Using Conceptual Models to Facilitate Conceptual Change: The Case of Weight-Density Differentiation

Carol Smith, Joseph Snir, Lorraine Grosslight

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We report on two studies that assess to what extent sixth and seventh graders (a) did not differentiate between weight and density as quantities at the time of the preinterview and (b) made conceptual changes after participating in a curriculum on weight and density that uses computer-based conceptual models and simulations. In Study 1, 18 sixth graders received individual clinical interviews to assess their understanding of the density of materials and their ability to use a concept of density to understand flotation, immediately before and after they worked through an eight-lesson curriculum unit on those topics. In Study 2, 12 sixth graders and 10 seventh graders received individual clinical interviews before and after their classes worked through a more extensive 16-lesson curriculum on these topics and on the topic of changes in density with thermal expansion. In both studies, we found that the majority of students failed to differentiate consistently between weight and density at the time of the preinterview (although within this group, we distinguished between those who were beginning to have some insight that two distinct dimensions might be involved and those who were not), whereas the rest were able to make an initial qualitative distinction between these quantities. We found that our curriculum was moderately effective in helping some but not all children differentiate weight from density and in helping other children consolidate their understanding of density. Further, the revised curriculum used in Study 2 seemed more effective than the curriculum used in Study 1. However, the curriculum was not equally effective for all groups of children (those children who had some initial insight that the two dimensions were necessary were helped the most). The experience of using the curriculum alerted us to the specific ways our models were helpful and certain complexities inherent in the process of using conceptual models to produce conceptual change. These complexities are discussed, along with ways to further revise the curriculum that might lead to its more widespread effectiveness with children.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)221-283
Number of pages63
JournalCognition and Instruction
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 1992
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Preparation of this article was supported in part by the Ofice of Educational Research and Improvement (Contract No. OERI 400-83-0041) and the McDon-nell Foundation (Grant No. 87-38; Clark University). Opinions expressed here-

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • General Psychology


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