Common Misconceptions about Day and Night, Seasons

The polar regions’ extremes in lengths of the seasons and day and night are an intriguing introduction to misunderstood scientific concepts. Research has long documented that people of all ages – elementary school children, college students, and adults – cannot explain the cause of day and night or seasons. While the prevalence of these misconceptions, as well as the complexity of the subject, makes it unlikely that students will leave elementary school with a complete and correct understanding, it is important to assess, target, and challenge these misconceptions even in the early years.

We’ve listed some common misconceptions about the seasons and day and night as cited by educational research. Rather than an exhaustive collection, this list is meant to stimulate your thinking about the ideas your students bring to the classroom. We’ve also included formative assessment probes, which are modeled (with permission from NSTA Press) after those found in Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, volumes 1, 2, and 3, as well as lessons and activities to shape students’ understanding of these concepts.

Day and Night Misconceptions
Baxter (1989) identified six ideas about day and night and showed that students tend to move through these ideas as they get older:

  • The Sun goes behind hills.
  • Clouds cover the Sun.
  • The Moon covers the Sun.
  • The Sun goes behind the Earth once a day.
  • The Earth goes around the Sun once a day.
  • The Earth spins on its axis once a day.

While not all misconceptions, this progression of ideas provides insight into how students’ thinking about day and night changes over time.
Other misconceptions about day and night include:

  • The Sun moves across the sky.
  • The Earth rotates in a clockwise manner.

Seasons Misconceptions

  • Earth is closer to the Sun during summer and farther away during winter.
  • Seasons happen at the same time everywhere on Earth.
  • Seasonal characteristics and change are the same everywhere on Earth.

Probing for Student Understanding

Volume 2 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science: 25 More Formative Assessment Probes (NSTA Press) contains a probe titled “Darkness at Night.” This probe is designed to elicit students’ ideas about the day/night cycle and to find out if students recognize that the rotation of the Earth causes the day/night cycle. We’ve followed the model used by Page Keeley and coauthors in Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, volumes 1, 2, and 3 (© 2005-2008 by NSTA Press) and created a similar probe to elicit students’ ideas about seasons around the world.

What to Wear? Probe and Teacher Notes
This formative assessment probe assesses student ideas about how seasons vary in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and at the equator.


Teaching the Science

We’ve highlighted lesson plans and online resources to teach about day and night or seasons in the elementary classroom. For more lesson plans on seasons, please see Investigating the Cause and Effect Relationships of Seasonal Change in the Science and Literacy department of this issue.

Day and Night

What Makes Day and Night? The Earth’s Rotation (Grades 1-5)
This lesson plan includes a printable KWL chart and incorporates children’s literature and kinesthetic activity to model Earth’s rotation and the day/night cycle.

Motion of the Sun and Earth: Using a Playground Model to Explain Rotation and Revolution (Grades 1-5)
This lesson plan involves creating a playground model and kinesthetic activity to model Earth’s rotation and revolution.

As the World Turns (Grades 3-5)
Students use kinesthetic activity and research to model and learn about the Earth’s rotation and revolution.

Earth is Round? (Grades 3-5)
Students discuss the shape of Earth and recreate Aristotle’s discovery that  Earth is round. Note: The second part of this lesson involves the phases of the moon. This is a complex concept in and of itself and should be developed separately.

Seasons

Sunrise, Sunset: Learning About the Seasons (Grades K-5)
A post from our Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears blog discusses the use of children’s literature to teach about seasonal variation.

Motion of the Sun and Earth: Using a Playground Model to Explain Rotation and Revolution (Grades 1-5)
This lesson plan involves creating a playground model and kinesthetic activity to model Earth’s rotation and revolution.

Explore Earth: A Model of Earth’s Yearly Revolution Around the Sun (Grades 3-5)
In order to illustrate how much sunlight different parts of Earth receive through the year, this model shows our planet much larger and closer to the Sun than it actually is. Examine the model carefully to compare the amount of sunlight the Northern and Southern Hemispheres receive in March, June, September, and December.


National Science Education Standards: Science Content Standards

Targeting student misconceptions about day and night and seasons primarily meets Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science (K-4 and 5-8).

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.


References

Baxter, J. 1989. Children’s understanding of familiar astronomical events. International Journal of Science Education 11 (special issue): 502-513.


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

Copyright May 2008 – 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 an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license

12 thoughts on “Common Misconceptions about Day and Night, Seasons

  1. The polar regions’ extremes in lengths of the seasons and day and night are an intriguing introduction to misunderstood scientific concepts. Research has long documented that people of all ages – elementary school children, college students, and adults – cannot explain the cause of day and night or seasons. While the prevalence of these misconceptions, as well as the complexity of the subject, makes it unlikely that students will leave elementary school with a complete and correct understanding, it is important to assess, target, and challenge these misconceptions even in the early years.

    We’ve listed some common misconceptions about the seasons and day and night as cited by educational research. Rather than an exhaustive collection, this list is meant to stimulate your thinking about the ideas your students bring to the classroom. We’ve also included formative assessment probes, which are modeled (with permission from NSTA Press) after those found in Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, volumes 1, 2, and 3, as well as lessons and activities to shape students’ understanding of these concepts.

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