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IMPRESS: International Modern Physics & Research in Education Seminar Series

Holes in the atmosphere of the universe: An empirical qualitative study on mental models of students regarding black holes

by Dr Malte Ubben (University of Münster)


From the big bang to black holes, from elementary particles and the fundamental interactions that govern our universe to the world's largest and most complex scientific instruments, our knowledge of the world builds on modern physics. To make our current-best understanding available to all, we need to invest in educational research and bridge the gap between those who know science, those who teach science, and those who learn science. 

This month, we are going to discuss a paper by Malte Ubben on students' mental models regarding black holes:

Black holes are both interesting to many students and are part of several school and university curricula. However, it has not yet been documented in detail what kind of mental models of black holes students have. As such, this study qualitatively reports on the mental models of 53 university students, most of them with a non-physics major. The gestalts of the mental models found were mostly disc shaped holes or black spheres, though some funnels or ellipsoids were also described by the students. As for the functionality, students associated attractive functions with a black hole, though more elaborate descriptions such as time dilation or gravitational lensing and Hawking radiation were also named. All university students described a kind of black hole creation, though not all knew about their change in time and only described growth or could not give founded reasons for the change. Several participants showed potential problems by seeing their mental model as a direct replica of reality and assumed that black holes were literally holes. Conceptual problems regarding things “behind” the holes were raised. The results show that many rudimentary properties of black holes are known to university students without explicit education in that field, and a surprising amount of physics quantities were associated with them, although things like density or mass were described inadequately in several cases. Though mental models of black holes were not documented this extensively before, parallels in thinking with mental models in other areas of physics could be observed, making the findings consistent with literature.



Ubben, M. S., Hartmann, J., & Pusch, A. (2022). “Holes in the atmosphere of the universe”: An empirical qualitative study on mental models of students regarding black holes. Astronomy Education Journal, 2(1), 

Organized by

Magdalena Kersting (Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen, Denmark) and Julia Woithe (Science Gateway Education, CERN, Switzerland)

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