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Introduction to Astronomy Survey

Warning: This post is Northern Hemisphere-centric! Also, keep in mind I did not do an exhaustive statistical analysis of this survey so take it as you wish.

Every semester at the beginning of my Introduction to Astronomy course I give a variation of the survey from The Collaboration for Astronomy Education Research (CAER) group. Each semester after I grade them I am reminded that astronomical concepts are not necessarily common knowlege for most people. To give you some idea what I mean here is a few of the questions:

As seen from your current location (midwest for us), when will an upright flagpole cast no shadow because the Sun is directly overhead?

a) Every day at noon.

b) Only on the first day of summer.

c) Only on the first day of winter.

d) Never from your current location.

The answer to this question will vary depending on where you live but pretend you live in the midwest what do you think the answer to this question is?

Highlight after the colon to see the answer: D

This is the percentage of students this semester that got that one right:  35%

Now perhaps that is not too surprising. I doubt most people really think about the motion of the Sun in the sky and just think noon is when the Sun is highest in the sky so it must be over my head directly at 90 degrees (the zenith.)  Well it is not necessarily. It depends on your latitude and what part of the year it is. For instance, at the equator the Sun is directly at the zenith on the first day of fall and spring. At the location where I teach the Sun never gets any higher than 71.2 degrees. (For more information go to : Understanding Astronomy.)

Try another one:

At what closest compass position does the Sun rise above the horizon at daybreak?

a) North                          b) South                          c) East                          d) West

I know you all know this one but highlight after the colon: C

This is the percentage of students who got this one right:  54%

Okay, so I am always surprised to see that more students do not get this one correct. A lot of them tell me it rises in the north which makes me sad. However, the Sun does not always rise due east and set due west. In fact during the course of the year it travels to rise and set more toward the north as we go into summer and more toward the south as we go into winter.

Here is another one:

If you could see the stars during the day, this is what the sky would look like on noon on a given day.  The Sun is near the stars of the constellation Gemini. Near which constellation would you expect the Sun to be located at Sunset.sunconst

a) Leo

b) Cancer

c) Gemini

d) Taurus

e) Pisces


The answer is (highlight after colon): C

The percentage of students that got this correct: 34%

This is not a surprise to me.  Most introduction to astronomy students really do not pay any attention to diurnal motion of the sky.  When we are done studying the motions of the sky I re-ask this question and they can confidently tell me the answer.

Let’s do a couple more.

Which of the following planets is the largest by size in the Solar System?

a) Earth                           b) Saturn                           c) Mars                       d) Jupiter

The answer is (highlight after colon): D

Percentage of correct by students: 87%

I still think this number is low for what should be common knowledge. However, this is why I use the survey. It forces me to remember that what I consider common knowledge is not necessarily true for everyone. Of course the handful that think the Earth is the largest planet makes me wonder how hard they tried on the survey.


Which of the following lists is correctly arranged in order of closest-to-most-distant to the Earth?

a) Stars, Moon, Sun, Pluto

b) Sun, Moon, Pluto, Stars

c) Moon, Pluto, Sun, Stars

d) Moon, Sun, Pluto, Stars

The answer to this one is (highlight after colon): D

This is the percentage of students who got this one correct: 65%

A lot of them answer B as their choice. I do not think that is because they think the Sun is actually closer, I think it is because they do not read the question carefully enough. Although, I can say that I can count on one hand the number that answered A.

Please do not mistake this post as an attempt by me to make fun of people. That is not my intent. My intent is to show how important it is as a teacher to get a baseline of your students’ prior knowledge before assuming they know things that they may not. Unfortunately, there are a lot of times when the problem is not the things they do not know but the things they think they know through bad information.  So the survey gives me a heads up and lets me know I need to fix things during the semester.

It is probably also important to understand that this post used the combined surveys of two different schools. This summer I am teaching at a community College and at a University.  All together the sample was 100 students.  If I break them down by school the percentages do change.  The University students do have higher success at the questions on the survey but there are more of them then at the community college. Maybe one day when I have the time I will do a more thorough study of these surveys and break them down even more.

Featured Image: Questions by by Hector Alejandro




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JoDee is an adjunct faculty instructor of astronomy and physics at various colleges around her hometown in the midwest. When she is not trying to get her cat, Pixel, off of her laptop she is observing variable stars and researching black holes.

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