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Improving Students' Understanding Of Magnetism

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Physics Education Research (PER) Relevant for Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.718.1 - 13.718.16



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Paper Authors

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Chandralekha Singh University of Pittsburgh

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Improving Students’ Understanding of Magnetism Abstract

Formally investigating the sources of students' difficulties around specific subjects is crucial for developing appropriate strategies to help students. We have been studying difficulties in understanding magnetism encountered by students in the calculus-based introductory physics courses. A majority of these students are engineering majors. Student difficulties were assessed by administering written free-response questions and by developing and administering a research-based multiple-choice test to students. We also conducted individual interviews with a subset of students. Some of these interviews were lecture-demonstration based interviews in which students were asked to predict the outcomes of experiments, perform the experiments and reconcile the differences between their predictions and observations. Some of the common misconceptions found in magnetism are analogous to those found in electrostatics. Some additional difficulties are due to the non-intuitive three dimensional nature of the relation between magnetic field, magnetic force and velocity of the charged particles or direction of current. Another finding is that in students often used their gut feeling and had more difficulty reconciling with the idea that the magnetic force and field are perpendicular to each other when they were shown actual lecture-demonstration setups and asked to predict outcomes of experiments than when they were asked to explain relation between magnetic force and field theoretically solely based upon an equation. We discuss the implications of this research to teaching and learning.


Magnetism is an important topic covered in most calculus-based introductory physics courses for science and engineering majors. The Physics Education Research literature is full of studies of student difficulties in introductory mechanics.1 Student difficulties in Electricity and Magnetism have not received nearly as much attention2-8. The Washington group under the direction of McDermott has developed tutorials on electric field, potential, potential energy, and magnetism related mostly to bar magnets3. Maloney et al.9 and Ding et al.10 have developed broad surveys to evaluate students' conceptual knowledge of all of electricity and magnetism covered in introductory physics.

Here, we discuss research on students' difficulties with concepts related to magnetism covered in introductory calculus-based physics courses. The origins of student difficulties in learning physics concepts can broadly be classified into two categories: gaps in students' knowledge, and misconceptions. Cognitive theory suggests that learning is incremental and new knowledge builds on prior knowledge11, 12. Knowledge gaps can arise from many sources, e.g., a mismatch between the level at which the material is presented in a course and students' prior knowledge. Deep-rooted misconceptions can also seriously impede the learning process at all levels of

Singh, C. (2008, June), Improving Students' Understanding Of Magnetism Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3117

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