Assessing students’ understanding of the greenhouse effect by looking at language use over time

By Elizabeth Walsh - May 2011


Jakobsson, A., Mäkitalo, Å. & Säljö, R. (2009). Conceptions of knowledge in research on students' understanding of the greenhouse effect. Science Education93(6), 978–995.


This study argues that the abstract nature of these assessments, which is far removed from the collaborative way that science is practiced in reality, combined with vague or confusing wording, may cause these types of written assessments to underestimate students’ understanding of science.

What Is The Issue?

Many studies have found that students have limited understanding of the greenhouse effect. This study suggests that the assessment of students’ understanding of scientific vocabulary, concepts, and reasoning associated with the greenhouse effect may be better accomplished by observing and understanding learners’ developing language use over time. The indication of previous research that students hold tenacious misconceptions may be an artifact of the questionnaires used. The authors argue that listening to student conversations is the key to better recognize learning. The most common way for researchers to assess students’ understandings of scientific concepts is through formal tests or questionnaires. 

What Was The Study?

In this study, the researchers used a different means to assess students’ understanding of the greenhouse effect. They video-recorded small groups of 14–15-year-old students for six weeks as they attempted to resolve two contradictory claims about climate. They analyzed the interactions and language use among the students to understand their use of scientific vocabulary, concepts, and arguments during the process of learning about global warming and the greenhouse effect. The students were given access to resources such as the Internet, articles, and books.

What Were The Findings?

By observing how the language use of students changed over the course of the six weeks, the authors were able to see the development of increasingly complex conceptual understandings of the greenhouse effect. For example, students were able to differentiate between the natural greenhouse effect and the changes to this greenhouse effect as a result of human activities. This finding stands in contrast to much of the literature, which has shown these concepts to be commonly misunderstood. The researchers thus recommend listening to students during the process of learning as a better way of gauging student understanding than providing written tests.