Supporting primary children’s understanding of physics

24 January 2011

New software has significant benefits for primary school children and their understanding of elementary physics, research shows. Studies funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) focused on what primary school children know when they begin studying physics, and how much they still have to learn. The studies looked at how much children understand about the movement of objects such as direction and speed.

The studies show that the tasks used in schools to assess how children understand the movement of objects seriously underestimate how much they know already. Professor Christine Howe from the University of Cambridge carried out the research along with Amy Devine, Pepi Savary and Joana Taylor Tavares. The research team developed teaching software to highlight any discrepancies between different types of understanding. The research also evaluated the effectiveness of this software in promoting performance on school tasks.

"This research suggests there’s very little improvement with school tasks between the age of six and 11, and that children aren’t being taught in the most effective way.  The software we developed would certainly enhance the knowledge that the children already have, and help them perform better in school", states Professor Howe.

Their findings were based on the results of six studies where children were asked to predict outcomes using computer-simulated scenarios. These scenarios included a billiard ball being rolled and striking another ball to address horizontal motion. Other scenarios involved balls being dropped from hot air balloons to investigate 'how' objects fall.

The key findings include:

  • A child’s reasoning about horizontal motion and object fall is limited. It also changes little during the primary school years despite relevant teaching.
  • Children using the teaching software made substantial progress in reasoning.
  • Children find object fall especially challenging. The understanding of accelerating speed as objects fall through air was virtually non-existent.
  • Children may benefit from using the teaching software with a classmate when their understanding is limited.
  • Misconceptions about object motion are hard to dispel through existing teaching methods.
  • Alternative resources are needed to overcome these misconceptions.

Professor Howe says: "The project has helped bridge the gap between research into ‘thought’ development and science education research.  The software can be used by teachers and children anywhere in the world.  The central message of the research is that this free software has significant benefits for primary school children and their understanding of object motion."

For further information contact

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors:

  1. This release is based on the findings from Primary School Children’s Tacit and Explicit Understanding of Object Motion funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Professor Christine Howe at the University of Cambridge.
  2. The software can be downloaded for free from www.educ.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/objectmotion/
  3. Four studies using computer-simulated scenarios were conducted with 6 to 11 year old children. Two addressed horizontal motion via billiard scenarios where a cue ball rolled and struck another ball. The other two addressed object fall involving scenarios where balls were dropped from hot air balloons. Software packages were developed for two further studies also involving billiard and hot air balloon scenarios. Around 150 children aged between eight and 12 used the software in one-to-one sessions with adults, or in collaboration with a classmate.
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
  5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as very good