Students often struggle to define 'electricity' precisely

Electricity and Magnetism


It is common for students to use the term 'electricity' in an ambiguous fashion that does not differentiate between the concepts of current, potential difference, energy and related terms with precise meaning.

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

  • Model Precise Terminology (11-14)

    This teaching tip encourages you to think about how the way we use language in the classroom affects student thinking.

    View Resource
  • Helpful and Unhelpful Ideas about Electric Circuits (11-14)

    This resource highlights potential pitfalls in student thinking and how to avoid them.

    View Resource
  • Think again - about electric circuits (14-16)

    These diagnostic questions are used for two main reasons:

    • To encourage students to talk and think through their understanding of electric circuits.
    • To provide the teacher with formative assessment information about the students' understanding of electric circuits.
    View Resource
  • Episode 100: Preparation for electric circuit topic (16-19)

    Most students will be familiar with concepts of charge, current and voltage from their previous work at the pre-16 level. However, these ideas are often muddled and this can be a real obstacle to progress so it is well worth reinforcing simple ideas and providing basic training.

    View Resource


The following studies have documented this misconception:

  • Küçüközer, H. and Kocakülah, S. () Effect of Simple Electric Circuits Teaching on Conceptual Change in Grade 9 Physics Course. Journal of Turkish Science Education.

    Paper digest

  • Borges, A. and Gilbert, J. () Mental models of electricity. International Journal of Science Education, 21 (1), 95-117.

    A study including electrical engineers shows that a fully correct understanding of electrical principles is not always necessary to work in the field. This paper describes how students and professionals picture electric currents and discusses how to develop models and teaching techniques that will allow students to link electrical concepts correctly.

    Paper digest

  • Lee, L. and Law, N. () Explorations in promoting conceptual change in electrical concepts via ontological category shift. International Journal of Science Education, 23 (2), 111-149.

    These four connected studies involving observations of practical work reveal that students are unclear in their pictures of current, voltages and the behaviour of batteries in circuits. They show that precise language, predictions and experimentation can encourage them to make more accurate qualitative explanations about what is happening in simple circuits.

    Paper digest

  • Summers, M., Kruger, C. and Mant, J. () Teaching electricity effectively in the primary school: a case study. International Journal of Science Education, 20 (2), 153-172.

  • Bryan, J. A. and Stuessy, C. () The "Brightness Rules" alternative conception for light bulb circuits. Physics Education, 41 (6), 522.

  • McDermott, L. C. and Shaffer, P. S. () Research as a guide for curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity. Part I: Investigation of student understanding. American Journal of Physics, 60 (11), 994-1003.

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