Students' beliefs about the role of atoms in radioactive decay and half-life

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33 Scopus citations


Contemporary science education research emphasizes the importance of considering students pre-instructional beliefs when designing effective, learner-centered instructional strategies. When scientist teach about dating geological events, most often the concepts of radioactive decay and half-life are presented. However, the research base on student understanding of radiation and radioactivity is currently quite limited. The principal research question used to focus this investigation asked: What are the common difficulties that students experience when trying to learn about radiation and radioactivity? Our research illustrates that students bring to the classroom many inaccurate ideas and reasoning difficulties on the topics of ionizing radiation, radioactivity, and radioactive decay that are well-poised to interfere with students' understanding of how half-life is used to determine geologic time. To uncover the range and frequency of the dominant student beliefs, we performed individual demonstration interviews and administered open-response and multiple-choice conceptual tests to students from a wide-range of science backgrounds. Our results show that students are often unable to differentiate between the ideas of irradiation and contamination, and that many of these students' reasoning difficulties about radioactive decay and half-life stem from their inaccurate mental models regarding the atom.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)345-354
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Geoscience Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - Sep 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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