use of Information Communication Technologies (ICT) can greatly contribute to the science teaching and learning procedure. The use of educational software and other digital or printed material in this context is particularly effective when it is based on research into the various prior misconceptions that students have (see e.g. Grayson and McDerwott 1996; Solomonidou and Kolokotronis 2008). In order to create educational environments according to constructivist views of learning (Solomon 1994; Osborne 1996; Wilson 1997; Jonassen 1999) aiming to help students revise their alternative preconceptions and construct scientific knowledge, it is necessary to investigate and take into account their empirical ideas before designing educational activities and the ICT tools to be used in them.

This study is based on the D.E.S.T.E. model (Solomonidou 2006), which describes the steps that should be followed to create, implement and evaluate constructivist learning environments with the use of ICT tools. The name comes from the initials of the Greek words for Investigation, Conception, Design, Development, and Implementation. To elaborate on this, the words are understood in the following ways:
  1. 1.

    Investigation of students’ initial empirical conceptions on the science topic.

  2. 2.

    Conception of the teaching and learning content based on both the scientific knowledge and the students’ initial empirical conceptions and conceptual needs.

  3. 3.

    Design of constructivist learning environments which are student-centred, collaborative, problem solving and authentic tasks-based, and supported by teacher scaffolding.

  4. 4.

    Development and formative evaluation of the educational environment.

  5. 5.

    Implementation of the digital environment in the classroom and final evaluation of it based, among other things, on students’ final conceptions and learning outcomes.


This paper presents the above procedure in connection with the learning and teaching light reflection and diffusion, and vision in Greek primary education schools. Initially, it presents a survey conducted with 140 fifth and sixth grade students in order to investigate their prior ideas about those science concepts. Then it describes the conception of the taught content which was informed by the results of this initial survey, the design and development of the educational media used to cope with students’ conceptual difficulties, as well as their implementation and evaluation. Finally, it presents the learning results and discusses the contribution of the ICT tools and didactical methods used in effective teaching and learning of this science topic, as well as the perspectives for future research.

Investigation of Students’ Initial Ideas

Previous Studies

Regarding light phenomena much is known about students’ conceptions across all ages (Andersson and Karrqvist 1983; Guesne 1985; Galili and Hazan 2000; Galili et al. 1993; Hubber 2006; Selley 1996; Shapiro 1994; Watts 1985). More particularly, concerning the nature of light and its properties, some students equate light with its source and others with its effect (light is brightness). Also, they do not conceive light as a distinct entity and therefore have difficulty in interpreting a range of light-related phenomena (Guesne 1985). Students do not recognize the necessity of light for seeing objects and think that it is possible to see things even if it is dark (Ramadas and Driver 1989). They do not consider the presence of light as the merely factor in order for them to see things even faintly. They claim we can see things just ‘because our eyes have the ability to see’ or ‘because objects are bright’ (Andersson and Karrqvist 1983; Osborne et al. 1993; Ravanis et al. 2002; Tiberghien et al. 1980). Moreover, the majority of 11–12 years old students believe that light stays inside a mirror or on a piece of paper when it falls on it (Guesne 1985). Understanding the nature of light as an entity as well as the role of reflected light in seeing is of prime importance in understanding other natural phenomena such as image formation (idols), daylight, and the way we see things (Driver et al. 1985; Langley et al. 1997). Concerning vision and the way we see objects, students tend to believe that we can see because of the presence of ambient light (there is no connection between light, our eye and a seen object) (Andersson and Karrqvist 1983; Osborne et al. 1993; Ravanis 1999; Tiberghien et al. 1980). Some of them believe that there is a kind of vision mechanism, which is not accurate. Light is an omnipresent entity located in space between its source and effect, and it does not travel (Hosson and Kaminski 2002; Watts 1985). They think that we can see thanks to a ‘light bath’ that fills space. Some others have a firm conviction about the way we see non-luminous objects depicted in their drawings (in the classical triangle: source-object-eye) by certain directionality. The most prevalent models are the emission models (Fig. 1a, b, c, d, e) where eyes emit light in order for someone to see, and a dual illumination model where the light source illuminates both the eye and the object and the eye sees the object with no connection to the object (Fig. 1f) (Dedes 2005).
Fig. 1

Diagrams depicting the way children think we see non-luminous objects

Although many researchers have investigated students’ conceptions concerning light, few of them have produced learning materials for use by teachers aiming at improving their students’ understanding. There is an especially pronounced lack of materials to help teach the phenomenon of light reflection and diffusion, and vision at primary school level (Eaton et al. 1986; Fetherstonhaugh and Treagust 1992).

Our Study

During the year 2006–2007 we conducted the initial research with 140 Greek primary school students aged 11–12 years aiming at (a) investigating their initial ideas about light reflection and diffusion, and vision, and (b) informing the design and development of appropriate educational software and other digital material, to promote a better conceptual grasp of the subject.

An initial questionnaire on light phenomena was developed, which was administered to 60 fifth grade and to 80 sixth grade students of three primary schools (two urban, one rural) in Volos, in central Greece. In the tested sample, only sixth grade students had had some previous optics instruction in science 1 year earlier, but nothing about the phenomena of light reflection and diffusion. The aim of the questionnaire was to elicit the ideas of a sufficiently large sample of students to justify some generalization. We utilized questions from some previous studies where they were relevant to the specific subject of our study (Colin et al. 2002; Galili 1996; Galili and Hazan 2000; Heywood 2005; Langley et al. 1997), together with new ones of our own design. More particularly, the questionnaire consisted of nine questions, some of them with sub-items, which were classified into three groups. The first question group referred to light and its nature, the second one to light reflection and diffusion, and the third one dealt with vision. Inquiry into each conceptual area was made by more than one question, in order for us to enhance both the validity and the reliability of the results.

The analysis of the students’ answers allowed us to identify five fundamental alternative misconceptions:
  1. 1.

    Light is equal both to its source and its effect, and is not conceived as light as a spatial entity propagating through space.

  2. 2.

    Light reflection and light diffusion are phenomena, which take place independently of the kind of surface light falls on.

  3. 3.

    During light reflection light beams return to the light source independently of the angle of incidence, or they stay on the surface (students have difficulty in understanding the geometrical model of incidence angle equating to reflection angle).

  4. 4.

    Light diffusion does not happen in the atmosphere and daylight is due to the existence of the atmosphere, sea, ozone, satellites etc., and not to light scattering on dust, air, etc.

  5. 5.

    The ‘emission model’ (the eye emits rays) is the one that explains how we can see non-luminous objects.


Some of these alternative conceptions have been revealed in previous studies (see 1, 2 and 5 above) (Andersson and Karrqvist 1983; Osborne et al. 1993; Ravanis et al. 2002). But there are also some previously unrecorded misconceptions such as the idea that light returns to its light source after it meets the object’s surface (2 above), or space is dark because light cannot travel too far away or through space (4 above) (these students’ conceptions are described in more details in a subsequent section unit along with the digital tools designed and used to cope with them).

We hypothesized that after teaching within a constructivist technologically rich learning environment using activities based on students’ alternatives ideas, problem solving and teacher scaffolding, students would overcome the above learning difficulties.

Conception of the Content of the Digital Learning Material

A number of theorists have discussed the ways in which constructivist values influence instructional design and have proposed several principles of the ‘constructivist instructional design model’ (Jonassen 1994; Lebow 1993; Willis 1995). Constructivists point to the creation of learning environments that are student-centred, collaborative, supported with teacher scaffolding and authentic tasks designed according to ideas about situated cognition, cognitive apprenticeship, and anchored instruction (Karagiorgi and Symeou 2005; Solomonidou 2006). Such learning environments involve an abundance of tools to enhance communication and access to real-world examples, reflective thinking, and problem solving. Hypermedia environments that allow for non-linear learning and increased learner control are frequently mentioned in the literature, as particularly useful for the constructivist designer (Mergel 1998). Multimedia and the Internet are also alternatives to the linear structure and facilitate more active construction of meaning (Wilson 1997). Furthermore, microworlds and simulations could stimulate authentic learning, while the World Wide Web opens up other innovative ways of offering multiple representations of the complex reality (Cey 2001).

For our teaching we designed and developed a piece of interactive multimedia educational software entitled “Reflection and Diffusion” using Toolbook as an authoring tool. We also used the Greek constructivist type educational software “Μ.Α.TH.I.Μ.Α.”, as well as an applet simulation found on the web.

More particularly, “Reflection and Diffusion” consists of 15-shot screens aiming to help students construct knowledge through various experiments in the thematic field of linear optics. In order to bridge the “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky 1978), we provide scaffolding activities by building on the learner’s experiences, providing challenging authentic activities requiring reflective thinking and working in collaborative groups. The software has a uniform design throughout the activities with simple and easy-to-use navigation panels. Specific questions are posed to students, and the software provides immediate feedback to confront students’ alternative ideas and help them redefine their thinking about the geometrical model of light. Feedback provided by the software was created in accordance with the students’ answers during the initial research. Moreover, the software is accompanied by supplementary instructional drill and practice activities, which refer to common student misconceptions found in the literature (as described in a subsequent section). Useful tool tips appear to help students select the right answer, providing them with some helpful information (e.g. a geometrical model, magnified surfaces where the light beam strikes, molecular construction of the air in the atmosphere). When the user chooses a wrong answer, a highlighted warning pops up to indicate that she/he has not taken into account something that has already been elaborated in the previous units. The application includes flexible ray tracing simulations and gives students the opportunity to investigate various parameters, make predictions and test them. The ray model was used, which in the field of geometrical optics enables students to analyze, explain and predict light phenomena (Eylon et al. 1996). In this model, light sources consist of infinite numbers of point-like sources, which emit rays isotropically.

The educational software “M.A.TH.I.M.A.” is a multi-thematic, highly interactive educational environment in science, inspired by the social constructivist theory of learning. The software’s thematic “Reflection–Refraction” unit simulates a laboratory of geometric optics, where the student is engaged in problem solving activities regarding the linear propagation of light, shadows formation, reflection on a mirror, reflection and refraction on the surface of a liquid, synthesis of different coloured light beams. It also enables students to observe, in a separate window, a dynamic and interactive geometric model of the situation under study and enjoy a game with little mirrors reflecting a light beam on little diamonds (Solomonidou et al. 2000).

The on-line tutorial allowed students to explore the way light beams can be reflected by various surfaces from very smooth to very rough. This was designed by the Optical Microscopy Division of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (a joint venture of The Florida State University, the University of Florida, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory).

Design of the Learning ICT Tools and Activities

The software items “Reflection and Diffusion”, “M.A.TH.I.M.A.” and the website applet were used to help rectify the five misconceptions predominant in the student population. In the following paragraphs the characteristics of the ICT tools, along with the corresponding tasks, are described for each type of misconception.

First Category: Nature of Light

Equating light with its source and effects was identified as the most prevalent of the misconceived ideas (more than 50% out of 140 students located light in a light source). Another 25% of the students recognized that light is necessary for life and vision, and 22% of them considered light as being something physical that exists and travels through space. This property of light is taken for granted in Greek school textbooks and yet is a prerequisite for understanding light at a more advanced level (Watts 1985), as students do not distinguish between light as a physical entity and light as a sense perception stimulus. The software “Reflection and Diffusion” includes the following features to cope with these students’ difficulties:

In the first screen shot, a real photo depicting the reflection of the moon in a lake at the North Pole aims to motivate students who are asked to comment on what they see (Fig. 2). A video of a ball bouncing on a plane surface and animations with tennis balls bouncing on a table are used to help students grasp something analogous to the reflection of light. Students are asked to predict the correct reflected course and then to confirm their prediction by activating the animation or the video (Fig. 3).
Fig. 2

“Reflection and Diffusion”: Reflection of the moon and the sun in a lake at the North Pole

Fig. 3

“Reflection and Diffusion”: Real life video and animations of a ball bouncing on a plane surface

Gradually, a torch substitutes the child who throws the ball and a light beam substitutes the ball. In many animations the ray model is used to show light reflection and diffusion, thereby helping students consider light as an entity propagating through space. Thus the students can gradually construct a proper representation of light, distinguishing it from its source and effects. The lesson is further reinforced by a number of drag-and-drop activities referring to various sources (sound, heat, energy or light sources) aiming to help students understand that a radio speaker differs from the sound they hear, an electric burner differs from heat, and light differs from a torch or the sun or any other light source.

Second Category: Distinguishing Light Reflection from Light Diffusion

The results of the pre-test questionnaire revealed that 25% of the students did not distinguish between the kinds of surface on which light reflection and diffusion may occur (e.g. plane mirror, cloth, shiny marble, ground, dust, etc.). A number of activities with “Reflection and Diffusion” propose students to observe the above phenomena on different kinds of surfaces or on enlarged pictures of those surfaces, thus facilitating the comprehension of these concepts (Fig. 4). For instance, by putting the mouse pointer over an object the student can enlarge its surface to get a better appreciation of how light is reflected differently according to the smoothness of the surface.
Fig. 4

“Reflection and Diffusion”: Activating the reflection simulation

Furthermore, they can activate the applet found on the web to observe light reflection on the surface of a smooth pool of water, where a clear image of scenery is produced (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Website applet Light reflection on the surface of a smooth (a) or wavy b pool

When the water is wavy, it scatters the reflected light rays in all directions and the image of the scenery disappears. Moreover, the tutorial commences with a beam of white light being reflected by a plane or a rough surface demonstrating diffuse reflection. Students can use slider bars to adjust the texture of the surface appearing in the window between a range of 0 (smooth) and 100% (maximum roughness) (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6

Website applet Adjusting the texture of the surface

Third Category: The Geometrical Model

Regarding the phenomenon of Reflection of light, 20% of the 140 students gave a tautological answer: “…when the light is being reflected”, indicating that they were unaware of the course of the light beam when it falls on a smooth surface such as a plane mirror. Moreover, 17.1% stated that the light beam returns to the light source independently of the angle of incidence. Another 18.9% of the students answered that light stays on a plane surface and 18.6% did not give an answer. In order to address these misconceptions the software “Reflection and Diffusion” and a part of “M.A.TH.I.M.A.” were used. More particularly, “Reflection and Diffusion” contains simulations that represent light beams emerging from a point source. The trajectory of a light beam that interacts with an object is demonstrated by turning on the light source, considering the angle of incidence and the specific point of interaction with the object (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7

“Reflection and Diffusion”: Demonstrating the trajectory of a light beam as it is reflected by a plane mirror

The eye of the observer is included in most of the formal representations and analyses. In some activities students are required to choose the right course of a light beam, which is emitted from a light source and reflects on a plane surface (mirror, marble, etc.) (Fig. 8).
Fig. 8

“Reflection and Diffusion”: Students are called to choose the correct course of light beam, which reflects on a plane surface

Also, a number of activities with the software “M.A.TH.I.M.A.” involved students comparing the angle of incidence and the reflection angle (Fig. 9). Initially they observed the trajectory of a light beam coming from a light source and reflecting on a plane mirror and then they worked on the geometrical model according to the Law of Reflection. They changed the angle of the plane mirror that the light beam falls on or the angle of incidence, and registered their observations and measurements. In Fig. 9 the separate window at the top on the right of the screen shows a dynamic model of the phenomena taking place in the simulation. The relevant questions on the left window of the screen aim to help students express their ideas and test the validity of those ideas.
Fig. 9

“M.A.TH.I.M.A.”: Study of light reflection on a mirror

Fourth Category: Light Diffusion in the Atmosphere

As found in the initial research, the majority of the students (96.4%) attributed the earth’s daylight to the existence of the atmosphere, sea, ozone, satellites, etc., and not to light scattering on dust or the air molecules. More particularly, 20.7% of the students mentioned the absence of an atmosphere on the moon, 19.3% wrote that light could not reach the planets or travel through space and another 20% focused on other differences between the earth and the moon (absence of sea, clouds, ozone and satellites). “Reflection and Diffusion” tries to remedy these misperceptions by providing a short video with a scenario about a hypothetical journey from the earth to the moon. As the virtual spacecraft comes out of the earth’s atmosphere and lands on the moon, students can point out the difference between the colour of the sky on earth and on the moon (Fig. 10).
Fig. 10

“Reflection and Diffusion”: Hypothetical journey from the earth to the moon

They are asked to explain this difference and then test their hypothesis by activating an animation showing light rays scattering on dust or the molecules in the atmosphere. They are asked to explain this difference and then test their hypothesis by activating an animation showing light rays scattering on dust or the molecules in the atmosphere.

Fifth Category: The Emission Model

As the initial research has shown, a considerable number of students (76 out of 140 or 54.2%) adopted emission models when they referred to non-luminous objects or to luminous ones (54 students or 38.5%). In the case of a drawing with no light source, 30 out of 60 fifth grade students did not mention the directionality of the light’s trajectory. By contrast, this absence was observed in the drawings of only six out of 80 sixth grade students. It seems that younger students (10–11 years old) are not aware of the directionality of light in sight processes. Also, the students did not represent light at all but rather illustrated the geometrical connection between the eye and a viewed object.

When we asked students to show the direction of the light beam in the classical triangle (observer’s eye, light lamp, object) on their worksheets, more than 47% made drawings according to the emission model (the eye emits rays). Those drawings were classified into three groups: (a) according to the scientific model (Fig. 11a), (b) close to the scientific model (Fig. 11b) and (c) unacceptable representations indicating the active role of the eye (Fig. 11c).
Fig. 11

Schemes depicting the way students think we see non-luminous objects

According to this classification, 16.4% of the students made drawings according to the scientific model, 46.5% of them drawings close to scientific model (including dual illumination and light bath), and 37.2% provided unacceptable representations where light is emitted by the eye. In order to cope with these students’ alternative ideas the software “Reflection and Diffusion” provides animated graphic representations of vision depicting the directionality of light. Bearing in mind that a single arrow is highly schematic and thus might not be representative enough of the idea of light transmission (Winer et al. 1996), multiple arrows were used to represent vision, emanating from a seen object, some of which reach the eye. The software also contains an animation showing a child watching a flower. Students are asked to predict the direction of light by choosing the correct arrows and then to test their hypothesis by activating the animation (Fig. 12).
Fig. 12

“Reflection and Diffusion”: Animated graphic rendition of vision

Implementation and Evaluation

Our teaching was implemented in two student groups, an experimental and a control group. Two primary grade classes (N = 81) joined the experimental group where a 2-h innovative teaching sequence took place within a constructivist and collaborative learning environment with the use of the above-mentioned ICT tools and activities. The students worked on the computer in small groups of two to three. The control group consisted of two primary grade classes (N = 59) taught using standard textbooks and teacher presentations on the blackboard. All the classes of the study were randomly chosen from three primary schools (one urban, two rural) in Volos, central Greece. The students had equal academic ability, judging from their school records and the opinions of teachers. Two months after teaching, all the students answered a post-test questionnaire, which was similar to the initial one.

Results and Discussion

The teaching sequence with the use of the above mentioned ICT tools and activities had positive learning results in the experimental group. The differences in students’ answers between the experimental group (EG) and the control group (CG) allowed us to evaluate the influence of the learning materials on students’ conceptual change and comprehension of the phenomena. More specifically, our research revealed the following developments regarding the five initial student misconceptions.

Nature of Light

Concerning the nature of light our initial research revealed similar findings to previous studies (Andersson and Karrqvist 1983; Ramadas and Driver 1989; Osborne et al. 1993). According to Andersson and Karrqvist (1983) any attempt to teach optics at a higher level while students have not grasped the key idea of optics (that light is something physical that exists in space and propagates in space and time) may be compared to an attempt “to build a house without laying a proper foundation” (Andersson and Karrqvist 1983, p. 398). The software was designed specifically with this in mind.

The majority of the students in the EG revised their initial views about light: Comparison of responses of the experimental and the control group to the post-test questions “Where is light?” and “What do you think light is?” showed that students had better learning outcomes in the EG in understanding the nature of light. Specifically, in the post-test questionnaire 60% of those students versus 35% in the pre-test one answered the question “Where is light?” by stating that light is a distinct entity that travels through space, which corresponds to the scientific model. The difference between the initial and final answers was a significant one (p < 0.05). By contrast, in the CG only a minimal improvement in the scores was observed, with 32% of students answering correctly afterwards compared to the earlier figure of 28%.

The improvements evident in the EG can be attributed mainly to the fact that the instructional design did not confront the students with the full complexity of the problem from the very beginning, but presented them with a simpler version drawing on examples of their daily experience. The real life video about a ball bouncing on a plane surface, the activities referring to other sources (of sound, heat and energy) and the use of animations based on the ray model (Eylon et al. 1996) may have helped students to consider light as an entity propagating through space. This will have facilitated the process of scaffolding. The majority of the EG students seemed to gradually construct a proper representation of light by distinguishing it from its source and effects.

Distinguishing Light Reflection and Light Diffusion

A similar result was observed in connection with the distinction between light reflection and light diffusion. More particularly, students were asked to choose surfaces that could scatter light, the choice being between marble, mirror, dust, a house wall, shop window, soil, and grass by answering if there is true or false for every material. Analysis of the answers given by the students showed lower scores for those in the CG, but the difference between groups was statistically insignificant. The percentage of correct answers in the initial questionnaire was quite high for both groups (73.5% for the EG and 63% for the CG), but in the final test the result was higher for the EG after the innovative teaching (84.2% for the EG vs. 68.5% for the CG).

It seems evident that the activities in the software “Reflection–Diffusion” showing enlarged surfaces and animations of the behaviour of light contributed to students’ understanding of these phenomena. Moreover, the web applet allowed them to observe light reflection on various kinds of surfaces and to be actively involved by adjusting the surface texture and then watching the behaviour of light beams. Thus, the students could grasp the phenomena more accurately.

Understanding the Geometrical Model

After teaching, almost 65% of the students in the EG seemed to abandon their mistaken intuitions and adopt the scientifically accepted geometrical model referring to the equality between the incident angle and the reflection one. Also, 64.1% of the students’ final drawings were compatible with the scientific model compared to 43.2% of the initial ones. A statistically significant improvement (p < 0.05) was revealed in both the EG students’ answers and their schematic representations of the reflection phenomenon. In the CG about 59.4% of the students versus 39.1% in the pre-test gave an acceptable interpretation of the phenomenon (p > 0.05). It is remarkable that after traditional instruction some of the initial students’ misconceptions remained. For example, many students continued to state that light beams return to a light source independently of the angle of incidence or stay on the surface.

Similar results concerned the phenomenon of light diffusion: 54.4% of the students in the EG gave acceptable explanations or made correct drawings after the innovative teaching, versus 13.1% before it (p < 0.001). In the CG only 23.8% of the students gave acceptable explanations and made correct drawings after traditional instruction versus 5.1% before it.

The findings from the initial research are quite similar to previous ones (Andersson and Karrqvist 1983; Guesne 1985), especially concerning the ideas of younger students (fifth grade). But the misconception voiced by the children that the light beam returns to the light source independently of the angle of incidence after it meets the object’s surface has not been explicitly mentioned in previous studies. After the innovative teaching with ICT a clear improvement in the EG students’ ideas was observed. It seems that some characteristics of the software “Reflection–Diffusion” may have contributed to the understanding of the geometrical model, which may be due to: (a) students’ engagement in real problem solving activities, (b) prediction, testing, and confirmation of their own models, (c) use of analogies referring to everyday situations, and (d) appearance of appropriate feedback messages whenever the student answered either correctly or incorrectly. Also, the software “M.A.TH.I.M.A.” allowed students to engage in problem solving activities in a virtual geometric optics laboratory. By observing a highly dynamic and interactive geometric model of the situation under study, students registered their observations and measurements, which allowed them to easily adopt the scientific idea for the light reflection phenomenon.

Light Diffusion in the Atmosphere

The findings in the pre-test questionnaire confirmed the results of previous studies concerning misconceptions of light diffusion in the air (Driver et al. 1985), but also revealed some previously unrecorded alternative ideas held by students about the properties of light, such as the idea that light cannot reach the planets or travel through space. Before teaching, the answers given by the students of both groups to the question about the difference between the colour of the earth’s sky and the moon’s sky showed that the scientific explanation concerning the scattering of light on dust or the air is far beyond students’ conceptions. Only 3.7% of the EG students and 3.3% of the CG ones gave an initial explanation according to scientific view, and about 25% of those in both groups justified the difference by referring to the absence of atmosphere on the moon, without further explanation. The majority of the students (36% of the EG and 34% of the CG) attributed special properties to light, such as the inability of light to reach the planets because space is too far away for light to reach it, or because it cannot travel in space. The rest of them focused on other differences between the earth and the moon, like the absence of sea, clouds, ozone and satellites. Also, a considerable number of students (33% in the EG and 21% in the CG) gave no explanation.

After teaching with ICT in the EG, a real improvement was observed, as 21% of the students justified the difference by referring to the absence of an atmosphere on the moon without giving further details, and 33.3% gave an acceptable explanation involving scattering of light on dust or the air (vs. 3.7% in the initial questionnaire). But in the CG only 10.2% of the students revised their initial ideas and gave an acceptable justification (13.5% in the post-test questionnaire vs. 3.3% in the pre-test one), thus showing only a minimal conceptual evolution. According to Driver et al. (1985), even if students have understood that light is reflected by objects’ surfaces, it is very difficult for them to understand that the same happens in the air. It seems that some of the software’s features, such as the scenario about a hypothetical journey from the earth to the moon, and the useful tips demonstrating visualization at the molecular-microscopic level of the earth’s atmosphere, contributed to the understanding of light diffusion in the atmosphere for almost two-thirds of the EG students. The rest of them continued to express alternative conceptions by attributing special properties to light (e.g. light cannot reach the planets or travel through space) or focused on other differences between the earth and the moon (e.g. the absence of sea, clouds, ozone and satellites). This fact implies that some of the basic science concepts in physics are not clearly defined in previous traditional teaching and therefore require a special didactic procedure. In particular, the molecular structure of matter is a quite difficult subject for students of this age to conceive based only on reading textbooks and teacher presentations (Carey 1985; Driver et al. 1985; Lee et al. 1993), and needs special modelization procedures (see Martinand 1985; Stavridou 1995).


Comparing the answers given before and after the innovative teaching in the EG it was revealed that more than half of the EG students adopted interpretations close to the scientific ones concerning vision. More particularly, 57.1% of the EG students’ final drawings versus 18.5% of the initial ones were close to the scientific model, representing light directionality in vision, and depicting light rays, which are emitted from a light source, reflecting on non-luminous objects and reaching the observer’s eye. This difference was found to be statistically significant (p < 0.05). By contrast, in the CG only a minimal evolution was observed (from 13.6% correct to 22%), which was not a statistically significant difference.

Turning to the question “What happens with the light between a child’s eyes, a flower, and a light lamp?” the answers given after the children had observed a drawing depicting a child watching a flower and a light lamp fell into three groups (Fig. 11): (a) according to a scientific model where the flower reflects the light coming from the light source and reaching the eyes (this was seen in 59.5% of the final EG students’ answers vs. 18.6% of their initial ones, and 22% of the final CG students’ answers vs. 13.8% of their initial ones), (b) close to the scientific model, including light bath and dual illumination as dominant conceptions in both groups, and lamp-object, lamp-eye rays (seen in 13% of the final EG students’ answers vs. 37% of their initial ones, and 48% of the final CG students’ answers vs. 54% of their initial ones), and (c) unacceptable interpretations construing the eye as an emitter of light (seen in 26% of the EG students’ answers vs. 37% of their initial ones, and 31% of the final CG students’ answers vs. 31% of their initial ones). The difference between the EG and the CG was also evident in students’ answers to the question “Could you see something in absolute darkness?” Students in the CG who adopted the emission models in their drawings answered: “I could see in the absolute darkness under special circumstances (if I was a cat, or if I tried, etc.)”, in contrast to the students in the EG who answered negatively.

Moreover, an improvement was seen in the written descriptions, which indicated the receptive role of the observer’s eye (23% for EG, 2.9% for CG), while the majority of the CG students continued to write that we see luminous objects differently from non-luminous ones. Other studies have also pointed out (Guesne 1985; Boyes and Stanisstreet 1991) that the emission model is the dominant idea for 10–12 years old children who try to explain the way we see things. It seems that the animations of the software “Reflection–Diffusion” with the use of the ray model helped a higher percentage of EG students to adopt a scientific interpretation of vision compared to the CG students. However, many students (26% for EG, 32% for CG) continued to state that our eyes emit rays, implying that this particular concept resists teaching. Clearly, in order for students to develop a more scientific grasp of this, there is a need for more teaching time using constructivist ICT didactic tools and methods.


The optics concepts studied in this research are difficult for primary school students to understand. As other studies have shown, students’ ideas about the nature of light and vision are highly robust and resist instruction that contradicts them (Cottrell and Winer 1994; Fetherstonhaugh and Treagust 1992; Galili and Hazan 2000, 2001; Raftopoulos et al. 2005). Appropriate teaching tools may have positive results with regard to students’ conceptual change. In this study we investigated the educational impact of the software items “Reflection and Diffusion” and “M.A.TH.I.M.A.” which have been designed and developed according to the principles of social constructivism and on the basis of students’ intuitions about light and its behaviour.

After the implementation of the innovative teaching with the use of ICT tools, better learning outcomes were observed in students of the experimental group in comparison to those of the control group. The software items “Reflection and Diffusion” and “M.A.TH.I.M.A” have proved to be effective with the target populations. More particularly, the software “Reflection and Diffusion” was designed and developed on the basis of data collected in our initial research study, aiming to remedy students’ alternative ideas. This research confirmed previous findings and revealed some additional student misconceptions not explicitly mentioned in previous studies (see “categories three and four of students” alternative ideas). Knowledge of specific conceptual difficulties is a prerequisite for designing and developing effective instructional approaches utilizing the potential of ICT tools. The software allowed for a more visual and engaging (because interactive) presentation of the scientific concepts, facilitating the process whereby students revise or recode their initial perceptions. This recoding led students to a successful reformulation of their concepts, enabling them to better comprehend phenomena in everyday life. Compared to traditional teaching methods, the use of ICT tools makes it much easier to introduce the idea of light as a physical entity that moves in space. Using the ray model, the phenomena of light reflection and diffusion, and vision can be taught to children who are not yet intellectually mature enough to consider the nature of light as something constituted either of waves or particles. Also, the collaborative teaching method, along with the computer simulations and other ICT tools, motivated and impressed the students, creating an attractive learning environment that contributed to their active involvement and effective learning.

Although there are encouraging results concerning the contribution of the software’s specific features to students’ conceptual change, the percentage of students who answered incorrectly in the post-test questionnaire has not been reduced to zero. This fact can be attributed to the limited teaching time (2 h).

Looking to the future, there is a clear need for a wider research project involving a larger sample of students, and testing refined versions of the educational media to accomplish better learning results.

As far as the future availability of the software is concerned, it is hoped that once the further development of the programme has been completed, The University of Thessaly will eventually be in a position to make it freely available on the Web. More immediately, though, the intention is to extend the programme to cover a range of other topics in the field of optics, such as shadows, parallax, colours, etc. Once these extensions have been thoroughly tested and evaluated they will be made into a series of applets and uploaded to the Web.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ThessalyVolosGreece

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