Document Type


Journal/Book Title/Conference

Science Education






Gregory J. Kelley



Publication Date

Fall 2010

First Page


Last Page



The cause of the seasons is often associated with a very particular alternative conception: that the Earth’s orbit around the sun is highly elongated and the differences in distance result in variations in temperature. It has been suggested that the standard diagrams used to depict the Earth’s orbit may be in some way responsible for the initial appearance and overall maintenance of this incorrect conceptualization; the elongated shape of the orbit is thought of as a conceptualization cue that invites a fairly predictable way of reasoning. To test if that is indeed the case, six variants of diagrams depicting differently shaped Earth orbits around the sun were presented to 652 ninth-grade students in the United States. From responses to a written assessment, students’ ideas about what caused the seasons were identified and analyzed. Elongation of orbit did not appear to have an effect, and there was no reinforcement effect for students who initially believed in an elongated orbit. Additional analyses show instead that other features in the diagrams can instead be more influential as conceptualization cues, such as shading or overlapping shapes, but those cues’ influence on student reasoning depend on which other cues accompany them.


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