A Study of Undergraduates’ Understandings of Key Chemical Ideas in Thermodynamics

The university of York, United Kingdom

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The purpose of this research study is to identify and classify chemistry undergraduates’ misunderstandings of thermodynamic ideas in physical chemistry such as internal energy, enthalpy, entropy and Gibbs energy, together with the sources of these misunderstandings. For this purpose, questionnaires and semi-structured interviews were used to gather data both before and after the teaching of these topics.

Third year undergraduate students who took the physical chemistry course from two different chemistry education departments in Turkey, together with lecturers who deliver the course, took part in the study. In total, ninety-one students completed the pre-tests and post-tests. The pre-interviews were carried out with twenty-two students and twenty-seven students participated in the post-interviews. Two lecturers were also interviewed after the post-test.

The results revealed thirty nine common misunderstandings including some identified in earlier studies, fourteen were related to internal energy and associated ideas, twelve were related to enthalpy, six were related to entropy and seven were related to Gibbs energy. Many other less prevalent (less than 5% of students) misunderstandings were also found.

Eight different sources were identified from which the misunderstandings originated. There were (a) lack of knowledge of fundamental thermodynamic ideas, (b) application of algorithms without conceptual understanding, (c) using thermodynamic data to explain situations involving kinetics, (d) memorisation of scientific laws and statements without understanding, resulting in inappropriate over-generalisation (e) confusion of fundamental ideas, (f) explaining fundamental ideas according to their usage in everyday language, (g) the effects of everyday experiences, and (h) socio-economic and methodological aspects of the teaching and learning environment.

The findings of this study provide lecturers and tutors with information which will be of help in designing more effective materials and strategies for the teaching of thermodynamic ideas in physical chemistry.


Ataturk University Kazim Karabekir Education Faculty
Department of Secondary Science and Mathematics Education
25240 – Erzurum / TURKEY
Tel: 0090 442 2314005
Fax: 0090 442 2360955
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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