Many students associate ‘energy’ with humans and other living things

Energy and Thermal Physics


They think of energy as something that is needed for life and for activity.

Resources to Address This

  • Words used to describe energy (11-16)

    The topic of energy needs to be visited many times with a gradual increase in the depth of teaching. As there is no convenient definition of energy for beginners, the concept needs to develop slowly. It benefits from a spiral approach to teaching.

    View Resource


  • Svedholm, A. M. and Lindeman, M. () Healing, Mental Energy in the Physics Classroom: Energy Conceptions and Trust in Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Grade 10-12 Students. Science & Education, 22, 677-694.

    Finnish researchers examined the impact of lay concepts of "energy" in alternative medicine on learning and scientific literacy among 102 students aged 16-18. The study involved comparing these concepts to those used in physics using pre- and post-tests. They found that incorrect conceptions of energy commonly coexist with correct ideas.

    Paper digest

  • M. Louisa, F. C. S. Veiga, D. J. V. Costa Pereira and R. Maskill, () Teachers' language and pupils' ideas in science lessons: Can teachers avoid reinforcing wrong ideas? International Journal of Science Education, 11 (4) 465-479.

    This research identifies some of the most common misconceptions about the relationship between energy, heating, and temperature. These easily categorised issues are found to be held by both students and their secondary school teachers. The paper provides some clear approaches to overcoming the ideas which limit successful learning, linking closely to the “energy stores” approach to describing energy and energy transfer pathways.

    Paper digest

  • Legett, M. () Lessons that non-scientists can teach us about the concept of energy: a human-centred approach Physics Education, 38, 130.

    An Australian researcher explored energy issues (particularly renewability and sustainability) with non-scientists within the community aged 30-50. They found that participants’ energy concepts were multifaceted, with most having a strong personal component but also social, technical, and cosmic dimensions.

    Paper digest

  • Trumper, R. () A Longitudinal Study of Physics Students' Conceptions on Energy in Pre-Service Training for High School Teachers Journal of Science Education and Technology, 7, (4) 311-318.

    Pre-service teachers can struggle with their understanding of energy, even those who have a prior physics degree. This may be because they lack a coherent model for energy with links to other parts of physics, particularly heating and forces. Alternatively, the teachers may use ideas about different “forms” of energy and conversion between them. This paper concludes that there is an urgent need for more discussion of energy, and concept building, during teacher training. 

    Paper digest

  • Finegold, M. and Trumper, R. () Categorizing pupils' explanatory frameworks in energy as a means to the development of a teaching approach. Research in Science Education, 19, 97-110.

    Secondary school students have a wide range of different ideas about energy, many of which do not match those in physics. These non-scientific conceptions are often founded due to the use of everyday language which is significantly different to the language used in physics lessons. To overcome these limitations the authors suggest using an approach which pits everyday descriptions against more scientific approaches, directly challenging the students to form new mental models and to use specific language.

    Paper digest

  • Trumper, R. () Children's energy concepts: a cross‐age study, International Journal of Science Education, 15, (2) Routledge, 139-148.

    Research shows that teaching about energy concepts is most effective when it takes place early and clearly differentiates common language from scientific language. Students often think that energy 'makes things happen', i.e., that it is the cause of change. Researchers suggest that descriptions and analyses of a wide range of energy transfers are used to help students identify the physical processes that lead to the energy transfer and the corresponding results.

    Paper digest

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