Students first perceive energy as activity, or the ability to do work

Energy and Thermal Physics


Then as their understanding progresses, they begin to distinguish between different energy stores. Next comes an understanding of energy transfer, followed by a recognition of energy degradation, and finally an acceptance of the concept of conservation of energy.

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

  • Shifting and conserving energy (11-14)

    This resource discusses how recognising that when one energy store empties, another energy store elsewhere must be filled. The energy is just shifted from store to store. Energy is not used up but is conserved.

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  • Words used to describe energy (11-16)

    The topic of energy needs to be visited many times with a gradual increase in the sophistication and depth of the teaching. As there is no convenient definition of energy for beginners, the concept needs to develop slowly until students can write about energy without making mistakes; putting the right words into the right places. It benefits from a spiral approach to teaching.

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  • Trumper, R. () Children's energy concepts: a cross‐age study, International Journal of Science Education, 15, (2) 139-148.

    Research shows that teaching about energy concepts is most effective when it takes place early and clearly differentiates common language from scientific language. Students often think that energy 'makes things happen', i.e., that it is the cause of change. Researchers suggest that descriptions and analyses of a wide range of energy transfers are used to help students identify the physical processes that lead to the energy transfer and the corresponding results.

    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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