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ALIPAA AYAS, HALUK ZMEN and MUAMMER ALIK

STUDENTS CONCEPTIONS OF THE PARTICULATE NATURE


OF MATTER AT SECONDARY AND TERTIARY LEVEL
Received: 7 March 2007; Accepted: 26 May 2009

ABSTRACT. The aim of the present study is to elicit students understanding of the
particulate nature of matter via a cross-age study ranging from secondary to tertiary
educational levels. A questionnaire with five-item open-ended questions was administered
to 166 students from the secondary to tertiary levels of education. In light of the findings,
it can be deduced that the number of students responses categorized under the sound
understanding category for each item increased with educational level, except for U1.
Also, it can be concluded that students specific misconceptions decreased steadily from
SHS1 to SHS3, except for item 4, but there is surprisingly a clear increase at U1.
KEY WORDS: concept understanding, misconception, particulate nature of matter,
science education, secondarytertiary level

INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND


When the Russians first sent Sputnik into orbit in 1957, many Western
countries were surprised, feeling that they were not keeping up with
technological innovation. This led to a strong movement to improve
science curricula, the first improved feature being a shift from a contentbased curriculum to a learner-centered focus. A key idea in many
curriculum reforms has been that there is a crucial relationship between
science and technology and that science, in turn, can be enhanced by
improving the quality of science education in schools. The oft-reported
curricula reforms of the 1960s began in the USA and spread to other
Western countries like the UK. A key aim of these reforms was to teach
science in a way that all children might become scientifically literate and,
at the same time, the interests of those aspiring to become scientists were
served. The underlying idea about learning in such curricula was to teach
the basic or key concepts of science and get children to learn how to
learn because the sheer volume of scientific content is such that it can
never be covered even in the most ambitious of science programs. The
basic/key concepts of science are then seen as building blocks for further
learning. If students develop the basic concepts as early as possible, they
may be more successful in learning advanced science topics. These are
International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education (2010) 8: 165Y184
# National Science Council, Taiwan 2009

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ALIPAA AYAS, MUAMMER ALIK, AND HALUK ZMEN

laudable aims, however, education research over many decades suggests


that students do not come to the classroom as blank slates; rather, they
come to schools with well-established conceptions gained from interaction with their environmentphysically, socially, and emotionally
(Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog 1982). These conceptions may or
may not match scientific conceptions.

STUDENTS UNDERSTANDING OF THE PARTICULATE NATURE


OF MATTER
From education research on a variety of science topics, it appears that one
of the most important factors affecting the teachinglearning process is
students pre-existing knowledge which influences how students learn
new scientific knowledge and may support or hinder successful
acquisition of interrelated concepts (BauJaoude, 1991). Students ideas
about science concepts that are different from the scientifically accepted
ones are labeled: misconceptions, preconceptions, nave conceptions,
childrens science, alternative conceptions, alternative frameworks,
conceptual frameworks, common sense understanding, and so on
(Hewson & Hewson, 1984; Zoller, 1990; Nakhleh, 1992; Gabel &
Bunce, 1994; Schmidt, 1997; Taber, 1998; Palmer, 1999; zmen & Ayas,
2003). Much research has been conducted on students understanding of
basic chemistry concepts, for example, elements, compounds, and
mixtures (Ayas & Demirbas, 1997; Papageorgiou & Sakka, 2000),
chemical reactions (Ben-Zvi, Eylon & Silberstein, 1987; Hesse &
Anderson, 1992; Boo & Watson, 2001; zmen & Ayas, 2003), chemical
equilibrium (Bergquist & Heikkinen, 1990; Huddle & Pillay, 1996;
Voska & Heikkinen, 1996), chemical bonding (Coll & Treagust, 2002a;
2002b; 2003; Peterson & Treagust, 1989; Taber, 1994; Taber & Coll,
2002; Boo, 1998; Tan & Treagust, 1999), acids and bases (Nakhleh &
Krajcik, 1994; Bradley & Mosimege, 1998; Sisovic & Bojovic, 2000),
atoms and molecules (Ben-Zvi, Eylon & Silberstein, 1986; Griffiths &
Preston, 1992; Nakhleh & Samarapungavan, 1999; Harrison & Treagust,
2000), and the particulate nature of matter (Gabel, Samuel & Hunn, 1987;
Gabel, 1993; de Vos & Verdonk, 1996; Valanides, 2000; zmen, Ayas &
Cotu, 2002; De Jong, Van Driel & Verloop, 2005).
Since the particulate theory is a key central concept in science
education (Snir, Smith & Raz, 2003), it underpins student understanding
of many of the above-named concepts. Furthermore, many science
education researchers argue that an appropriate understanding of the

STUDENTS CONCEPTIONS OF THE PARTICULATE NATURE OF MATTER

167

particulate nature of matter is essential for the learning of chemistry


concepts (e.g., Novick & Nussbaum, 1978; Anderson, 1986; Hackling &
Garnett, 1986; Renstrm, Andersson & Marton, 1990; Haidar, 1997; Tsai,
1999; Ayas, 2001). The particulate nature of matter is associated with the
structure of matter and phase changes (Osborne & Cosgrove, 1983; Bar,
1989; Gabel, Samuel & Hunn, 1987; de Vos & Verdonk, 1996). Other
physical processes for which an understanding of the particulate nature of
matter is a prerequisite is in the following: diffusion, dissolution process,
and solution chemistry (Lee, Eichinger, Anderson, Berkheimer, &
Blakeslee 1993; de Vos & Verdonk, 1996), chemical reactions, the
effects of pressure, volume, and temperature on gases (Nakhleh, 1992),
heat and heat transfer, and electrical currents (de Vos & Verdonk, 1996).
Although students may have understood the main point of the
scientifically accepted theory, that is, that matter which is made of
discrete particles within constant motion has empty space between the
particles, research suggests that they find it difficult to apply this theory to
novel situations (Novick & Nussbaum, 1981; Haidar & Abraham, 1991;
Tsai, 1999). Studies on the particulate nature of matter have indicated that
students differentially internalize scientific theories and concepts. For
example, Griffiths & Prestons (1992) study of grade 12 students
understanding of atoms and molecules revealed a remarkable total of 52
specific misconceptions. However, one of the most common misconceptions was that students regarded matter as continuous and not particulate
in nature. Other related research supports the prevalence of the nave
notion of a continuous-matter view of the physical world, as opposed to
the accepted particulate model (Novick & Nussbaum, 1978, 1981;
Nussbaum, 1985). It seems that some misconceptions indicate parallel
development with the historical one of scientific concepts. Stavy (1988),
for example, reports that students definition of gas depends on their
grade: seventh graders for instance only use a particle model as a definition.
An interesting feature of the literature about the particle theory is that
all the scientifically accepted ideas that make up the theory of the
particulate nature of matter are seldom discussed (de Vos & Verdonk,
1996). A review of the literature reports eight ideas that need to be
incorporated into a valid description of the particle theory of matter (de
Vos & Verdonk, 1996; van Driel, 2002):
1. All matter consists of entities called particles. Individual particles are
too small to be seen. They behave as hard, solid, perfectly elastic
(except in chemical reactions) immutable objects. Their absolute
dimensions and shape are usually irrelevant.

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ALIPAA AYAS, MUAMMER ALIK, AND HALUK ZMEN

2. Motion is a permanent feature of all particles. Because of the perfect


elasticity of particle collisions, there is a direct relation between the
temperature of an amount of matter and the average kinetic energy of
its particles.
3. In a gas, particles are evenly distributed over space, the empty space
between the particles is much larger than the space occupied by the
particles themselves.
4. Particles mutually attract each other, but the magnitude of the
attraction decreases rapidly with distance.
5. In liquids and solids, the particles are much closer together than those
in gases. Therefore, their mutual attraction is much larger. In solids,
the particles are only able to vibrate around a fixed position, whereas
in liquids, the particles move from place to place within the fixed
volume occupied by the liquid.
6. Different substances consist of different particles, but all particles of
one substance are mutually identical. A mixture of substances contains
particles of two or more different species.
7. In a chemical reaction, to make a distinction between molecules and
atoms is necessary. The chemical reaction is conceived as a rearrangement of atoms: the atoms themselves are conserved, whereas molecules
of certain species are transformed into molecules of different species.
8. An atom consists of a nucleus with a positive electrical charge surrounded
by a number of negatively charged electrons. Chemical bond formation as
well as electrical current is described in terms of the mobility of electrons.
Longitudinal and cross-age research suggests that, although childrens
notions of scientific phenomena change over time, certain misconceptions
persist from preschool to a higher educational level (Westbrook & Marek,
1991). Despite the fact that the cross-age research involves different
cohorts of students, it is more applicable than the longitudinal study when
time is limited (Abraham, Williamson & Westbrook, 1994; alk, 2005).
Also, cross-age studies do provide an opportunity to observe shifts in
concept development as a consequence of students maturity, an increase
in intellectual development, and further learning (Westbrook & Marek,
1991). For example, cross-age studies by Coll & Treagust (2002a; 2002b;
2003) reported similar misconceptions for students at a beginning and
advanced schooling level and revealed little uptake of complex models for
chemical bonding at advanced levels of study, pointing to a need for teachers
to justify the purpose of more complex models to students when teaching.
Although many research studies about students understanding of the
particulate nature of matter have been carried out, there are few cross-age

STUDENTS CONCEPTIONS OF THE PARTICULATE NATURE OF MATTER

169

studies from secondary to tertiary level to explore how students link the
particulate nature of matter with evaporation, condensation, effect of
temperaturepressure changes in gases, diffusion, and states of matter.
Cross-age studies have been used in several studies of student conceptual
understanding of such topics. That is, Stavy (1988) reports that, as might
be expected, students understanding of evaporation and condensation
changes with age and educational level. Similarly, Taber and Coll (2002)
note that understanding advanced concepts requires an understanding of
key underpinning concepts.

RESEARCH PURPOSE
From the aforementioned literature, the following knowledge claims emerge:
(1) students struggle to understand such scientific models as the particle
nature of matter; (2) some underlying concepts such as the particle model for
matter are prerequisite to understanding higher level, more complex
concepts; (3) few cross-age or longitudinal studies of students understanding of the particulate nature of matter, which might provide insights into
student understanding at various educational levels, have been implemented.
Hence, the aim of the present study is to elicit students understanding of
the particulate nature of matter via a cross-age study ranging from secondary
to tertiary educational levels. Since the study intends to provide a snapshot of
student understanding at different educational levels, this will not only
enable teachers and teacher educators to be aware of potential misconceptions, but also to take these into account in planning teaching activities.

EDUCATION CONTEXT OF THE STUDY


In Turkey, the educational context for this study is structured into four
levels: preschool education (aged 36), basic education (primary and
middle schools, aged 614), secondary education (lycees or senior high
schools, aged 1417), and higher education (colleges and universities).
Science is a compulsory subject in Turkish schools, and when students
come to secondary school, chemistry, physics, and biology are compulsory subjects. Although the age level at which students should be
introduced to the particulate nature of matter is somewhat variable,
examination of elementary science textbooks shows that atoms, molecules, and the particulate nature of matter are depicted even in the primary
grades. In Turkish science textbooks, the particulate nature of matter

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ALIPAA AYAS, MUAMMER ALIK, AND HALUK ZMEN

concept is implicitly mentioned at grades 4 and 7 (aged 10). It appears


explicitly again in grades 6 and 8 (aged 1315). Hence, for chemistry and
physics lessons at the secondary level, these concepts are referred to
within different units. Moreover, chemistry is a compulsory subject for
science and science-related majors in Turkish universities.
Since the number of students who graduate from secondary schools
vastly exceeds the current capacity of higher education institutes in the
nation, students who wish to progress to a Bachelors Degree have to take
part in a highly competitive central university entrance examination
(Ayas, epni & Akdeniz, 1993; alik & Ayas, 2008).

METHODOLOGY
Students understanding of science concepts can be assessed using a
variety of techniques (White & Gunstone, 1992), and for the study
reported in this paper, a questionnaire with five open-ended questions was
used to collect data. Although these data were triangulated with informal
interviews exploring students understanding in depth, due to shyness,
some Turkish students find it difficult to express themselves. Therefore,
the questionnaire was used as the primary data source.
The sample consisting of 166 students, 35 from lycee 1 (aged 1415;
called SHS1), 33 from lycee 2 (aged 1516; labeled SHS2), 34 from lycee
3 (aged 1617; named SHS3), 32 from undergraduate chemistry-freshmen
(aged 1718; called U1), and 32 from undergraduate chemistrysophomores (aged 1819; named U2), were selected from Trabzon in
the East of Turkey. We did not set out to make comparisons with regards
to sex, but the number of male and female students turned out to be much
the same, and all participants came from similar middle-class socioeconomic backgrounds and fairly well-educated families.
The questionnaire with five open-ended questions was constructed by
collecting items used for similar purposes from the national and
international literature. A group consisting of two professors, one associate
professor, one assistant professor, and ten graduate students in a university
science education department, along with four chemistry teachers, was
asked to judge the items for their validity and suitability for the context. The
discussion about the questions and answers lasted for three 60-min sessions.
All group members confirmed that, in terms of the content validity, the
questions used in this study were in harmony with the aim of the study.
The concept-evaluation technique employed by Abraham, Grzybowski,
Renner, & Marek (1992) was used to evaluate students level of

STUDENTS CONCEPTIONS OF THE PARTICULATE NATURE OF MATTER

171

understanding. In the study of Abraham et al., student responses were


classified into four different categories: sound understanding, partial
understanding, specific misconception, and no understanding. These
categories are now described in detail. Sound understanding (SU):
Responses that included all components of the acceptable responses.
Partial understanding (PU): Responses that included at least one of the
components of an acceptable response. Specific misconception (SM):
Responses that included descriptive, incorrect, or illogical information
and no components of the acceptable response. No understanding (NU):
Responses in which the participant repeated a part or the entire question,
used phrases such as I dont understand and I dont know, or
provided irrelevant or uncodable responses.
In analyzing data, while these categories were used for items 14, item
5, which requires students to write an explanation about their own
drawings in order to validate students drawings, was labeled using three
categories: continuous, particulate, and particulate but incorrect with
respect to the solid, liquid, and gaseous phases of matter. Now, the
categories are outlined as follows: continuous: student drawings that were
clearly not particulate in nature, particulate: student drawings were the
same as, or very similar to, the acceptable particulate model, and
particulate but incorrect: student drawings were particulate in nature,
but not consistent with the accepted particulate model.
In the data analysis process, two raters independently categorized the
performances obtained from 166 students. Later, inter-rater consistency
was evaluated by correlating the categories assigned by one judge with
those assigned by another judge. Such an estimation of inter-rater
consistency is used in the literature (Linn & Gronlund, 1995, pp. 90
91). Since two researchers initially categorized the data separately, they
negotiated the consistency of the categorization. There was a high
agreement, approximately 90%, in most of the categorization. In cases of
disagreement, all disagreements were resolved by negotiation.

RESEARCH FINDINGS
The results obtained from the questionnaire are presented in Table 1. The
results are discussed with regard to the particulate nature of matter as
indicated below.
Item 1. A glass half filled with water is placed in front of a window.
After a few days it is observed that there was no water in the

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ALIPAA AYAS, MUAMMER ALIK, AND HALUK ZMEN

TABLE 1
Percentages of students' responses at different levels of education to items 14
QN

Sample

Item 1

SHS1
SHS2
SHS3
U1
U2
SHS1
SHS2
SHS3
U1
U2
SHS1
SHS2
SHS3
U1
U2
SHS1
SHS2
SHS3
U1
U2

Item 2

Item 3

Item 4

SU (%)

PU (%)

SM (%)

15
27
35
13
47
15
27
57
20
45
13
18
38
23
32
9
12
21
13
28

66
53
47
60
25
61
41
33
37
23
24
36
29
27
28
34
55
50
50
41

17
13
12
20
14
22
21
7
23
23
53
40
25
34
27
48
27
30
24
25

NU (%)
2
6
6
7
14
2
11
3
9
9
10
6
8
16
13
9
6

10
6

glass. How do you explain this situation by using the scientific


idea that matter is particulate?
Item 1, which is related to the concept of evaporation, measures if the
students could use the particulate nature of matter to explain this event. It
is expected that the students at different educational levels should not
only use the word evaporation or a description illustrating the process
of evaporation, but also link it with energy changes and the particulate
nature of matter.
As can be seen from Table 1, the percentages of the students responses
categorized under the sound understanding category are 15%, 27%, 35%,
13%, and 47%, respectively, and indicate a steady increase with educational
level, except for the freshman chemistry student teachers. These students
exploited scientifically accepted responses such as: All liquids are
particulate in nature and evaporation occurs in all temperatures, Water
particles move faster with the effect of sunrise and their kinetic energies and
also collisions increase, and So, all of the water evaporates over time.

STUDENTS CONCEPTIONS OF THE PARTICULATE NATURE OF MATTER

173

The percentages of the students responses labeled under the partial


understanding category are 66%, 53%, 47%, 60%, and 25%, respectively, and showed a steady decrease with educational level from SHS1 to
U2, apart from U1. In this category, although students identified the
phenomenon as evaporation, they typically did not explain how this
occurred. Typical student responses in this category were as follows:
Water evaporates because evaporation occurs in all temperatures, The
amount of water decreases with the effects of sunrise, and Water
molecules evaporate with the effect of temperature and wind.
The ratio of the students responses categorized in the specific
misconceptions category ranged from 12% to 20%. Whereas U1 students
had the highest percentage (20%), SHS3 possessed the lowest (12%).
Typical students responses in this category were: Sunrise causes a
getting rid of the water molecules completely and If the water is not
made of the particles, all of the water disappears from sight suddenly.
The proportion of students responses categorized as no understanding was quite low and increased from SHS1 to U2, respectively.
Item 2. A football is pumped up until it becomes hard on a warm day. At
night it is left outside and in the early morning while the weather
is cooler it felt softer. How do you explain this situation (the
difference between night and day in the hardness of the ball) by
using the scientific idea that all matter is made of particles?
(Assume that the ball does not leak).
Item 2 related to the way the temperaturepressure relationship
measures how students could use the particulate model of matter to
explain this relationship. It is expected that the students at different levels
should relate the effects of temperaturepressure with particles.
As seen from Table 1, the percentages of the students responses
classified as being a sound understanding category are between 15%
and 57%. While SHS1 students showed the lowest understanding (15%),
SHS3 students revealed the highest (57%). A typical response in the
sound understanding category was: Air is made of particles. In the
daytime, collisions and movements increase with the effect of the
temperature. So, the pressure on the inner surface of the football increases
and it becomes hard. As the temperature decreases at night time,
collisions, movements, and pressure on the inner surface of football
decrease, so, it becomes softer.
As can be seen from Table 1, the percentages of students responses
categorized in the partial understanding category are 61%, 41%, 33%,

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ALIPAA AYAS, MUAMMER ALIK, AND HALUK ZMEN

37%, and 23%, respectively, and indicated an increase with educational


level from SHS1 to U2, except for U1. Although these students stated that
the expansion of the air was the reason, they could not relate this to the
particulate nature of matter or temperature. Some typical responses were:
As the temperature increases, air in the football presses on the inner
surface, this pressure decreases in cold and This is because of the
temperaturewhile the football is hard in hot weather, it is soft in cold
weather.
As seen from Table 1, the percentages of the students responses
categorized in the specific misconception category ranged from 7% to
23%. Apart from SHS3, whose percentage is the lowest (7%), the
remainder of the sample had very similar proportions. Some typical
responses were: Air pressure is high in hot weather and low in cold
weather. Because the outside is cold there is low pressure in the football.
So, it is softer than that in the hot weather and Particles in the football
expand with hot weather. So, the football becomes hard. In the cold
weather, particles constrict and the football becomes soft.
The proportion of the students responses categorized as being in the
no understanding category ranged from 2% to 11%. An example of a
student response was: The hardness in cold weather is different from that
in hot weather. The football changes state with the temperature difference.
Item 3. A jar is filled with ice cubes; the lid is screwed on tightly. The
outside of the jar is dried with a towel. After 20 minutes, the
outside of the jar was all wet. How can you explain this
situation? Where did the water come from?
Item 3, which is related to condensation of water vapor in air, measures
whether students could use the particulate nature of matter to explain this
phenomenon. It is expected that the students at different educational
levels would use the idea that the water particles in the air decelerate if
the temperature at the surface decreases and then forms water. As can be
seen from Table 1, the percentages of the students responses categorized
under the sound understanding category ranged from 13%, which is the
lowest for SHS1, to 38%, which is the highest for SHS3. A typical
response given by the students for this category was: The water vapor
particles in the air turn into liquid form when they reach the cold weather.
In this situation, the ice is cold and water vapor in the air condenses on
the outside of the jar with the effect of the cold ice cubes.
As seen from Table 1, the ratio of the students responses labeled under
the partial understanding category is between 24% and 36%. A typical

STUDENTS CONCEPTIONS OF THE PARTICULATE NATURE OF MATTER

175

student response here was: ice cubes in the jar cool the air outside, and
air condenses. The proportion of the students responses classified under
specific misconception ranged from 25%, which is the lowest for
SHS3, to 53%, which is the highest for SHS1. These students used such
statements as: Ice cubes in the jar melt and pass among the glass
particles and condense the outer surface of the jar or Air condensation
occurred. Furthermore, the number of the students responses categorized
under no understanding increased with educational level, except for U2,
and their percentages were 10%, 6%, 8%, 16%, and 13%, respectively.
Item 4. A glass is filled with water and a few droplets of blue ink are
dropped into it. After a while the color of water turns into blue.
How can you explain this situation by using the idea that all
matter is particulate?
Item 4, associated with the diffusion of ink particles throughout water,
measures if the students could use the particulate nature of matter to
explain the diffusion. It is expected that the students at different levels
would use the idea: The ink particles diffuse and spread through water
particles, thus, all the particles are a mixed phase. As seen from Table 1,
the percentages of the students responses categorized under the sound
understanding category ranged from 9% to 28%. A typical student
response was: Ink and water consist of particles. When ink is dropped
into the water, ink particles get into motion in all direction randomly and
the color of the water becomes blue in time. This movement of particles is
called diffusion.
The proportion of the student responses labeled under the partial
understanding category was between 34% and 55% (see Table 1).
Although many students noted that this event depicted diffusion, they did
not offer a proper explanation or defend their responses. A typical student
response was: This is diffusion: particles moves everywhere with
diffusion. The proportion of students responses categorized under the
specific misconception category ranged from 24%, which is the lowest
for U1, to 48%, which is the highest for SHS1. Such students provided
incorrect explanations for the phenomenon such as: Ink particles affect
the water particles and turn their color blue, When the ink particles
touch the water particles, they turn into their color blue by giving their
own colors to them, and H+ and OH ions of water collapse the ink
particles and chemical bonds are formed. So, ink particles disperse
homogenously. Also, the ratio of the students responses classified under
no understanding was 9% for SHS1, 6% for SHS2, 10% for U1, and

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ALIPAA AYAS, MUAMMER ALIK, AND HALUK ZMEN

6% for U2. A sample student response was: Ink particles have a constant
shape, but water particles do not have, so the shape of ink particles affects
water particles.
Item 5. Draw pictures to represent each phase of matter (solid, liquid and
gas). In your drawings use the idea that all matter is particulate
and write an explanation about why you drew such a figure at the
bottom of each figure.
Item 5 measures how students visualize particles in solids, liquids and
gases. Also, it requires students to defend their drawings to validate their
articulation. In this question, students are expected to exploit the
particulate nature of matter in drawing the solid, liquid, and gaseous
phases of matter. As seen from Table 2, although the students were
introduced to the idea of particulate in nature, the percentages of
students drawings labeled under the continuous category ranged from
7% to 26% for solid, from 6% to 24% for liquid, and from 6% to 21% for
gas. Moreover, while the proportion of students drawings classified
under the particulate category ranged from 38% to 76% for solid, from
44% to 82% for liquid, and from 50% to 85% for gas, the ratio of those under
the particulate but incorrect category was between 12% and 36% for
solid, between 9% and 23% for liquid, and between 5% and 30% for gas.

DISCUSSION, CONCLUSIONS, AND IMPLICATIONS


FOR TEACHING
As seen in the data, it can be deduced that the number of students
responses categorized under the sound understanding category for each
item increased with educational level, except for U1. An increase in
students conceptual understanding with their grades is, of course, an
expected result (e.g., alk, 2005). Moreover, as seen in Figure 1,
students specific misconceptions decreased steadily from SHS1 to SHS3,
except for item 4, but there is surprisingly a clear increase at U1. This
may result from the fact that students motivation may have decreased
towards thinking about chemistry after a highly competitive exam.
Furthermore, there is no clear trend for U2 students. That is, the
percentages of the U2 students responses categorized under the specific
misconception category are explicitly lower than those for SHS1 and
SHS2 in items 3 and 4, while their ratio is higher than those for SHS1,
SHS2, and SHS3 for item 2. Why the SHS3 students have generally

SHS1

7
15
15

Level

Solid
Liquid
Gas

9
8
9

SHS2

Continuous (%)

Item 5

26
24
21

SHS3
23
20
20

U1
13
6
6

U2
69
75
80

SHS1
76
82
85

SHS2

Particulate (%)

38
44
50

SHS3
53
57
50

U1
75
72
81

U2

24
10
5

SHS1

15
9
6

SHS2

36
22
29

SHS3

Particulate but incorrect (%)

Percentages of students' drawings at different levels of education to item 5

TABLE 2

24
23
30

U1

12
22
11

U2

STUDENTS CONCEPTIONS OF THE PARTICULATE NATURE OF MATTER

177

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ALIPAA AYAS, MUAMMER ALIK, AND HALUK ZMEN

60
Item 1
Item 2

50

Item 3

Percentage

Item 4
40

30

20

10

0
SHS 1

SHS 2

SHS 3

U1

U2

Sample

Figure 1. Percentages of the students responses categorized under the specific


misconception category with regard to their grade for items 14

lower specific misconceptions can be explained by the University


Entrance Exam (SS). That is, to make progress in their schooling
career, they would have been intensively preparing for this exam. Since
some exam questions already include these concepts, they may have
recalled the scientific knowledge precisely
As seen from Figure 2, producing continuous drawings is highest for
SHS3 students for all three states of matter and lowest for U2 students for
liquids and gases. It can be concluded that there is an inverse U-shaped
(concave) developmental curve from SHS2 to U2. Also, a similar apt for
each phase is available in the continuous category, apart from SHS1 for
the solid phase. An important result is that both SHS3 and U1 students
have difficulty in visualizing the particulate nature of matter. This may
stem from students motivation. That is, since U1 is used to a new
learning environment, the performance of the U1 students generally
decreases after high school, especially after SHS3. On the other hand,
since students are enrolled at universities after a highly competitive exam,
they may have felt that they have already accomplished their aims. This
probably causes students to forget some of their knowledge on the topic
and, thus, U1 students may not have performed with a better
understanding in comparison to the other grades under investigation. As
a matter of fact, a significant proportion of U2 students had a better
conceptual understanding than that of U1 students. This means that most

STUDENTS CONCEPTIONS OF THE PARTICULATE NATURE OF MATTER

179

30
Solid
Liquid

25

Gas

Percentage

20

15

10

0
SHS 1

SHS 2

SHS 3

U1

U2

Sample

Figure 2. Percentages of the students drawings categorized under the continuous


category with regard to their grade for item 5

of the students become more interested in lessons again at the U2 level. In


terms of particulate drawings, SHS2 students provided better drawings
than the others. The proportion of particulate but incorrect drawings was
highest at the SHS3 level (see Table 2).
The particulate nature of matter is a key basic concept taught at the
early stages of schooling. Although other conceptions also are important,
the literature suggests that chemistry students often have difficulties
learning if they do not understand the scientific model for the particulate
nature of matter. The understanding of the students in the present work
was mixed, at all educational levels. The relatively weak understanding of
the model after so many years of schooling suggests that school science
teachers, in particular, may need to place more emphasis on such
concepts. The research findings also suggest that most of the students,
including those at the university level, had misconceptions and had trouble
making sense of knowledge and linking their theoretical knowledge to
daily phenomena. This may indicate that these students are rote learners
rather than conceptual learners. It also could be that the teachers in these
Turkish schools did not link scientific learning to everyday life.
Since there were about 30 students at each educational level, a note of
caution is necessary that this analysis is indicative only. Students at
different levels had a somewhat similar understanding of the particulate

180

ALIPAA AYAS, MUAMMER ALIK, AND HALUK ZMEN

nature of matter. This is rather surprising, since we would expect that


students understanding would increase with educational level. One reason
for this may be that inadequate or superficial coverage of the topics
occurs in the early stages of schooling. Therefore, as students may
develop a very simple understanding of the particulate nature-based
meaning, they cannot then go on and use their model in new situations.
Since teaching in Turkey, as reported elsewhere (alik & Ayas, 2008),
is very teacher-dominated and heavily dependent on textbooks during the
lessons, it serves to encourage rote learning rather than conceptual
learning. Thus, students are compelled to memorize the topics and
regurgitate answers when asked questions in exams. Therefore, students
are probably unable to develop a scientific understanding of key concepts,
i.e., particulate nature of matter, or to represent their understanding when
required in daily life or in scientific situations.
Despite the fact that the central university entrance examinations
concentrate on factual recall, rather than conceptual understanding (alik
& Ayas, 2008), it is not the only factor inhibiting understanding of the
concepts studied here. Of course, such other factors as the teachinglearning
process, students pre-existing knowledge, teachers, and science curricula
influence their understanding. Teachers in Turkey emphasize content
coverage and teach easy approaches or tricks for solving problems for the
exams, as reported from other contexts (Tobin & Garnett, 1988; Tobin &
Gallagher, 1987). Although newly structured science curricula, which are
based on constructivism and student-centered manner, have been released
by the National Ministry of Education, it will take time to change the
existing situation and to convince the teachers of their effectiveness. In
conclusion, we would hope that the new attempt will be successful in time.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
We would like to thank Associate Professor Richard K. Coll from the
University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand for his kind help in
preparing this manuscript.

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Alipaa Ayas
Department of Secondary Science and Mathematics Education,
Fatih Faculty of Education
Karadeniz Technical University
61335, Trabzon, Turkey
E-mail: ayas@ktu.edu.tr
Haluk zmen
Department of Science Education,
Fatih Faculty of Education
Karadeniz Technical University
61335, Trabzon, Turkey
E-mail: hozmen@ktu.edu.tr
Muammer alik
Department of Primary Teacher Education,
Fatih Faculty of Education
Karadeniz Technical University
61335, Trabzon, Turkey
E-mail: muammer38@ktu.edu.tr