Learning about Gravity I. Free Fall: A Guide for Teachers and Curriculum Developers
This article is the first of a two-part review of research on children’s and adults understanding of gravity and on how best to teach gravity concepts to students and teachers. This first article concerns free fall—how and why objects fall when they are dropped. The review begins with a brief historical sketch of how these ideas were developed in human history, followed by a summary of the relevant standards and benchmarks. The body of research is organized by the nature of the findings, beginning with studies of the youngest children, followed by older students, adults, and teachers. Although a diversity of misconceptions are found at all age levels, in general children, between the ages of 7 and 9 progress from the idea that things fall because they’re not supported to things fall because they’re “heavy.” Between the ages of 9 and 13, students begin to use the term “gravity,” an unseen force, to explain falling, such as “gravity acts just on heavy objects,” or “things fall because air is pushing them down.” Surprisingly, many high school and college students who can successfully solve numerical problems involving gravity hold qualitative misconceptions similar to those held by much younger students. The finding that even college physics students have significant misconceptions about free fall underscores the importance of effective teaching at the middle and high school levels. Some studies have found that few teachers are aware of their students’ misconceptions or know what to do about them. A few studies have reported success in helping students shed their misconceptions, leading to promising recommendations for curriculum development and teaching.