The vast majority of students’ alternative ideas about energy could be classified into seven alternative frameworks

Energy and Thermal Physics


  1. Anthropocentric - energy is mainly associated with human beings
  2. Depository - some objects have energy
  3. Ingredient - energy is dormant within some objects and can be released by some trigger 
  4. Activity - energy is identified by overt displays – the display itself is energy 
  5. Product - energy is a relatively short lived by-product of some situation
  6. Functional - energy is a very general kind of fuel for technical devices 
  7. Flow-transfer - energy is a physical fluid that is transferred in certain processes

Resources to Address This

  • What's wrong with 'forms of energy'? (11-16)

    Many textbooks and teaching schemes talk of ‘transforming’ energy, or of ‘converting energy from one form to another’.

    This is a common way of talking, but it has its problems. Particularly, it is in danger of saying nothing at all. For example, “A torch converts chemical energy in the battery to light energy”. All this says is that a chemical reaction happens and light comes out.

    The important thing is to work from very early on with actual quantities of energy, to do plenty of simple sums about amounts of energy and rates of delivery. This is where there is a real payoff; where something is actually being said, and understanding has something to get a grip on.

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  • Energy: a common currency (11-14)

    All of our everyday activities, whether driving to school, doing the washing-up, or going for a walk, have a cost. The cost we are thinking about here is not one of money, but one of energy. In fact, energy provides a common currency that allows us to count the relative cost of all of these different kinds of activity.

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  • Trumper, R. and Gorsky, P. () Learning about Energy: The Influence of Alternative Frameworks, Cognitive Levels and Closed-Mindedness, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 30, (7) 637-648.

    This Israel-based study compares the ability of students (aged 15-17) to develop their ideas about energy with their open or closed-mindedness along with their level of cognitive operation. It found that students with greater prior knowledge developed ideas more successfully and that there was no correlation with open or closed-mindedness.

    Paper digest

  • M. Louisa et al., () 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

  • Finegold, M. and Trumper, R. () Categorizing pupils' explanatory frameworks in energy as a means to the development of a teaching approach, Research in Science Education, 19, 97-110.

    Secondary school students have a wide range of different ideas about energy, many of which do not match those in physics. These non-scientific conceptions are often founded due to the use of everyday language which is significantly different to the language used in physics lessons. To overcome these limitations the authors suggest using an approach which pits everyday descriptions against more scientific approaches, directly challenging the students to form new mental models and to use specific language.

    Paper digest

  • 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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