Research in Science Education

, Volume 49, Issue 3, pp 657–678 | Cite as

Alternative Conceptions: Turning Adversity into Advantage

  • Annalize FerreiraEmail author
  • Miriam Lemmer
  • Richard Gunstone


While a vast body of research has identified difficulties in students’ understanding about forces and acceleration and their related alternative conceptions, far less research suggests ways to use students’ alternative conceptions to enhance conceptual understanding of a specific fundamental concept. This study focused on distinguishing between students’ conceptual understanding of the Newtonian concept of gravitational acceleration being the same for all objects and students’ alternative conception that heavy objects fall faster. A multiple choice questionnaire was distributed to first year physics students for three consecutive years at a university in South Africa. The results indicate that changing the direction of motion and the physics quantity asked in paired questions revealed practically significant inconsistencies in students’ reasoning and conceptions. This research contributes to the body of knowledge in proposing how the alternative conception of mass-related gravitational acceleration can be used in instruction to enhance conceptual understanding of the force–mass–acceleration relationship. Understanding of this relationship not only promotes conceptual understanding of the basic Newtonian concepts of the laws of motion which forms the critical foundation on which more advanced physics courses are built, but also contributes towards students’ perception of physics as a set of coherent ideas applicable in all contexts.


Alternative conceptions Conceptual understanding Force and acceleration Direction of motion Threshold concepts 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Disclosure Statement

No financial benefits will arise from the direct application of our research.


  1. Amin, T. G., Smith, C. L., & Wiser, M. (2014). Student conceptions and conceptual change; three overlapping phases of research. In N. G. Ledermann & S. K. Abell (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education volume II (pp. 57–81). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Champagne, A. B., Gunstone, R. F., & Klopfer, L. E. (1982). A perspective on the differences ∼ expert∼ and novice performance in solving physics problems. Research in Science Education, 12, 71–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chu, H. E., & Treagust, D. F. (2014). Secondary students’ stable and unstable optics conceptions using contextualized questions. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 23(2), 238–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chu, H. E., Treagust, D. F., & Chandrasegaran, A. L. (2008). Naïve students’ conceptual development and beliefs: The need for multiple analyses to determine what contributes to student success in a university introductory physics course. Research in Science Education, 38(1), 111–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  6. Dreyfus, B. W., Sawtelle, V., Turpen, C., Gouvea, J., & Redish, E. F. (2014). A Vision of Interdisciplinary Education: Students' Reasoning about" High-Energy Bonds" and ATP. arXiv preprint arXiv:1402.5408.Google Scholar
  7. Driver, R., & Erickson, G. (1983). Theories-in-action: Some theoretical and empirical issues in the study of students' conceptual frameworks in science. Studies in Science Education, 10, 37–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Driver, R., Asoko, H., Leach, J., Scott, P., & Mortimer, E. (1994). Constructing scientific knowledge in the classroom. Educational researcher, 23(7), 5-12.Google Scholar
  9. Duit, R. (2004) Bibliography: Students’ alternative frameworks and science education (IPN Reports-in-Brief). University of Kiel.Google Scholar
  10. Duit, R., & Treagust, D. F. (2003). Conceptual change: A powerful framework for improving science teaching and learning. International Journal of Science Education, 25(6), 671–688. doi: 10.1080/09500690305016.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Duit, R., Schecker, H., Höttecke, D., & Niedderer, H. (2014). Teaching physics. In N. G. Ledermann & S. K. Abell (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education volume II (pp. 434–456). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Duschl, R., Maeng, S., & Sezen, A. (2011). Learning progressions and teaching sequences: A review and analysis. Studies in Science Education, 47(2), 123–182. doi: 10.1080/03057267.2011.604476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Ferreira, A., & Lemmer, M. (2015). Investigating students' conceptual understanding through solving kinematics problems in various contexts. In J Lavonen, K Juuti, J Lampiselka, A Uitto & K Halh (eds.) Proceedings of the European Science Education Research Association Conference, 176–183Google Scholar
  14. Gilbert, J. K., & Watts, D. M. (1983). Concepts, misconceptions and alternative conceptions: Changing perspectives in science education. Studies in Science Education, 10, 61–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gunstone, R.F. (2016) Private communicationGoogle Scholar
  16. Gunstone, R. F. (1987). Student understanding in mechanics: A large population survey. American Journal of Physics, 55(8), 691–696. doi: 10.1119/1.15058.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gunstone, R. F. (1992). Constructivism and metacognition: Theoretical issues and classroom studies. In R. Duit, F. Goldberg, & H. Niedderer (Eds.), Research in physics learning: Theoretical issues and empirical studies (pp. 129–140). Kiel: IPN.Google Scholar
  18. Gunstone, R. F., & White, R. T. (1981). Understanding of gravity. Science Education, 65, 291–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hedge, B., & Meera, B. N. (2012). How do they solve it? An insight into the learner’s approach to the mechanism of physics problem solving. Physical Review Special Topic - Physics Education Research, 8, 010109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hestenes, D., Wells, M., & Swackhamer, G. (1992). Force concept inventory. The Physics Teacher, 30(3), 141–158. doi: 10.1119/1.2343497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kavanagh, C. & Sneider, C. (2007). Learning about gravity I. Free fall: A guide for teachers and curriculum developers. Astronomy Education Review, 5(2), 21-52Google Scholar
  22. Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2009). Energizing learning: The instructional power of conflict. Educational Researcher, 38(1), 37–51. doi: 10.3102/0013189X08330540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Ledermann, N. G., & Ledermann, J. S. (2014). Research on teaching and learning of nature of science. In N. G. Ledermann & S. K. Abell (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education volume II (pp. 600–620). New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lemmer, M. (2013). Nature, cause and effect of students’ intuitive conceptions regarding changes in velocity. International Journal of Science Education, 35(2), 239–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. McDermott, L. C. (1984). Research on conceptual understanding in mechanics. Physics Today, 37(7), 24-32.Google Scholar
  26. Meyer, J. H., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Minstrell, J. (1982). Explaining the “at rest” condition of an object. The Physics Teacher, 20(1), 10–15. doi: 10.1119/1.2340924.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Muis, K. R., & Gierus, B. (2014). Beliefs about knowledge, knowing, and learning: Differences across knowledge types in physics. The Journal of Education, 82(3), 408–430. doi: 10.1080/00220973.2013.813371.Google Scholar
  29. Osborne, R. & Freyberg, P. (1985). Learning in science: The implications of children's science. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Education Books.Google Scholar
  30. Palmer, D. (2001). Students' alternative conceptions and scientifically acceptable conceptions about gravity. International Journal of Science Education, 23(7), 691–706.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Perkins, D. (1999). The many faces of constructivism. Educational Leadership, 57(3), 6–11.Google Scholar
  32. Psycharis, S. (2016). Inquiry based-computational experiment, Acquisition of Threshold Concepts and Argumentation in science and mathematics education. Educational Technology & Society, 19(3), 282–293.Google Scholar
  33. Rebello, C. M., & Rebello, S. (2011). Adapting a theoretical framework for students’ use of equations in physics problem solving. Physics Education Research conference, American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings, 1413, 311–314.Google Scholar
  34. Redish, E. (2003. A theoretical framework for physics education research: Modeling student thinking. Paper presented at the International School of Physics, Varenna, Italy. Retrieved September 14, 2016, from IOS Press:
  35. Redish, E. (2005). Changing student ways of knowing: What should our students learn in a physics class. American Journal of Physics, 69, S54 (2001). doi: 10.1119/1.1377283.Google Scholar
  36. Saul, J. M. (1998). Beyond problem-solving: Evaluating introductory physics courses through the hidden curriculum. PhD disseratation. University of Maryland.Google Scholar
  37. Serway, R. A., & Jewett, J. W. (2012). Principles of physics: a calculus-based text (5ed). Nelson Education. ISBN-10: 1133104266| ISBN-13: 9781133104261.Google Scholar
  38. Singh, C., & Rosengrant, D. (2003). Multiple-choice test of energy and momentum concepts. American Journal of Physics, 71(6), 607–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Stewart, J., Griffin, H., & Stewart, G. (2007). Context sensitivity in the force concept inventory. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 3(1), 010102.Google Scholar
  40. Treagust, D. F. (1995). Diagnostic assessment of students’ science knowledge. Learning science in the schools: Research reforming practice, 1, 327–436.Google Scholar
  41. Treagust, D. F. (2012). Diagnostic assessment in science as a means to improving teaching, learning and retention. In Proceedings of the Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education (formerly UniServe Science Conference).Google Scholar
  42. Von Aufschnaiter, C., & Rogge, C. (2015). Conceptual change in learning. In R. Gunstone (Ed.), Encyclopedia of science education (pp. 209–218). Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Williamson, K., Prather, E. E., & Willoughby, S. (2016). Applicability of the Newtonian gravity concept inventory to introductory college physics classes. American Journal of Physics, 84(6), 458–466. doi: 10.1119/1.4945347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Wilson, A., Akerlind, G., Francis, P., Kirkup, L., McKenzie, J., Pearce, D., & Sharma, M. D. (2010). Measurement uncertainty as a threshold concept in physics. In Proceedings of the Australian conference on science and mathematics education (formerly UniServe science conference), Vol. 16.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Physical and Chemical SciencesNorth-West UniversityPotchefstroom CampusSouth Africa
  2. 2.Faculty of EducationMonash UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  3. 3.Faculty of EducationMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia

Personalised recommendations