Research in Science Education

, Volume 45, Issue 6, pp 807–840 | Cite as

Uncovering Implicit Assumptions: a Large-Scale Study on Students’ Mental Models of Diffusion



Students’ mental models of diffusion in a gas phase solution were studied through the use of the Structure and Motion of Matter (SAMM) survey. This survey permits identification of categories of ways students think about the structure of the gaseous solute and solvent, the origin of motion of gas particles, and trajectories of solute particles in the gaseous medium. A large sample of data (N = 423) from students across grade 8 (age 13) through upper-level undergraduate was subjected to a cluster analysis to determine the main mental models present. The cluster analysis resulted in a reduced data set (N = 308), and then, mental models were ascertained from robust clusters. The mental models that emerged from analysis were triangulated through interview data and characterised according to underlying implicit assumptions that guide and constrain thinking about diffusion of a solute in a gaseous medium. Impacts of students’ level of preparation in science and relationships of mental models to science disciplines studied by students were examined. Implications are discussed for the value of this approach to identify typical mental models and the sets of implicit assumptions that constrain them.


Mental models Diffusion Cognitive constraints Cluster analysis Chemistry education 



The authors are grateful to the many students who participated in this study, and their teachers who helped to facilitate its possibility. The authors wish to thank Vicente Talanquer for insightful discussions that enhanced this research. This study was supported, in part, by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) award EHR-0412390.

Conflict of Interest

Part of this work was conducted while one of the authors (HS) was under employment of the NSF, with support through an Independent Research and Development Plan. The findings and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, positions, or conclusions of the NSF.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ChemistryUniversity of Nebraska LincolnLincolnUSA
  2. 2.Department of ChemistryUniversity of Massachusetts BostonBostonUSA

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