Katherine Mangione Leslie, University of Arkansas

Jean E. Dockers, University of Arkansas

Michael J. Wavering, University of Arkansas





Content knowledge is one of the primary focuses of teacher certification.  In this continuation of the ACES-Q study of 2005 the original questionnaire was revised.  Earth science content knowledge of 56 preservice elementary teachers in their senior year at the University of Arkansas was assessed via a 20 question two tier, multiple choice questionnaire.  Our findings indicate that a majority of our preservice teachers may still hold alternative conceptions in various areas of earth science.  Participants also expressed a lack of confidence in their answers and a lack of understanding of many of the concepts presented. 


“I would research the concept [solar eclipse] then I would incorporate a fun activity such as a night observation…”

-Preservice Teacher



Theoretical Background

The above quote was one of several from our study that demonstrates the lack of content knowledge prevalent in preservice teachers.  This particular quote mirrors the sentiments from a preservice teacher from our original study:


“… to teach the solar eclipse I would bring in many hands on materials.  I would also hold a night session to watch a solar eclipse.” (Leslie, Dockers, & Wavering, 2005)


Content knowledge is a primary focus for teacher certification programs.  Research from the past two decades shows strides being made in connecting content knowledge to instruction (Wilson, Shulman, & Richart, 1987; Aubrey, 1996; Kallery & Psillos, 2001).  This is in part due to Shulman’s (1986, 1987) theoretical development of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). 

Content knowledge plays a critical part in successful teaching.  Hashweh (1987) found that in planning instruction, teachers tend to delete details that they do not understand.  By doing so they may be unwittingly passing on their own alternative conceptions to their students.  With this in mind, we should “reexamine our assumption that subject matter knowledge required for teaching can be acquired solely through courses taken in the appropriate university department” (Grossman, Wilson, & Shulman, 1989, p. 23).  We must be aware of our preservice teachers’ needs to develop scientific understandings about concepts they will be responsible for teaching and possible misconceptions that they may bring to the learning environment. 

Earth science is the one content area that is present at all levels of the Arkansas Science Frameworks, and is therefore required to be taught at all levels.  The information gathered in this study will potentially benefit not only the preservice teachers in their understanding of alternative conceptions, but will aid professors in both the education and science departments in restructuring classes to address alternative conceptions via classes designed for conceptual change.        

A great deal of study on various alternative conceptions has been generated over the past several decades.  However, there has not been a push to create a teacher friendly instrument that specifically identifies earth and space science misconceptions.  One goal of this study was to create a questionnaire that will enable professors of preservice teachers of all grade levels to assess their students’ alternative conceptions in earth and space science.  Another aspect of this study was to identify alternative conceptions of earth science held by preservice teachers.

Many terms are used to describe the phenomenon of nonscientific conceptions in the learning environment.  Some of these include misconceptions, naïve beliefs, persistent pitfalls, or science fragments (Wandersee, Mintzes, & Novak, 1994).  For this study we are choosing to use the term alternative conceptions, defined as scientific ideas of an individual that are at odds with or do not match current scientific understandings to represent these ideas.  We choose this definition because it recognizes the learner as an individual trying to makes sense of the world with understandings that they have constructed and that work for them (Leslie, Dockers, & Wavering, 2005). 

Children’s earth science concepts have been investigated by many researchers in the field of science education. (Jones & Lynch, 1987; Baxter, 1989; Schoon, 1989 & 1992; Trumper, 2001 & 2001).  Researchers have also paid close attention those earth science understandings held by preservice and inservice teachers alike (Stofflett, 1993; Atwood & Atwood, 1995 & 1996; Schoon, 1995; Trundle, 1999; Trundle, Atwood, & Christopher, 2002).  While several alternative conceptions in earth science have been identified (e.g., phases of the moon are caused by the earth’s shadow covering the moon, severity of winter can be predicted by observing animal and plant coverings, the sun is closer to the earth in summer time causing us to be warmer) one striking observation must be noted:  teachers hold many of the same alternative conceptions that their students hold.

Research Questions

            The questions driving this study are:

  1. Can a two-tier multiple choice instrument be developed that will give valid and reliable insights into what alternative conceptions preservice teachers may hold in the area of earth sciences?
  2. What do preservice teachers know about specific earth science concepts based on the National Science Education Standards and State Frameworks? 


The decision to use a multiple choice format stemmed from positive support found in the research.  Wandersee and Mintzes (1987) found that multiple choice tests were the second most common research method, after interviews, used in identifying alternative conceptions.  Tamir (1990) provides several justifications for using multiple choice tests.  Some of these include: they can cover a wide range of topics in a relatively short time, if designed well, they can be used to measure different levels of learning, they are objective in scoring and therefore more reliable, they are easily scored, they are suitable for item analysis which allows for test improvement, and they avoid penalties for students who know their subject but may be poor writers.

The original instrument was developed and piloted for the 2005 AETS (Association for the Education of Teachers in Science) Conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  The original Alternative Conceptions in Earth Sciences - A Questionnaire (ACES-Q) consisted of ten two-tiered, multiple choice questions (Leslie, Dockers, & Wavering, 2005).  The second instrument, Alternative Conceptions in Earth Science – A Questionnaire II (ACES-Q II) contains 20 two-tiered, multiple choice questions.  The term questionnaire was used to remove the stigma of testing for grades.  Similar to Franklin’s (1992) instrument, both the ACES-Q and ACES-Q II consist of a diagram and written description of the situation or event, a question related to the event, a list of possible answers to the question, a list of possible reasons for the chosen answer, and two Likert scales to assess whether or not the concept made sense and how sure the participant was about his or her answers. The ACES-Q II concludes with an opened ended question requesting the participants to share how they would teach solar eclipses for the grade level of their choice. A series of demographic questions is also included.

Item analysis of the original ten question instrument was conducted.  Hopkins (1997) suggests that discrimination indices be at least a .20 with good and very good items scoring above a .30.  With this in mind questions with indices below a .30 were further inspected.

Several of the questions from the original instrument were dropped because they were naïve or failed the rigors of item analysis.  Original questions, retained for the second instrument, as well as new questions were organized and focused under four areas of earth science: 

1) solar system, objects and changes in the earth and sky;

2) earth’s history, structure and surface of earth;

3) earth systems, rock and water cycles; and

4) climate, weather, and atmosphere. 

Distractors on the original instrument were refined via item analysis and a more thorough review of the literature.  Additional questionnaire items were selected from those used by other researchers, as reported in the literature (e.g. Educational Testing Services’ Earth and Space Sciences: Content Knowledge, The Praxis Series and Libarkin and Anderson’s Geoscience Concept Inventory) then modified to fit the two-tier format described earlier.   

Participants were asked to choose the best answer instead of choosing the correct answer.  Schwab (1963) shares that when students are asked to choose the best answer they are forced to analyze the various options.  Multiple choice items of this type cater to a wider range of cognitive abilities.  Schwab (1963) and Tamir (1971) suggest that when choosing distractors one should avoid using transparently irrelevant answers.  By choosing distractors from students’ preconceptions and those that differ in their degree of wrongness, distractors may serve as traps.  Tamir (1990) asserts that

“distractors in a multiple choice item function much like one of the standard procedures in a Piagetian classical interview.  There the interviewer is not fully satisfied even when a child gives a correct answer, understanding is checked by suggesting an alternative answer.” (p. 564) 


The development of multiple choice tests on students’ alternative conceptions has the potential to make valuable contributions to both the research of alternative conceptions as well as the process of helping science teachers use findings in this area of research (Treagust, 1988). 


The ACES-Q II was administered to 56 preservice elementary teachers enrolled in their senior block courses at the University of Arkansas.  These students have completed their science coursework and will take their methods courses in the spring 2006.  They are a semester away from graduation.  Their ages ranged from 20 years old to 40 years old with the average being approximately 23 years old.  Fifty of the participants were female, five were male, and one chose not to answer. 


            Validity is the degree to which an instrument measures what it is supposed to.  Several measures of the validity of the ACES-Q II are discussed below.         

Face validity, sometimes considered a sub form of content validity, was determined by subjecting the ACES-Q II to the scrutiny of several professionals in the field of science education.  These experts concluded that the ACES-Q II measures content knowledge and possible alternative conceptions in earth science among participants taking the questionnaire.

Content validity was further determined by identifying each of the earth science content standards that the 20 questions addressed.  See Table 1 for clarification.  These four categories mirror the earth and space systems standards for the Arkansas science frameworks as well as those divisions found in the national science content standards. 


Table 1

Specifications for Instrument Questions

Content Area

Question Number

Solar System


Earth History


Earth Systems






            Reliability is a measure of an instrument’s ability to provide consistent results.  The researchers followed several steps suggested for improving an instrument’s reliability.  These included: piloting the first instrument and increasing the length of the questionnaire from ten to 20 questions.   

            Item analysis was also performed to identify those questionnaire items with the greatest ability to discriminate among participants.  Based on a minimum acceptable discrimination index of .20, 13 of the 20 items were above the acceptable standard. 

The KR-20 is a measure of internal consistency; that is how well individual items relate to other items in the questionnaire as well as how they relate taken as a whole.  Over all test reliability was determined to be .75 using the ‘proc corr alpha nomiss;’ statement in SAS (Statistical Analysis Software).  An acceptable KR-20 value should be no lower than .60 and preferably .80 or higher. 


            During the fall semester of 2005, participants were identified via enrollment in their senior block courses.  Three cohorts were chosen to participate in this study.  The researchers met with each group to inform them of the questionnaire and to gain their consent to participate.

            Data were gathered and then examined with several factors in mind (gender, age, college science courses taken, and earth science courses taken).  The researchers focused on analyzing the similarities and differences of test scores across these subgroups. 


Quantitative Data

            Each of the twenty questions was designed to assess earth science content knowledge in one of four specific categories.  Table 2 below shows the specific concepts tested by the corresponding question number followed by the percentage of participants who chose the correct answer and the correct response and, using a Likert scale, the means of the levels of confidence in the respondent’s answer (1 = just a blind guess… 5 = I am sure I am right) and the levels of sensibility for the reason provided (1 = makes no sense… 5 = makes perfect sense) were calculated.

Table 2

Questions on the ACES-Q11








Confidence Mean




Solar System






Solar System






Solar System






Solar System






Solar System






Solar System






Earth Systems






Earth Systems






Earth Systems






Earth Systems










































Earth History






Earth History






Earth History






Earth History






                  The table above shows us the percentage of participants choosing the correct answer or the correct response followed by the average confidence level and sensibility level of the question.  It is interesting to note that fewer than half of the reason responses were answered correctly by at least half of the participants.  This indicates to us that more than half of our preservice teachers possibly still hold alternative conceptions in earth science. 

            Question nine has one of the lowest percentages for participants choosing a correct answer (14.44%) and a correct response (16.07%).  Conversely, it also has one of the highest confidence means and sensibility means.  Question nine asked students to identify the biome that best describes Antarctica.  Tundra was the most frequently chosen answer at 55.4% followed by ‘aquatic’ at 28.6%.  These findings mirror those from our pilot study (question five) (Leslie, Dockers, & Wavering, 2005).

            Table 3 shows the participant’s mean scores for answer, response, and total score.  Total score was calculated by the participant’s ability to choose both the correct answer and reason for each question.  Each question was worth one for a total of 20 possible points for the questionnaire.  If the participant chose a correct answer but provided an alternative conception for the reason she or he received a score of zero for that question.  Alternately, if the participant did not choose a correct answer but chose a scientific conception for the reason he or she received a score of zero for that question.

Table 3

Means According to Subgroups

















Earth Science Classes Taken




    1 course




    2 courses




    4 courses




Total Science Classes Taken




    3 to 4 courses




    5 to 7 courses





            Inspection of the means (Table 3) showed differences among all subgroups.  On average, men scored higher than women on the ACES-Q II.  These findings were consistent with those on the ACES-Q (Leslie, Dockers, & Wavering, 2005). 

            An analysis of variance was calculated using the ‘proc glm’ statement in SAS to see if differences among the means were significant.  At the alpha .05 level the analysis failed to reveal a significant difference for number of earth science courses taken (F (4, 50) = 0.78, p = .46) and number of science classes taken (F(4, 50) = .01, p = .91) on the total score.  However difference among total scores according to gender (F(4, 50) = 6.03, p = .02) were significant. 

Correlations among the confidence scores, sensibility scores, gender, and total scores were examined to see if any relationships exist.  There was a slight positive correlation .32 between gender and the total score on the ACES-Q II.  There was also a slight positive correlation between an individual’s confidence and sensibility scores and their total score (.42 and .32 respectively).  Each of these scores was significant at the alpha .05 level.  These scores were similar to Franklin’s (1992) Misconceptions in Science Questionnaire on physical science and the ACES-Q (Leslie, Dockers, & Wavering, 2005). 

Qualitative Data

            One question on the ACES-Q II was designed to allow participants to share their thoughts regarding teaching and content.  The question asked participants how they would teach about a solar eclipse to the grade level of their choice.  Of our 56 participants, 53 chose to answer this question.  Several salient themes emerged as we coded the responses from the participants.  These themes were divided into the following sections: pedagogy and content knowledge.  A list of several reoccurring themes and their frequency can be found in Table 4 below.  Of the content knowledge themes listed below it is important to note that nine of the participants noted lack of sufficient content knowledge within themselves.  This supports the findings of Smith and Neale (1989), Parker and Heywood (2000), Kallery and Psillos (2001) and Weiss, Banilower, McMahon, and Smith (2002) showing that teachers feel they lack specific content knowledge, especially in the areas of math and science. 

Table 4

Frequency of Emerging Themes from the ACES-Q II Question 21


Content Knowledge

Schema Activation (3)

Sun, Moon, & Earth (10)

School Textbook (3)

Sun Between Earth & Moon (1)

Internet (5)

Earth’s Shadow Covers Sun (1)

Model (20)

Sun Passes in Front of Earth (2)

Books & Literature (17)

Moon Blocks Sun (7)

Posters & Visual Aids (13)

Moon Passes Between Earth & Sun (1)

Observe Directly (3)

Read Up, Review, & Learn More (9)

Movie & Video (7)


Explain (5)


Discuss (7)


Question Students (1)


Draw, Art, & Drama (6)



            Several of the participants responded in a way that allowed us to discover if they held alternative conceptions or scientific understandings.  Eleven of the 53 participants answered with a plainly stated alternative conception or science fragment.  Some examples of common answers follow:

  • “I would use a model of the earth and a pictures [sic] of the sun to show the students that a solar eclipse is when the sun passes in front of the earth.”
  • “… I would incorporate a fun activity such as [a] night observation.”
  • “I would first teach about the solar system and the sun.  Then I would explain that the sun comes between the earth and moon.”


Four participants answered with a clearly stated scientific understanding.  Some examples of these include:

  • “… I would position the moon [Styrofoam ball] above Fayetteville, AR then use the flashlight to simulate the sun, the shading [sic] areas like a solar eclipse.”
  • “Using balls I would show how each object, the sun, earth and moon, move in relation to each other and how at a certain point, the moon blocks our view of the sun.  I would explain how only the people directly in line with the moon and sun would be able to see such an event…”


These fifteen responses were reexamined to see if there were any similarities or differences in pedagogical choices based on the content knowledge. Both groups shared pedagogical approaches using models and demonstrations; however the group holding scientific conceptions also suggested questioning students and activating schema.


The two major questions addressed by this research were 1) Can a valid and reliable multiple choice instrument be developed to identify alternative conceptions in earth science? and 2) What is the earth science content knowledge of preservice elementary teachers and do they possess alternative conceptions?

Our continued research does in fact indicate that a valid and reliable instrument can be created to identify alternative conceptions in earth science.  The researchers understand that continued refinement of the instrument will lead to an even more stable questionnaire. 

Further studies will be carried out and individual interviews of participants will be conducted to see if answers on the written format agree with answers in an interview format.  Data from using parallel forms of the instrument may lend to the overall reliability of the instrument by seeing if a relationship exists between the answers given by the same participants on a verbal form of the questionnaire.  Instructor interviews regarding the usefulness of the instrument and a rating of the content will lend strength to the validity of the instrument. 

Despite the fact that the reliability of the second instrument was increased when the instrument was lengthened, the researchers feel that the overall length may be a limiting factor of the questionnaire.  Frustration levels were easily reached and a helpless feeling of “I don’t know,” was pervasive in the testing environment. 

Our second question focused on the content knowledge of our preservice elementary teachers and any possible alternative conceptions they might hold.  Data supports that a majority of our preservice elementary teachers may still hold alternative conceptions in several areas of earth science.

Schoon (1992 & 1995) further divides alternative conceptions into primary and secondary alternative conceptions.  Primary alternative conceptions are those alternative conceptions that more prevalent than scientific understandings (Schoon, 1992 & 1995).  Secondary alternative conceptions are those alternative conceptions that are common yet less common than scientific understandings (Schoon, 1992 & 1995). 

Data from the ACES-Q II indicated that our preservice elementary teachers may posses several primary and secondary alternative conceptions.  Possible primary alternative conceptions include: as the moon orbits the earth we are able to see 100% of its surface, Antarctica is considered tundra, and that the severity of winter can be predicted by animal fur and tree bark.  Possible secondary alternative conceptions include: we see the same side of the moon because it never rotates or spins on its axis, a new moon occurs when the earth’s shadow covers the face of the moon, seasons on the earth are caused by the distance of the earth from the sun, diamonds are the only minerals hard enough to scratch glass, inertia is responsible for objects falling toward the center of the earth, all rivers flow ‘down’ from north to south, ‘H’ on a weather map refers to hot and ‘L’ refers to cool, and that people and dinosaurs co-existed for about 5,000 years. 

These alternative conceptions, whether primary or secondary, are not unique to our participants.  Several studies (Schoon, 1989, 1992, & 1995; Callison, 1993; Atwood & Atwood, 1995 & 1996; Schoon & Boone, 1998; Trundle, 1999; Trundle, Atwood, & Christopher, 2002 & 2003) concur that children, adults, preservice and seasoned teachers continued to hold alternative conceptions in earth science. 

The ACES-Q II represents four areas of earth science content addressed in the NSES and Arkansas Frameworks.  Data from the means indicated that our preservice teachers were familiar with less than half of the content covered on the ACES-Q II.  This concerns us as most of our preservice teachers plan to teach somewhere in Arkansas and familiarity with the content covered in the standards is expected.  Arkansas is currently in the process of implementing a new science benchmark test for public school students.  This will be a major change as science has been deemphasized in too many schools.  Our preservice teachers’ content knowledge and PCK in science will play a large role in job responsibilities. 

            In closing it is our hope that through awareness of alternative conceptions and via teaching for conceptual change that all preservice teachers will become aware of possible alternative conceptions that they hold and the possibility that they may pass those on to their students.  We anticipate that more of our students will adopt the attitude of this participant in our study. 

“I would first study the topic to make sure I do not teach false information.”

- Preservice Teacher


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