Many students strongly link energy with movement and/or force

Energy and Thermal Physics | Forces and Motion


Many students tend to associate energy with movement or force, leading to confusion in using terms like energy, power, and force interchangeably. They struggle to differentiate between energy and work, often stating that "energy is a force" or that "a force is the ability to do work." Additionally, students may mistakenly claim that an object at rest has no energy, using phrases such as "no movement" or "everything is inert".

Diagnostic Resources

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

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

Resources to Address This

  • Two complementary descriptions (11-14)

    It is important to recognise from the very outset that this description of the action of fuels, in terms of energy and energy stores, is theoretical or abstract in nature. It doesn't belong to discussion in the everyday, or lived-in world. This resource discusses energy and energy stores in terms of the lived-in world.

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  • Getting to know the joule and the watt (11-16)

    Students use a hand-turned generator to gain direct experience in measuring energy transfer and to get a ‘feel’ for the size of a joule and the size of a watt.

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  • Lee, C. K. () A Conceptual Change Model for Teaching Heat Energy, Heat Transfer and Insulation. Science Education International, 25, (4), 417-437.

    This study examined 20 pre-service elementary teachers' (PSET) understanding of energy, heat transfer and insulation pre- and post-intervention. The research was carried out by a university-based researcher in the USA, using qualitative analysis of interviews and quiz data.

    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

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

    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

  • Papadouris, N., Constantinou, C., and Kyratsi, K. () Students' Use of the Energy Model to Account for Changes in Physical Sytems, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45 (4), 444-469.

    This Cypriot study investigates how 240 students aged 11-14 explain changes in physical systems and their use of an energy model as a framework. The research highlights students' confusion regarding key terms that connect energy to other physical phenomena.

    Paper digest

  • Loverude, M. E. () Student Understanding Of Gravitational Potential Energy And The Motion Of Bodies In A Gravitational Field, AIP Conference Proceedings, 77, 790, California State University Fullerton, American Institute of Physics.

    This Israel-based investigation of introductory-course students' (including 48 non-science majors) understanding of energy concepts demonstrates that many students develop incomplete and incorrect understandings of gravitational potential energy.

    Paper digest

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