Teachers Need to Be Smarter Than A 5th Grader: What Pre-service Teachers Know About Density

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Pamela Esprivalo Harrell
Karthigeyan Subramaniam


This article details a mixed-methods study that investigated 55 elementary pre-service teachers’ content knowledge about density. Using a mixed-methods approach, pre/post concepts maps (Cmaps) and pre/post face-to-face interviews were used as data to document changes in teacher knowledge which occurred over a 15-week science methods course. Thematic analysis was used to capture patterns within the data and a paired-sample t-test was conducted to compare pre/post Cmap scores. Results indicate a weak framework of prior knowledge about density which was a mosaic of alternative conceptions and a few learned concepts. Many participants focused on a single aspect of density and were unable to engage in relational causality which involves the consideration of two variables simultaneously. After instruction, robust alternative conceptions continued to be observed (e.g., density is buoyancy and density is the same as heaviness, mass, or weight) and learned concepts were concrete and rote. The most common learned concept was the density algorithm (~40%) followed by the learned concept that density is an intensive property of matter (22%) and demonstrated understandings of proportional reasoning (7%). Results of the paired sample t-test demonstrate a statistically significant difference between the total proposition accuracy scores for pre/post Cmaps (t = -3.178, p < .002) with the instructional intervention larger for post-Cmap scores (M = 1.02; SD = 1.063) than for pre-Cmap scores (M = 0.55; SD = 0.812). The effect size was medium.

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Research / Empirical
Author Biographies

Pamela Esprivalo Harrell, University of North Texas

Pamela Esprivalo Harrell is an Associate Professor in Teacher Education & Administration at the University of North Texas. Her research interests include the topics of science teacher quality and science teacher effectiveness.

Karthigeyan Subramaniam, University of North Texas

Karthigeyan Subramaniam, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Science Education in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration at the University of North Texas where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses focused on science teacher education. His scholarship focuses on preparation of elementary and secondary science teachers as well as on educational technology and qualitative research methodology. Before coming to UNT in 2009, he was on the faculty of Penn State University-Harrisburg, where his position was in Elementary Teacher Education and Teaching and in the Curriculum Master’s Graduate Program. He has also been on the faculty of Adelphi University. His bachelor's degree is from the National University of Singapore, Republic of Singapore, his master's degree is from University of Florida, at Gainesville, and his doctoral degree is from the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.