Many students think of a force as a property of objects, not as something that arises when two objects interact

Forces and Motion


Students may think that a moving object has a force within it that keeps it going. It is given this force by whatever pushes or pulls it to get it moving, and when this force is 'used up', the object stops moving.

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

  • A teapot: not Newton's third law (11-14)

    Source- SPT/ Fo01PN07

    This resource provides advice on how to talk about forces in the classroom. 

    View Resource
  • Where we've got to with contact forces (5-11)

    Source - SPT/ Mf03PN05

    Summaries identifying forces and  how they arise.

    View Resource
  • Stretching and compressing materials (11-16)

    Source - Practical physics/ Force and motion/ Introduction to forces

    Exploring how the forces affect materials.

    View Resource


The following studies have documented this misconception:

  • White, B. Y. () Sources of Difficulty in Understanding Newtonian Dynamics Cognitive Science 7 1


    This study examined the responses of 40 high school science students (mean age 16.4) from an upper-middle class suburb of the Boston metropolitan area to a series of questions on Newtonian dynamics. Solutions and any comments made during the questions were recorded, as well as interviews and diagrams drawn.
    Review sheet

  • Clement, J. () Students' preconceptions in introductory mechanics. American Journal of Physics 50 (1)


    Review sheet

  • Trumper, R. and Gorsky, P. () A cross-college age study about physics students' conceptions of force in pre-service training for high school teachers. Physics Education 31 (4)


    Review sheet

  • Gilbert, J. K.; Watts, D. M. and Osborne, R. J. () Students' Conceptions of Ideas in Mechanics. Physics Education, 17 (2),


    Review sheet

  • Maloney, D. P. () Rule-governed physics: Some novice predictions. International Journal of Science Education 7 (3)


    This study asked a sample of 'college students' to complete a series of tasks designed to test their knowledge of force and motion prior to any instruction. All but one of the tasks consisted of presenting the students with two similar physical situations and asking them to predict which would exhibit a certain property more strongly (e.g. "which has higher velocity?") The study is assumed to have taken place in the United States, where the author is based.
    Review sheet

  • Watts, D. M. () A study of schoolchildren's alternative frameworks of the concept of force. International Journal of Science Education 5 (2)


    This study used an interview approach to identify the conceptions of force of 12 students aged 11-17. Students were drawn from a range of schools in the Greater London area, from both junior science classes and advanced-level physics classes.
    Review sheet

  • Osborne, R. () "Building on Children's Intuitive Ideas" in R. Osborne & P. Freyberg (Eds.), Learning in Science. Heinemann, Auckland.


    Review sheet

  • Ogborn, J. () Understanding students' understandings: An example from dynamics. International Journal of Science Education 7 (2)


    Review sheet

  • Twigger, D.; Byard, M.; Driver, R.; Draper, S.; Hartley, R.; Hennessy, S.; Mohamed, R.; O'Mally, C.; O'Shea, T. and Scanlon, E. () The conception of force and motion of students aged between 10 and 15 years: an interview study designed to guide instruction. International Journal of Science Education 16 (2)


    This study catalogued the responses of 36 students (16 girls and 20 boys) to 7 tasks on an example of motion in a particular context (e.g. kicking a pebble, a falling parachutist, and throwing a ball). The interviews lasted 1 hour and students participated in pairs, in order to encourage discussion. Students were also asked to give individual responses.
    Review sheet

  • Bliss, J.; Ogborn, J. and Whitelock, D. () Secondary school pupils' commonsense theories of motion. International Journal of Science Education 11 (3)


    This study aimed to expose and empirically test the 'commonsense theory of motion' developed by Jon Ogborn in a sample of 29 students aged 11-18 from two English comprehensive schools. Participants understanding of motion was tested by asking them to describe and explain a sequence of 'comics' depicting physical situations.
    Review sheet

  • Fischbein, E., Stavy, R. and Ma-Naim, H. () The Psychological Structure of Naïve Impetus Conceptions. International Journal of Science Education 11 (1)


    Review sheet

  • Clement, J. () "Students' alternative conceptions in mechanics: a coherent system of preconceptions?" In H. Helm, and J. D. Novak (Eds.), Proceedings of the International Seminar: Misconceptions in Science and Mathematics. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.


    Review sheet

  • Halloun, I. A. and Hestenes, D. () Common sense concepts about motion. American Journal of Physics 53 (11)


    This study surveyed and analysed the common sense beliefs on motion of a sample of 478 university physics students at Arizona State University using a multiple choice diagnostic test on the subject of mechanics. 22 students were randomly chosen for follow-up interviews. A taxonomy of common sense concepts which conflict with Newtonian theory was developed as a guide for instruction.
    Review sheet

  • Tao, P. K. and Gunstone, R. F. () The Process of Conceptual Change in Force and Motion during Computer-Supported Physics Instruction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching: The Official Journal of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching 36 (7)


    Four computer simulation programmes, three of which were accompanied by predict-observe-explain format tasks designed to provoke cognitive conflict, were used to study the process of conceptual change for a sample of 27 10th Grade students at a Catholic Boys' High School in Melbourne, Australia. Students completed the programme collaboratively, in pairs, and were asked a Likert-type questionnaire after completion in order to gauge the students' views. Pre- and post-instruction testing was carried out, and students were interviewed following each of these stages.
    Review sheet

  • Brown, D. and Clement, J. () 'Misconceptions Concerning Newton's Law of Action and Reaction - The Underestimated Importance of the Third Law' in J. D. Novak (ed.), Proceedings of the Second International Seminar: Misconceptions and Educational Strategies in Science and Mathematics (Volume III). Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.


    Review sheet

  • McCloskey, M., Caramazza, A. and Green, B. () Curvilinear Motion in the Absence of External Forces: Naïve Beliefs About the Motion of Objects. Science 210 (4474)


    University students were asked to draw the path a moving object would follow in several different situations. Over half of the students, including many who had taken physics courses, evidenced striking misconceptions about the motion of objects. In particular, many students believed that even in the absence of external forces, objects would move in curved paths. The sample comprised 47 students, 15 of which had no formal physics education, 22 of which had high school physics, and 10 of which had college-level physics.
    Review sheet

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