Energy Knowledge and Misconceptions in Grade 8 students

By Peter Dang and Vanessa Tran 


How can concrete hands-on experience with energy technology improve student understanding and remove misconceptions and myths of real-world applications?


 Peter Dang has been a science teacher for grades 6 to 9 at Aurora Academic Charter School since 2001 and is now also Assistant Principal for the Middle School.  He is active and enjoys skiing and snowboarding in Edmonton’s winter," movies, solving Rubik's cubes and Sudoku problems, and making things explode.

 Vanessa Tran has taught mostly junior high mathematics at Aurora Charter School since 2006.  She graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Education After Degree and is currently working on her Masters in Secondary Education Mathematics at the same university.  She is interested in applying, incorporating and implementing technology into her mathematics classroom for better student learning.  In her spare time, she enjoys a good mystery show or travelling with friends.



 Famed science philosopher Karl Pop once stated, “science must begin with myths, and with the criticisms of myths”. With the building expansion of Aurora Academic Charter Middle School, solar panels were installed on the roof with access from one classroom in the new junior high wing. Solar energy experts shared the related technological tools available with students, peaking an interest to determine how much students know or believe to be true about energy consumption and solar energy. Graphical representations and programs available with the solar panels and electrical meter reading tools (Figure 3 and Figure 4) were used for the math and science assignments for students to generate data that they then analyzed.

 The installation of the solar panels and the work students did with these panels became part of research that studied the results of students’ scientific learning. Prior to the study, the test group students were surveyed for their knowledge of energy production and consumption and what they perceived to be true. Then they were taught math and science lessons involving electrical energy and graphical representations of energy production and consumption. The students were surveyed again about what they had learned and if their misconceptions had been nullified. The findings indicated a noticeable increase of correct answers in the post-study survey compared to the pre-study survey. The students involved in this study demonstrated a significant shift in knowledge and preconceived myths related to energy production and consumption, indicating that many of the students had their misconceptions nullified as their knowledge expanded on this topic




This action research project aimed to gather what typical grade eight students in a Canadian urban middle school perceived as energy conservation, energy production, and the myths that students believe to surround them. Hands-on experience and group experiments in math and science lessons allowed students to research and test their own theories and questions. Students continued to receive math lessons (Mathematics 8 Alberta Education Statistics and Probability Strand; Specific Outcome 1 and Mathematics 7-9 Alberta Education Statistics and Probability Strand; General Outcome: Collect, display, and analyze data to solve problems) to critique ways in which data is presented in different graphs, explaining how the format such as the axis intervals and bar width might lead to misinterpretation of the data and lessons on the use of solar panels to generate electricity and analysis of electrical energy consumption in small household appliances (Science 5 Electricity; Science 7: Environmental Sustainability; Science 8: Lights and Optics - Energy Consumption; Science 9: Electrical Technologies).

 Differences from the pre-test perceptions and post-test knowledge following the concrete experience helped determine the impact of hands-on learning on changing common beliefs about energy. The pre-test and post-test questionnaires reflected student attitudes, energy production via solar and coal-based technologies, environmental impact, and financial impact of energy usage of typical home appliances.


Aims and Objectives

By critically analyzing students’ perceptions about the myths of energy usage before and after the lessons, conclusions were drawn about how these myths have changed (if at all) and how science and math teachers can better teach students to relate myths versus real-world knowledge and applications.

 The hands-on exploration activities gave students opportunities to constructively create knowledge and draw their own conclusions related to common household appliances’ energy consumption and solar energy production and use.


Literature Review

 One of the most basic tenants of physical science is that energy is never created nor destroyed, but changed in form or transferred. In essence, energy is conserved in various manners. Tatar and Oktay (2007) concluded that, despite the relative importance of energy in society, “students’ mistakes in usage can have detrimental influence on the scientific comprehension of the energy conservation principle” (p. 87). With the importance of facts as foundations for science and math learning, one can see how student’s misconceptions could continue to hinder a better understanding of this topic for the rest of their lives.

 Brook and Driver (1984), using a group of 15-year old students, found that opinions and beliefs regarding energy conservation were grossly inaccurate. Approximately two thirds of students stated that energy was used up or lost (which is incorrect). Hermann-Abell and DeBoer’s (2011) study on students’ misconceptions in science showed that, “in some cases, students were more likely to know a general principle than they were to know how to apply that principle to specific instances. The results also showed that some misconceptions about energy are prevalent at all grade levels” (p. 11).

 With ample studies pointing out the dangers of students’ misconceptions and their possible long-term effects on learning, work was done to move students in a positive direction and correct these misconceptions. Students can benefit from understanding how their schools use and waste energy and, most importantly, be effective, enthusiastic advocates for increased energy efficiency efforts. The key element is effective education that engages and teaches students (Harrigan, 2014). The cornerstone of reversing the effects of misconception seems to be active exposure to real science with a variety of experts and fact-checked information.

 Abdi (2006) suggested several important approaches to foster a climate of inquiry, including giving children opportunities to debate the pros and cons of an event, an activity, or an experiment with each other and the teacher, making sure a new concept is applicable and relevant, relating the new concept to a real-life situation (if possible), letting children engage in self-clarification of their own views and explain the new concept correctly and scientifically. To prevent further propagation of misconceptions in science, teachers must do their best to avoid giving confusing, ambiguous, or incorrect explanations, alerting them to the notion that what may seem so obvious may have no scientific basis.



The study location was a medium-sized middle school in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Edmonton is one of the most northern capital cities in Canada and this northern latitude plays a significant role in the students’ misconceptions of energy production and generation. The school recently constructed a new wing with several environmentally-friendly features built into it. One of those features is an array of solar panels (Figure 1) installed on the roof.


 Figure 1. Teacher with students with the rooftop solar panels


 In the Foods Lab, a system of meters connect to the circuit panel to measure the current (measured in amps) used by each student chosen household device (microwaves, personal handheld devices, heaters, fans, rechargeable batteries and countertop cooking appliances). Both the solar panel electrical generation and the household devices electrical consumption were monitored through separate web-based software (Figure 3 and Figure 4).

 The test group is one class of three grade eight classes. There were 23 students in this class and the average age of the student was 14-years old. Many students had been at this school since elementary grades. This age group had demonstrated a strong affinity to and competency with technology.


Pre-and Post Test Questionnaire

The test group was given a short pre-test questionnaire (Appendix I) to gauge their knowledge of energy production and consumption. The questionnaire surveyed students’ knowledge about facts, common myths, and misconceptions about solar energy and energy consumption of real-world applications. Students also provided opinions and thoughts related to what they currently knew about different sources of energy production and indicated interest areas for future exploration.

 In the post-test questionnaire (Appendix II), students answered the same 12 questions from the pre-test. They also provided reflections about their previous opinions and thoughts related to what they know about different sources of energy production and what they learned in their indicated interest areas following the exploration activities. All pre-test and post-test questionnaires were scanned and saved digitally for comparison with students’ names removed and replaced with a student ID.


Electrical Energy Consumption Experiment

The test group wasbroken into small teams and each team brought three brands of a specific device to test energy consumption with the meters in the Foods Lab. Devices included: space heaters, battery rechargers, countertop cooking appliances, microwaves, fans, and personal handheld devices. Students plugged them in, turned them on for 15 minutes to a predetermined setting, and then monitored their energy consumption (Figure 3). Students analyzed their data and discussed their findings with each other.

Figure 2. Students monitoring electrical consumption of various devices in the Foods Lab using an online software.



Figure 3. Sample software monitoring and analyzing electrical consumption in the Foods Lab


Solar Energy Generation Analysis

The test group was allowed to inspect the solar panels on the school’s rooftop and were taught the science of solar energy electricity generation and the software used to monitor the solar panels in real-time. Students analyzed the electrical generation of the solar panels over a two-month period from mid-January 2017 to mid-March 2017. They compared the day of the highest electrical generation on an intensely sunny day (February 15, 2017) with the day of the lowest electrical generation due to cloud coverage (February 7, 2017). Factors such as time of year with snow cover, the weather, and sun exposure that day were discussed as a class. Students researched the meteorological reports of those days to gain a better understanding of how the local climate, northern latitude, and weather played pivotal roles in the solar energy to electrical energy conversion.

 Using the going rate of electricity from EPCOR during those two days, students also compared the cost of electrical energy consumed by their household devices from the previous experiment to how much the school made if it was to sell the excess electricity generated by the solar panels.

Figure 4. Screen shot of solar panel monitoring software



From the 12 questions regarding the facts, myths and misconceptions students were asked in the pre-survey and post-survey, 13 of the 23 students (56.52%) improved on the post-test questionnaire, three decreased (13.04%), and seven received the same score (30.43%). Overall, more students answered each question correctly on the post-test questionnaire. Nine of the 12 questions had an increase of correct responses on the post-test questionnaire with five increasing over 10%.

The three questions with a decrease in correct responses were questions five, six, and 10. The questions related solar energy to commercial graphical representations. Question eight, related to the EnerGuide label (The EnerGuide label on appliances are (accurate / inaccurate), had the lowest correct responses: only one student on the pre-test and two on the post-test answered the question correctly.

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Table 1: Pre- and Post Test Results

Legend: â?? = correct for both pre- and post test

            Xâ?? = incorrect for pre-test and correct for post test

            â??X = correct for pre-test and incorrect for post test

            XX = incorrect for both pre- and post test


Outcomes and Findings

The data suggested that students significantly increased both their knowledge of energy consumption and generation and shifted misconceptions of these paradigms. Students seemed to understand how electrical energy consumption is affected by choice of device used and how long they used it for. They developed a better understanding of how solar energy generation worked using solar panels (Question 1) and many misconceptions were debunked.

Students also reflected in the post-test that they learned more about solar energy. They determined that the energy consumption of household appliances varies drastically; and, in some cases, depended on brand/model and age. Reflections also indicated students were able to correct their misconceptions that solar panels only work on sunny and warm days. Many students also stated that they came to realize that energy consumption might not appear to be a lot during a short duration of time, but savings add up over long periods of times. These reflections suggested that the hands-on exploration activities allowed students to connect to the topic of energy production and consumption and transfer their knowledge to real-world applications.

As teachers engaged in this study, we came to believe we must provide our students with such opportunities for conceptual change. These may take the form of discrepant events, inquiry-based activities, or other hands-on experiences; but, in general, they should help students reconstruct and internalize their knowledge. Again, metacognition plays a significant role. If students are thinking about why they hold a particular understanding and reflect on those thoughts, they may recognize a discrepancy and reach a new and better scientific understanding based on the evidence presented. Brown, Gumerman, Sun, Sercy, and Kim (2012) linked dispelling myths of electrical energy with societal attitude shifts. They noted, “by making some stakeholders belief systems more visible, our analysis of prevailing myths can improve social responsibility and foster desirable change” (p. 7).


What’s Next?

An electricity challenge for the junior high program is being booked with Inside Education as a final wrap up for this action research. The solar lantern building project hopes to help students grasp the big picture about electricity generation and consumption.

Energy consumption is an important topic that has real-world applications and affects students’ lives, both currently as minors living at home and later as consumers with purchasing power. Students will soon grow up to make decisions regarding energy purchases: Which energy company do I choose? Should I choose green energy more often versus coal-based energy? What have I done to reduce my carbon footprint? How can I help with reducing the effects of climate change?

Although hypothetical at this point, a follow-up study 10 years from now of the same group of students would be interesting to see if the lessons learned from this experiment had translated to more conscientious consumption of energy and a better (and more accurate) understanding of electrical energy production. If education is preparing students for the future, then this project certainly has strong and long-term implications for the rest of their lives.




Abdi, S. W. (January, 2006). Correcting student misconceptions. Science Scope, 29(4), 39.

Brook, A., & Driver, R. (1984). Aspects of secondary student understanding of energy. Leeds, England: Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education, the University.

Brown, M. A., Etan, G., Sun, X., Sercy, K., & Kim, G. (2012). Myths and facts about electricity in the U..S. South. Energy Policy, 40, 231-241. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.09.061

Harrigan, M. (2014). Including students in your school’s energy program. SEEN Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.seenmagazine.us/Articles/Article-Detail/ArticleId/4371/Including-Students-in-Your-School-8217-s-Energy-Program

Hermann-Abell, C. F., & DeBoer, G. E. (2011). Investigating Students’ Understanding of Energy Transformation, Energy Transfer, and Conservation of Energy Using Standards-Based Assessment Items. National Association for Research in Science Teaching. Retrieved from http://www.project2061.org/publications/2061connections/2011/media/herrmann-abell_narst_2011.pdf

Tatar, E., & Oktay, M. (2007). Students’ Misunderstandings about the energy conservation principle: A general view to studies in literature. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 2(3), 79 – 81. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=EJ901271


Supporting Documents


Appendix I

Energy Production and Consumption of Real-World Applications Questionnaire


Answer each question as best as you can. Think about each question carefully and provide answers that truthfully reflect what you believe to be true (not what you think should be true).

Your answers are being collected to determine junior high students’ knowledge of energy production and consumption of real-world, everyday technology.


Circle the best answer you feel is correct.

 Solar panels ( can / can not ) produce more energy than needed to power an average Canadian household for one year.

  1. Snow ( increases / does not affect / decreases ) the amount of solar energy produced compared to an average summer day.
  2. Solar panels ( do / do not ) work on cold winter days below 45 degrees Celsius.
  3. It takes ( more / the same / less ) energy to make a solar panel module than it will produce in its lifetime.
  4. Solar panels ( do / do not ) work on cloudy days.
  5. Solar energy is ( more / the same / less ) reliable than wind energy.
  6. Clean coal-generated electricity is ( better / the same / worse ) than solar energy.
  7. The EnerGuide label on appliances is ( accurate / inaccurate ).
  8. The energy consumption of typical home appliances will ( increase / stay the same / decrease ) over time.
  9. The price difference between two appliances, one more energy efficient than another, ( can / can not ) be earned back in energy savings over one year.
  10. Your actions to reduce your carbon footprint, turning off lights when not used, putting appliances into energy saving mode, carpooling, etc., ( do / do not ) make a significant difference in reducing carbon emissions.
  11. Graphical representations such as line graphs, pie graphs, bar graphs of data by for-profit organizations and companies ( always / sometimes / never ) are accurate representations of the product.


Short Answer. Provide your opinion and thoughts on the following questions.

 Tell me something you know about solar energy.

  1. Tell me something you know about any type of energy consumption.
  2. Tell me something you know about any type of energy production.
  3. Tell me something you want to learn or answer about solar energy, energy consumption and/or production.
  4. Identify an everyday household technology that you want to learn more about. What do you wish to learn about its energy consumption?


Appendix II

Energy Production and Consumption of Real-World Applications Questionnaire-Post Test


Answer each question as best as you can. Your answers are being collected to determine junior high students’ knowledge of energy production and consumption of real-world, everyday technology.


Short Answer. While answering the questions, reflect on the activity completed in math class in the foods lab and the science class on energy calculations and your previous answers (provided on the left)

 Reflection on Question 1: Do you still believe it to be true? If no, why not?

  1. Reflection on Question 2: Do you still believe it to be true? If no, why not?
  2. Reflection on Question 3: Do you still believe it to be true? If no, why not?
  3. Reflection on Question 4: Describe how your knowledge in this topic has increased or identify new knowledge that you learned.
  4. Reflection on Question 5: In terms of the household technology that you identified, what in general did you learn about energy consumption of everyday household appliances?


Keywords: Electricity Misconceptions, Middle School, Technology, Real-World

Applications, Solar Energy, Energy