Many students think forces can only be exerted by living things and some machines, but not by inanimate objects

Forces and Motion


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

  • Discussion questions (5-11 and 11-14)

    The purpose of these activities is to get pupils thinking and talking about forces.

    View Resource
  • Jobs needing food or fuel (11-16)

    Exploring when a force is being applied and when 'food or fuel' are required.

    View Resource
  • How can the floor make a force? (5-11)

    Compressing particles in a solid creates a force.

    View Resource


  • Terry, C.; Jones, G. and Hurford, W. () Children's Conceptual Understanding of Forces and Equilibrium. Physics Education, 20, 162-165.

    Equilibrium is difficult for secondary school students to fully understand as they cannot clearly picture the forces acting on a stationary object or one moving at constant velocity. This research suggests that teachers develop students’ ability to draw accurate force diagrams for scenarios involving balanced and unbalanced forces before describing changes in motion.

    Paper digest

  • Gilbert, J. K.; Watts, D. M. and Osborne, R. J. () Students' Conceptions of Ideas in Mechanics. Physics Education, 17, 62-66.

    This study examined a "wide variety" of students aged between 7 and 20 years of age. The researchers aimed to catalogue the students' conceptions of common ideas in mechanics by prompting discussion in interviews. The recordings of these interviews comprise the data for this study.
    Full article

  • Halloun, I. A. and Hestenes, D. () Common sense concepts about motion. American Journal of Physics, 53 (11), 1056-1065.

    This US-based study surveyed and analysed the common sense ideas around motion of a sample of 478 university physics students using a multiple-choice diagnostic test and follow-up interviews. A taxonomy of concepts which conflict with Newtonian theory was developed as a guide for instruction.

    Paper digest

  • Duit, R. () "Work, Force and Power - Words in Everyday Language and Terms in Mechanics" in The Many Faces of Teaching and Learning Mechanics in Secondary and Early Tertiary Education, Proceedings of the International Research Group on Physics Teaching 1984 Conference. GIREP/SVO/UNESCO, Utrecht.

    This study examined the difficulties posed by conflicting formal and informal definitions within mechanics for students aged ~12 years old. Students were asked to complete the following questionnaire:

    1. Write down associations for the following words: Work, Force, Power.
    2. Describe the meanings of each word.
    3. Give examples to characterise meanings.
    4. Describe a process using each of the words at least once.

  • Clement, J. () Using Bridging Analogies and Anchoring Intuitions to Deal with Students' Preconceptions in Physics. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 30 (10), 1241-1257.

    This study aimed to measure the effect of using 'bridging' analogies (analogies with intermediate examples) to address the preconceptions of students (aged 15-18). The sample consisted of ~200 pupils across multiple schools, data was collected using pre- and post-intervention tests, and results were analysed using a t-test.

  • Watts, D. M. () A study of schoolchildren's alternative frameworks of the concept of force. International Journal of Science Education, 5 (2), 217-230.

    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.

  • Gunstone, R. F. and White, R. T. () Understanding of Gravity. Science Education, 65 (3), 291-299.

    This study presented a sample of first-year physics undergraduates at an Australian university with eight physical situations. The students were asked to predict what would happen if a specific action was taken. The action was then taken, and the subjects were asked to explain any discrepancies between their prediction and the result.

  • Minstrell, J. () Explaining the "At Rest" Condition of an Object. The Physics Teacher, 20 (1), 10-14.

    This study investigated students' (14-18) explanations for stationary objects in an affluent Seattle suburb. Students drew diagrams of the forces involved in various scenarios, such as books at rest on a table, multiple books held by hand, a book hanging from a spring and a book on a table that is either stationary or depressing. The study recorded student discussions, homework and pre- and post-instruction tests.

  • Finegold, M. and Gorsky, P. () Students' Concept of Force as Applied to Related Physical Systems: A Search for Consistency. International Journal of Science Education, 13 (1), 97-113.

    This Israel-based study aimed to determine the percentage of students (ages 15-20) able to consistently apply a given correct (or incorrect) framework of beliefs about forces and categorise them. The sample was made up of two groups, 333 university students and 201 high school students, and used a 10-item written test as well as interviews to probe their understanding.

  • Osborne, R. () "Building on Children's Intuitive Ideas" in R. Osborne & P. Freyberg (Eds.), Learning in Science. Heinemann, Auckland, 41-51.

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