Developing an instrument for assessing students' understanding of the energy concept across science disciplines
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Energy is a core and unifying concept in all science disciplines and across all grade levels. Although energy is one of the most central and richly connected ideas in all of science disciplines, students often have a great deal of difficulty understanding it. Numerous studies have been conducted on this topic finding that many students held misconceptions of energy and had difficulty differentiating between energy and other scientific concepts. The research on the learning progression of energy suggests the curricular scaffolding of the ideas of basic energy aspects, energy source and form, transfer, degradation and conservation, for meaningful understanding of energy to occur. Although many research studies exist concerning misconceptions of energy and the learning progression of energy, little is known about how students represent their understanding of the energy concept differently across different disciplinary contexts. The purpose of this study is to develop an instrument for assessing students' understanding of the energy concept across the different science disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, and environmental science, to validate the instrument, and to examine the students' understanding of the energy concept in these disciplinary contexts in relation to different science content areas within each discipline. In the process of completing this project, the Inter-Disciplinary Energy concept Assessment (IDEA) was developed through a pilot-test. The IDEA consisting of forty-nine items presented in pairs: multiple choice and open-ended justification questions. The IDEA was administered to 356 college students recruited as whole classes taught across three different states in the United States in order to assess understanding of the energy concept. The partial credit Rasch model was conducted for the field test data to establish evidence for validity and reliability of the IDEA. Results show that the IDEA can produce reliable and valid measures of student understanding of the energy concept. The average difficulties of items by disciplinary contexts showed that overall physics items are the most difficult with regard to the energy concept, following by chemistry items, environmental science items and biology items, respectively. However, there is no statistical difference at the level of alpha = .05 in population means among the four different disciplinary contexts on item difficulty. This study found that overall items of energy degradation and conservation are the most difficult compared to items of the other energy aspects. When item difficulties of energy aspects were analyzed by disciplinary contexts or science content areas, the sequence of item difficulties in energy aspects is not consistent across disciplinary contexts or science content areas. This result suggests that there is no universal order to difficulty in understanding of the energy aspects; item difficulties of energy aspects were compounded with specific science discipline contents. The results of this study contribute new knowledge on the contextualized nature of energy understanding and inform future research on learning progressions in energy.