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 very 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 really 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.

    View Resource
  • 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.

    View Resource


  • 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)


    Paper digest

  • M. Louisa, F. C. S. Veiga, D. J. V. Costa Pereira and R. Maskill, () Teachers' language and pupils' ideas in science lessons: Can teachers avoid reinforcing wrong ideas? International Journal of Science Education, 11, (4)


    A study which explores the idea that teachers reinforce wrong ideas about thermal energy and temperature by the way they teach.
    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,


    Paper digest

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


    A two-part study designed (a) to find the relation, if any, between junior high school students’ alternative frameworks on energy held prior to instruction and their cognitive level of operations, either preformal or formal, and (b) to determine the relation, if any, between junior and senior high school students’ success or failure in learning about energy and their alternative frameworks, their levels of cognitive operations, and their tendencies toward open- or closed-mindedness.
    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)


    Paper digest

Limit Less Campaign

Support our manifesto for change

The IOP wants to support young people to fulfil their potential by doing physics. Please sign the manifesto today so that we can show our politicians there is widespread support for improving equity and inclusion across the education sector.

Sign today