Which thermodynamics research-based assessment should I use in my class?

posted April 10, 2021 and revised April 19, 2021
by Adrian Madsen, Sarah B. McKagan and Eleanor C. Sayre

This recommendation initially appeared as an article in the American Journal of Physics:  A. Madsen, S. B. McKagan and E. C. Sayre, Resource Letter RBAI-1: Research-Based Assessment Instruments in Physics and Astronomy, Am. J. Phys. 85, 4 (2017).
 

There are four RBAIs for thermodynamics concepts: The Thermodynamics Conceptual Survey (TCS) (Wattanakasiwich et al. 2013), Thermal Concept Evaluation (TCE) (Yeo and Zadnik 2001), Heat and Temperature Conceptual Evaluation (HTCE) (Tanahoang et al. 2006), and Survey of Thermodynamic Processes and First and Second Laws (STPFaSL) (Brown 2015). All of these assessments were developed for introductory level courses. The Thermal and Transport Concept Inventory-Thermodynamics (TTCI-T) (Streveler et al. 2011) and the Thermodynamics Concept Inventory (TCI) (Midkiff 2001) were developed specifically for engineering courses, and will not be discussed further here. We are not aware of any research-based assessments on statistical mechanics.

Title Content Intended Population Research Validation Purpose 

Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics Conceptual Survey (TCS)

Temperature, heat transfer, ideal gas law, 1st law of thermodynamics

Intro college, intermediate

Silver

To assess students’ understanding of heat and temperature, the ideal gas law, the first law of thermodynamics and processes.

Thermal Concept Evaluation (TCE)

Heat, temperature, heat transfer

Intro college, high school

Silver

To assess introductory college or 3rd-year high school students’ understanding and application of thermodynamics concepts using common contexts that reflect students’ own conceptions.

Survey of Thermodynamic Processes and First and Second Laws (STPFaSL)

1st and 2nd law of thermodynamics, thermodynamics processes

Intro college, upper-level graduate

Silver

To measure the effectiveness of traditional and/ or research-based techniques of teaching the first and second laws of thermodynamics and thermodynamic processes.

Heat and Temperature Conceptual Evaluation (HTCE)

Heat, temperature, specific heat capacity, phase changes

Intro college

Bronze

To assess students’ understanding of heat and temperature concepts.

Thermodynamics Conceptual Survey (TCS) 

The Thermodynamics Conceptual Survey (TCS) (Wattanakasiwich et al. 2013) is a multiple-choice pre/post conceptual assessment of heat and temperature, the ideal gas law, and the first law of thermodynamics for introductory physics courses. It consists of two parts with part one covering temperature, heat transfer, and the ideal gas law; and part two covering the first law of thermodynamics. It is split into two parts so that you can choose the part(s) that most closely match the content covered in your course. The questions on the TCS are all either adapted from other thermodynamics tests or studies of students’ understanding of thermodynamics topics. In addition to assessing your students’ understanding of these thermodynamics topics, the authors suggest that the questions may be used as teaching materials to help students overcome conceptual difficulties. The TCS was developed in Thailand.

Thermal Concept Evaluation (TCE)

The Thermal Concept Evaluation (TCE) (Yeo and Zadnik 2001) is a multiple-choice pre/post-conceptual assessment of heat transfer, temperature change, and thermal properties of materials. It was developed for third-year high school students and introductory college students in Australia. The multiple-choice answers allow students to choose from “everyday physics” answers or “classroom physics” answers. Many questions consist of a conversation between students and then statements about the opinions of the students involved in the conversation. There are no diagrams or graphs. The TCE questions were developed based on an inventory of students’ alternative conceptions of thermodynamics from the research literature. The TCE was developed in Australia.

Heat and Temperature Conceptual Evaluation (HTCE)

The Heat and Temperature Conceptual Evaluation (HTCE) (Tanahoang et al. 2006) is a multiple-choice pre/post conceptual assessment of heat, temperature, and heat transfer for introductory physics courses. A majority of the questions are about heat transfer of various materials in cups and about a third have to do with graphing temperature versus time. The HTCE questions were developed based on research into student thinking.

Comparing the TCS, TCE and HTCE

The TCS shares many commonalities with the TCE and HTCE because its questions were adapted from various other RBAIs or interview tasks. TCS questions 2, 4, 5, and 6 are the same as TCE questions 8, 11, 14, and 6. TCS questions 1 and 3 are the same as HTCE questions 1 and 8. The TCS covers more thermodynamics concepts than either the TCE or HTCE. The TCS includes questions on the first law of thermodynamics and the ideal gas law, whereas neither the TCE nor HTCE contain these topics. Some of the questions on the TCS are also more complex than those on the HTCE or TCE. For example, there is an explanation of a five-step process of a gas being compressed by a piston, and students are asked questions about work, heat, and energy at various points in the process. The TCS is also the only thermodynamics test that asks students to interpret P vs V graphs.

The heat and temperature concepts covered on the HTCE are very similar to those covered on the TCE, though the questions on the TCE focus on students’ everyday experiences of heat and temperature and many present conversations where students are asked to indicate who they agree with. The HTCE and TCS are more formal and focus on the content of thermodynamics in a physics course. The TCE would be better used as a pre-test, because it focuses on everyday language. The HTCE has three questions about temperature versus time graphs, whereas the TCE has no questions about graphs.

Survey of Thermodynamic Processes and First and Second Laws (STPFaSL) 

The Survey of Thermodynamic Processes and First and Second Laws (STPFaSL) (Brown 2015) is the newest pre/post-multiple-choice conceptual thermodynamics assessments for introductory algebra-based and calculus-based physics courses. It can also be used in upper-level or graduate courses when relevant content is covered. It assesses the first and second laws of thermodynamics and thermodynamic processes. The questions on the STPFaSL were developed by consulting with instructors of introductory courses about topics and content goals, as well as materials for these courses, and a literature review of student difficulties with relevant topics.

Both the STPFaSL and the TCS contain questions on the first law of thermodynamics and ask students about pressure vs volume graphs. The STPFaSL also asks questions about the second law of thermodynamics. The TCS and STPFaSL have similar formats and levels of research validation.

Recommendations for choosing a thermodynamics assessment

Use the TCS if you want to assess the first law of thermodynamics in addition to other topics such as temperature, heat transfer, phase change, and thermal properties of materials. Use the STPFaSL is you are interested in assessing the second law of thermodynamics in addition to the first law and thermodynamic processes. The TCE uses everyday language and ideas that would be familiar to students before a physics course, so it would be appropriate to use as a pre-test with students who have not seen this content before. Further, the format of the TCE where students answer questions about a student discussion could help students get into the frame of mind of discussion and not test taking, which might help you understand their ideas more deeply. You could also use the STPFaSL and TCS as pre-tests in courses where you think students will understand the formal terms before taking the course.