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)

    Source - SPT /  Fo01TA01

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


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

    Source - Practical physics/ Energy/ Introducing energy

    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)

    Source - SPT/ Mf03TL01

    Compressing particles in a solid creates a force.

    View Resource


The following studies have documented this misconception:

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


    This study examined the explanations given by two classes of high school students in an economically affluent suburb of Seattle for objects at rest. Students were asked to diagram and defend the forces involves in a series of examples including (i) book at rest on a table, (ii) book held by hand, (iii) multiple books held by hand, (iv) book hanging from a spring, (v) book at rest on a table which is shown to depress, (vi) book at rest on a table again. Recordings of student discussions were made, and homework papers, as well as pre- and post-instruction test results were examined.
    Review sheet

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


    This study presented a sample of first year physics undergraduates at Monash University, Australia, with eight physical situations. The students were asked to make predictions as to what would happen if a certain action was taken. The action was then taken, and the subjects were asked to explain any discrepancies between their prediction and the result.
    Review sheet

  • 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),


    This study aimed to determine the percentage of students consistent in their beliefs about forces and the percentage of those able to consistently apply a given correct (or incorrect) framework of beliefs. The study also sought to identify the various categories of thought and framework of which these beliefs were a part.

    The study was conducted in Israel and examined a sample of 534 students using a 10-item written test which asked students questions about different mechanical scenarios. The sample was made up of two groups: 333 university students and 201 high school students. After the written tests, a further sample of 5-10% of each group were interviewed.
    Review sheet

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


    This study aimed to measure the effect of using 'bridging' analogies (analogies with intermediate examples) to address the preconceptions of high school physics students. The sample consisted of 3 experimental groups across 2 schools (comprising 150 students) and 2 control groups across 2 schools (comprising 55 students). Data was collected using pre- and post-intervention tests, and was analysed using a t-test.
    Review sheet

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


    Review sheet

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


    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.
    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

  • 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

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


    Review sheet

  • 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 of terms in mechanics for Grade 6 students (aged approximately 12 years old). Students were asked to complete the following questionnaire:

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

    Review sheet

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