Students' Progresing Understanding of the Energy Concept: An Analysis of Larning in Biological and Cross- Disciplinary Contexts

Leibniz Institute of Science and Mathematics Education, Kiel, Germany

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ute Harms

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Science curricula and standards have been criticized for covering too many details and putting insufficient focus on the connections between individual contents. As, for example, studies have found that experts organize their knowledge efficiently around central ideas, curricular innovations have introduced disciplinary core ideas that organize and connect different topics of a school subject (e.g., biology). At a higher level, crosscutting concepts fulfill the function of linking contents across different disciplinary contexts. The energy concept stands out, as it is both a core idea in biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as a crosscutting concept that spans these disciplines. While students learn about energy in all science classes, the majority of prior studies on students’ energy understanding have targeted physics contexts. Instead, few empirical insights describe (i) how students understand energy in biological contexts and (ii) how students’ energy understanding is interconnected between the different disciplinary contexts.

To address these open fields, four studies have been conducted as part of this dissertation project (Chapters 2-5). An additional teaching practice article provides an exemplary approach that focuses on relevant aspects of the energy concept in a typical middle school biology topic (Chapter 6). All five chapters focus on students’ understanding of four central energy aspects: energy forms/sources, energy transfer/transformation, energy degradation/dissipation, and energy conservation. Study 1 uses a quantitative, cross-sectional design and explores how primary students’ (grades 3-6) energy understanding progresses along early, mostly implicit learning opportunities that students encounter prior to the concept’s explicit introduction. The findings suggest that students develop the initial stages of their energy understanding along biological contexts, thus highlighting that these learning gains should be taken into account in later, explicit energy instruction. Study 2 extends the scope of study 1 by focusing on progressing energy understanding in middle school and by including a cross-disciplinary perspective on energy learning. The respective research article presents the development and validation of an instrument that assesses energy understanding across contexts from biology, chemistry, and physics. The new instrument is applied in a cross-sectional study (grades 6, 8, and 10) in order to compare progression trends in energy understanding across the three disciplinary contexts. The results identify similarities and differences in students’ energy understanding in the three disciplinary contexts. However, the question of how energy understanding is specifically connected across disciplinary boundaries, and how this connection changes as the students learn more about energy throughout middle school, is left open. This question is picked up by study 3, which re-analyzes data from study 2. The results indicate a parallel progression of energy understanding in the three disciplinary contexts with—at all grade levels—highly correlated energy understanding between biology, chemistry, and physics contexts. These findings are in line with recent studies, but are also critically discussed, as they oppose prior assumptions about students’ cross-disciplinary energy understanding. Lastly, study 4 is the qualitative part of a mixed-method approach pursued by this dissertation. The findings from the earlier quantitative studies were extended through qualitative content analysis of interviews that were conducted with students at the beginning of grades 5, 7, 9, and 11. The findings provide an in-detail analysis of conceptions that students employ about the four energy aspects (see above) in typical biological contexts.

A conclusion of the conducted studies suggests that progressing energy understanding in biological contexts closely resembles progression trends described in earlier studies on energy understanding in physics contexts. The studies provide novel insights, for example, by indicating that students’ difficulties with energy in a given disciplinary context (e.g., biology) are likely overridden by more general problems related to everyday connotations of the term energy. The results highlight the need to coordinate energy instruction across biology, chemistry, and physics contexts in order to help students combine different disciplinary perspectives on energy. Notwithstanding the new insights to students’ progressing energy understanding, future experimental studies have to tackle the important task of identifying effective instructional methods for energy teaching.

Full text available in English

Publications related to the dissertation

Opitz, S., Harms, U., Neumann, K., Kowalzik, K., and Frank, A.(2015). Students' Energy Concepts at the Transition between Primary and Secondary School. Research in Science Education, 49(5), 691-715.      Opitz, S. and M.-T. Opitz (2016). Winterschlaf: Energiesparen als Überlebensstrategie. Unterricht Biologie,40(411), 18-23. Opitz, S, Blankenstein, A., and Harms, U. (in press). Student Conceptions about Energy in Biological Contexts. Journal of Biological Education.

Thesis full reference

Opitz, Sebastian. (2016). Students’ Progresing Understanding of the Energy Concept: An Analsis of Larning in Biological and Cross-Disciplinary Contexts. (Doctoral thesis). Kiel: University of Kiel.

Retrievable from

Doctoral Committee: Ute Harms, Knut Neumann, Hinrich Schulenburg, Mojib Latif, Jeff Nordine


Dr. Sebastian Opitz

CREATE for STEM Institute

Erickson Hall

Michigan State University

620 Farm Lane

East Lansing, MI-48824


Tel. (+1) 517 353 8565

e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Doctor Studies Filter


esera 19

ESERA 2019Conference

Visit Esera 2019