Many students are confused by the idea of conventional current

Electricity and Magnetism


Conventional current is defined to be in the opposite direction to the 'real' current of electrons. This can lead to confusion in some learners.

Diagnostic Resources

The following worksheets may help to identify whether students hold this particular misconception.

For more information, see the University of York EPSE website.

Resources to Address This

  • Episode 106: Electrical Power (16-19)

    Part of this resource preempts the common student confusion about conventional current, and suggests ways of addressing it.

    View Resource
  • History and the electric current convention (11-14)

    In the metal conducting materials that we use to make electric circuits, it is the negatively charged particles (the electrons) that are physically able to move around. By convention, however, the electric current is taken as flowing in the opposite direction towards the negative terminal.

    Why should it be that the conventional electric current is taken as being in the opposite direction to the motion of the electrons? The answer is that the convention arose historically.

    View Resource
  • The direction of the electric current (5-11)

    Scientists agree to use a convention which shows the direction of the electric charge flow (the current) in a circuit as being from the positive terminal of the battery towards the negative terminal. This is in the opposite direction to the actual flow of electrons – the most common moving charges in circuits.

    This odd state of affairs came about because the convention was established before it was known that electrons move through the wires of a circuit.

    View Resource


  • Lee, Y. and Law, N. () Explorations in promoting conceptual change in electrical concepts via ontological category shift. International Journal of Science Education, 23 (2), 111-149.

    These four connected studies involving observations of practical work reveal that students are unclear in their pictures of current, voltages and the behaviour of batteries in circuits. It shows that precise language and allowing students to predict and experiment can encourage them to make more accurate qualitative explanations about what is happening in simple circuits.

    Paper digest

  • Pardhan, H. and Bano, Y. () Science teachers' alternate conceptions about direct-currents. International Journal of Science Education, 23 (3), 301-318.

  • Çepni, S. and Keleş, E. () Turkish students' conceptions about the simple electric circuits. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 4 (2), 269-291.

  • Heller, P. M. and Finley, F. N. () Variable Uses of Alternative Conceptions: A Case Study in Current Electricity. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29 (3), 259-275.

Limit Less Campaign

Support our manifesto for change

The IOP wants to support young people to fulfil their potential by doing physics. Please sign the manifesto today so that we can show our politicians there is widespread support for improving equity and inclusion across the education sector.

Sign today