Common Misconceptions about Heat and Insulation

The concepts of energy and heat are challenging for elementary students. Because young students are not ready to delve into kinetic theory and molecular motion, much of the explanation of heat and energy transfer is inaccessible to them. In addition, the use of the word “energy” in popular culture may interfere with the development of scientific understanding. Nevertheless, elementary students are capable of exploring heat through observations and qualitative, developmentally appropriate explanations. In fact, the idea that heat is transferred from one object to another via conduction is a grade-level expectation according to the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996). During these initial explorations, teachers will encounter a variety of student misconceptions. Formative assessment and purposeful teaching will help prepare students to tackle more advanced concepts in the middle grades and beyond.

In this article, we’ve highlighted some common misconceptions about heat and insulation. Rather than provide an exhaustive list of all possible student ideas, we hope to give insight into ones that might be held by your elementary students. We’ve also provided tools for formative assessment and resources for teaching correct scientific concepts.


MISCONCEPTIONS

Students may hold a variety of misconceptions about heat, temperature, and energy. A few common misconceptions include the idea that some objects (such as blankets) produce their own heat. Students may believe this because they have experienced feeling warmer after covering themselves with a blanket or putting on a sweater. Another area of misconception deals with the words “hot” and “cold.” Students often believe that heat and cold are different, and that they are substances rather than energy. Students may also believe that “cold” is transferred from one object to another – their experience with coolers and refrigerators seems to confirm this misconception.

The web page Children’s Misconceptions about Science provides a list of misconceptions in several areas of physical science, including heat and temperature. Here are a few that you might hear in your own classroom:

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
Heat is a substance. Heat is not energy. Heat is energy.
Temperature is a property of a particular material or object. (For example, students may believe that metal is naturally cooler than plastic.) Temperature is not a property of materials or objects. Objects exposed to the same ambient conditions will have the same temperature.
The temperature of an object depends on its size. Temperature does not depend on size.
Heat and cold are different. Cold is the absence of heat. Heat and cold can be thought of as opposite ends of a continuum.
Cold is transferred from one object to another. Heat is transferred from one object to another. Heat moves from the warmer object to the cooler object.
Objects that keep things warm (sweaters, mittens, blankets) are sources of heat. Objects keep things warm by trapping heat.
Some substances (flour, sugar, air) cannot heat up. All substances heat up, although some gain heat more easily than others.
Objects that readily become warm (conductors of heat) do not readily become cold. Conductors gain (and lose) heat easily.

FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT

What do your students think? Each of the four volumes in the series Uncovering Student Ideas in Science (NSTA Press) contains 25 formative assessment probes to help teachers identify misconceptions. Volumes 1, 2, and 4 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science contain assessment probes related to heat, insulation, and thermal energy.

Related formative assessment probes in Volume 1 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science:

“The Mitten Problem” is designed to find out whether students believe that an insulating object produces its own heat. It elicits student ideas about sources of heat energy.

“Objects and Temperature” is designed to find out whether students recognize that non-heat-producing objects exposed to the same ambient conditions will have the same temperature, regardless of material. It elicits student ideas about temperature.

Related formative assessment probes in Volume 2 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science:

“Mixing Water” is designed to find out whether students recognize that a transfer of energy occurs from warmer to colder objects or materials. It elicits student ideas about temperature and energy transfer.

Related formative assessment probes in Volume 4 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science:

“Warming Water” is designed to find out whether students think that cold things can have energy. It elicits student ideas about thermal energy.


TEACHING THE SCIENCE

While misconceptions can be persistent and tough to correct, well-designed instruction can help students move to an accurate scientific understanding of heat and energy. Each formative assessment probe in Uncovering Student Ideas in Science provides ideas for instruction, and in many cases, the probe itself can serve as the basis for guided (or open) inquiry experiences. In addition, here are two lessons that may help students understand that clothes and blankets do not produce heat.

Heat Misconceptions (Grades 3-5)
Classroom activities help students understand that gloves do not provide heat, but rather, gloves will insulate or hold in any heat that is in their hand.

Warm Me Up! (Grades 3-5)
Students will identify and discuss the misconception that many might have about heat sources, specifically that clothes do not produce heat.


NATIONAL SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS

Assessing and targeting student misconceptions about heat and insulation meet the Physical Science Content Standard for grades K-4 and 5-8 of the National Science Education Standards. The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. Science Content Standards can be found in Chapter 6.


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright December 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under anĀ Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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