Many students are unable to accurately represent a magnetic field using field lines

Electricity and Magnetism


By mid-secondary level, many students recognise a ‘magnetic field’ as a region where magnetic effects can be detected, but many are unable to use field lines to represent the field around common shapes of magnet, or a wire or simple coil.

Resources to Address This

  • Representing Magnetic Fields: In Practice (11-14)

    Source - SPT/ Em01 PN11

    This resource discusses some important physics narrative for teachers about representing magnetic fields in the classroom.

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  • Drawing Magnetic Field Patterns (11-14)

    Source - SPT/ Em01 TA04

    Remember that some care needs to be taken in leading pupils to draw magnetic field patterns. Rather than getting the pupils to start with iron filings and make their own drawings, we would suggest starting with a compass needle demonstration, which helps pupils to understand and recognise what it is that they are drawing, and then progressing to drawing the iron filings.

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  • Drawing magnetic field patterns - an activity (14-16)

    Source - SPT/ Em01 TL06

    Our experience over many years of directing pupils to scatter iron filings around bar magnets has shown that the magnetic field patterns which seem so clear to us are far from obvious to the vast majority of pupils. Indeed how else could it be? This is one of those situations where:

    … if you know what you are looking for, it's obvious … if you don't know what you are looking for, it's hopeless!

    The aim of this activity is to develop the idea of a magnetic field by engaging pupils in drawing some magnetic field patterns.

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  • Episode 411: Describing Magnetic Fields (16-19)

    The field around a permanent magnet should be familiar to your students. In practice, where we want a controllable field, we use electromagnets. In this resource, aimed at A-Level classes, students learn about these fields and the factors that determine their strength and direction.

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  • Magnetic fields due to arrangements of magnets (11-16)

    Source - Practical physics/ Electromagnetism/ Permanent magnets/ ...

    Iron filings will align with the direction of a magnetic field to reveal the field pattern.

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The following studies have documented this student thinking:

  • Borges, A. T. and Gilbert, J. K. () Models of magnetism. International Journal of Science Education, 20 (3),


    Review sheet

  • Bradamante, F. and Viennot, L. () Mapping Gravitational and Magnetic Fields with Children 9–11: Relevance, difficulties and prospects. International Journal of Science Education, 29 (3),


    Review sheet

  • Guth, J. () An in-depth study of two individual students' understanding of electric and magnetic fields. Research in Science Education, 25 (4),


    Review sheet

  • Saarelainen, M.; Laaksonen, A. and Hirvonen, P. E. () Students' initial knowledge of electric and magnetic fields—more profound explanations and reasoning models for undesired conceptions. European Journal of Physics, 28 (1),


    Review sheet

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