Many students think of heat as an intangible substance that can flow into and out of objects

Energy and Thermal Physics


This idea can present itself in many ways in a student's understanding. Examples include:

  • Metals trap or absorb cold
  • Dark objects attract heat
  • Heat and cold are substances residing in objects

What the ideas have in common is the reference to heat as a substance to which they can attribute fluid behaviour. 

Resources to Address This

  • Warming things up (11-14)

    This resource explores what happens to the behaviour of the particles as an object is warmed.

    View Resource
  • Heat is not a substance (11-14)

    Some teachers ban the use of the word heat in their teaching and insist that pupils refer to the heating or warming process. 

    View Resource
  • Heat and temperature  (11 - 16)

    One important aspect of students’ growing understanding of energy ideas involves sorting out the ideas of heat and temperature (hotness or coldness).

    Kinetic theory describes the energy of an object as being due to the random motion of its molecules. If you give more energy to be shared out amongst the atoms and molecules of some piece of matter, it usually gets hotter. But ‘hotness’ is not energy. 

    View Resource


  • Schnittka, C. and Bell, R., () Engineering Design and Conceptual Change in Science: Addressing thermal energy and heat transfer in eighth grade. International Journal of Science Education, 33 (13) 1861-1887.

    Early secondary school students struggle to describe energy changes, especially heating. They often describe flows of ‘coldness’ or assign ‘hotness’ or ‘coldness’ as properties of materials rather than being related to the temperature of materials. This research shows that a carefully designed curriculum, based on challenging misconceptions directly and building a clear concept of temperature, will help to overcome them.

    Paper digest

  • Thomaz, M. F., Malaquias, I. M., Valente, M. C. and Antunes, M. J. () An attempt to overcome alternative conceptions related to heat and temperature. Physics Education, 30 (1) 19-26.

    Students can struggle to grasp the concepts of heat and temperature, often confusing the two together. This Portuguese paper discusses a teaching model focused on fostering conceptual change about heat and temperature in students aged 14-15.

    Paper digest

  • Louisa, M., Veiga, F. C. S., Costa Pereira, D. J. V. and Maskill, R., () 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

  • Geourgiou, H. and Sharma, M.D. () University students understanding of Thermal Physics in everyday contexts. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 10, 1119-1142.

    Taiwanese researchers performed a qualitative analysis of first-year undergraduate students’ thermal physics conceptions. It identifies a range of misconceptions, some of which persist despite higher levels of physics education (17-18 years).

    Paper digest

  • Harrison, A. G, Grayson, D. J., ,Treagus, D. F. () Investigating a grade 11 student's evolving conceptions of heat and temperature. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36 (1) 55-87.

    This research identifies unclear concepts of heat and temperature in students aged 16-17 and shows how an eight-week course, using Ausubel's meaningful learning theory, clarified these ideas.

    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

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