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Student understanding of energy: Difficulties related to systems

Beth A. Lindsey, Paula R. L. Heron, and Peter S. Shaffer


Citation: Am. J. Phys. 80, 154 (2012); doi: 10.1119/1.3660661
View online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1119/1.3660661
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Published by the American Association of Physics Teachers

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Student understanding of energy: Difficulties related to systems


Beth A. Lindseya)
Department of Physics, Penn State Greater Allegheny, McKeesport, Pennsylvania 15132

Paula R. L. Heronb) and Peter S. Shafferc)


Department of Physics, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195-1560

(Received 15 April 2011; accepted 24 October 2011)


Choosing a system of interest and identifying the interactions of the system with its environment are
crucial steps in applying the relation between work and energy. Responses to problems that we
administered in introductory calculus-based physics courses show that many students fail to recognize the implications of a particular choice of system. In some cases, students do not believe that
particular groupings of objects can even be considered to be a system. Some errors are more prevalent
in situations involving gravitational potential energy than elastic potential energy. The difficulties are
manifested in both qualitative and quantitative reasoning. VC 2012 American Association of Physics Teachers.
[DOI: 10.1119/1.3660661]
I. INTRODUCTION
In a previous paper,1 we reported common student difficulties with the relation between work and energy in introductory mechanics. We also described the development of
instructional materials2 that can help students to achieve a
better functional understanding of the work-energy principle.
The research described in Ref. 1 involved questions that
had one element in common: The problem statements made
explicit the particular system that students should use in their
analysis. They were not asked to consider more than one system in a given problem. In most cases, the system was undergoing changes in more than one type of energy (for example,
a system composed of a block and a spring, in which both kinetic and potential energy were changing). In most of the
responses, confusion related to the choice of system did not
arise explicitly, and we had no direct evidence that students
were considering a system other than the one we had intended
(for example, the system composed of the block alone). We
found that even after modified instruction using the tutorials,
many common difficulties persisted. We hypothesized that
these difficulties might be tied to a fundamental confusion
about the implications of the particular choice of system.
Thus, we decided to investigate more thoroughly student
understanding of the importance of choosing a system of interest, and the implications of the choice in the subsequent
energy analysis. To that end, we designed a series of questions
in which students are either asked to consider multiple systems for a given problem or given no explicit prompt to consider a particular system. The results led to further insights
into student thinking about mechanical systems.
The investigation took place in the introductory calculusbased mechanics course at the University of Washington
(UW). This large enrollment course is the primary setting in
which we have been developing Tutorials in Introductory
Physics,3 instructional materials intended to supplement
instruction by lecture and textbook.4 Data were also obtained
in a weekly seminar devoted to preparing graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) for teaching using the tutorials and for other current and future instructional roles.5
II. BACKGROUND
Several recent articles have re-examined the way in
which energy conservation is presented in introductory
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Am. J. Phys. 80 (2), February 2012

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physics.68 In particular, several authors advocate a unified


approach to energy instruction based on the first law of
thermodynamics. (The more common approach is to rely
on a version of the work-energy theorem derived from
Newtons second law.) Because the first law of thermodynamics relates the change in energy of a system to the
work done on and heat transfer to the system, application
of this law implicitly depends on the choice of the system
under consideration.
The example in Fig. 1 illustrates how a description of
energy transfers and transformations depends on the choice
of system. A block on a level frictionless surface is connected
by an ideal spring to a wall. The block is released from rest
with the spring stretched. Later, it passes x 0, where the
spring is at its equilibrium length. If we consider the system
to be just the block, the spring is the only external agent
doing work on the system during this interval. This work is
positive and causes an increase in the blocks total energy (in
this case, entirely kinetic): Won block by spring DKblock. If,
instead, we consider a system consisting of the block and the
spring, no external agents do work on the system so its total
energy does not change and DEtotal 0. The increase in kinetic energy is balanced by the decrease in potential energy:
DKsystem DUsystem. Although the two analyses are equivalent, one choice might lead more readily to the solution of a
particular problem.
In this example, we did not attribute potential energy to
the system consisting of just the block, which undergoes no
deformation; instead, we associated potential energy with
the configuration of the system consisting of the block and
spring. As described by Jewett,9 many instructors and introductory texts do not emphasize this distinction. For
example, in discussing the motion of an object near the
Earths surface, textbooks often refer to the potential
energy of the object rather than of the system consisting
of the object and the Earth. The common expression
Ugrav mgh might reinforce this interpretation, because the
height h might appear to be a property of the object rather
than of the object-Earth system. This lack of precision
might encourage students to double-count this interaction
by erroneously including a term that represents the work
done on the object by the Earth and a term representing the
change in gravitational potential energy. Several papers
have commented on difficulties that might arise if the
choice of system is not made clear,68 and some describe
C 2012 American Association of Physics Teachers
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154

III. INVESTIGATION OF STUDENT


UNDERSTANDING

Fig. 1. The explicit block-spring problem. A block attached to a stretched


ideal spring is released from rest and moves to the left on a level frictionless
surface. Students were asked about work done on and changes in energy in a
system consisting of just the block, and a system consisting of the block and
the spring.

instructional strategies that might be used to clarify issues


associated with choice of system.10
Empirical studies examining the learning and teaching of
work and energy at various levels have largely focused on
issues other than the choice of system. Loverude et al.11
investigated the ability of university students to apply the
definition of work, and Lawson and McDermott12 documented student use of the work-energy theorem for point
objects. Singh and Rosengrant13 focused on the development
and validation of a multiple-choice test of energy and momentum concepts. This test invokes the idea of potential
energy but the paper did not document student difficulties
related to the choice of the system.14 A multiple-choice test
developed by Ding15 addresses the choice of system extensively but has been used mainly to assess the effectiveness of
the Matter and Interactions curriculum.16 Driver and
Warrington17 investigated energy reasoning among precollege students and concluded that an increased emphasis on a
systems point of view might improve student ability to
reason with work and energy.18 Difficulties related to the distinction between system and surroundings have been documented in other contexts.19 We know of no other study that
has documented such problems in the context of energy and
the first law of thermodynamics in a traditional introductory
mechanics course.

The discussion in Sec. II outlines some of the elements


needed to understand the importance of the choice of system
in applying the concepts of work and energy. We suspected
that many students do not have a functional understanding of
these points. Therefore, we designed problems to probe the
extent to which students recognize that certain interactions
can be associated with either potential energy or work,
depending on the choice of system, and their ability to decide
whether a system is closed, that is, undergoes no change in
total energy.
Each problem was given online as a pretest for the subsequent tutorial.20 Students selected an answer from a list of
options and then typed their explanation. Each problem was
given in more than one course section. In some cases, students had completed all lecture instruction on work and
energy, a three-hour laboratory experiment on work and
changes in kinetic energy, and a tutorial on work and energy
that did not explicitly cover the idea of systems.1,2 In other
cases, students had been introduced to work or energy in lecture, laboratory, or tutorial, but instruction had not yet concluded. We have found that differences in lecturer, textbook,
and other aspects of the course typically lead only to small
differences in student performance on a given question.
Occasionally, these small differences are statistically significant. Our interest is in characterizing the general nature of
student performance in a typical introductory course and
determining which interventions lead to a large improvement
in performance. Thus, we did not distinguish between differences in performance of less than 10% and have grouped students together, except as noted.21
In this section, we illustrate the kinds of problems administered to students that involved elastic interactions and discuss specific difficulties that arose. We then summarize a
series of analogous problems involving gravitational interactions and an additional difficulty that arose in those problems. The problems we administered are listed in Table I.
A. Representative research problems: Elastic contexts
During this investigation, we designed and administered a
wide variety of qualitative and quantitative problems. Two
representative problems are discussed involving a block
interacting with a spring on a level, frictionless surface.
We devised the explicit block-spring problem to gauge
whether students could successfully isolate an arbitrary system by correctly identifying the systems interactions with
its environment and the effect of these interactions. Students
were presented with a physical situation and asked to consider two possible systems composed of different groupings

Table I. Summary of the problems described in this paper.

Problem
Explicit block-spring
Block-spring equations
Explicit pendulum-Earth
Block-Earth equations
Block-Earth dialogue

155

Section where
first described

Corresponding figure

Context

Systems

Results

III A
III A
III C
III C
III C

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 4

Elastic
Elastic
Gravitational
Gravitational
Gravitational

(1) Block (2) Block and spring


Block (implicit)
(1) Ball (2) Ball and Earth
Block (implicit)
Block (implicit)

Tables II and III


Tables IV and V
Tables VI and VII
Table V
Described in the text

Am. J. Phys., Vol. 80, No. 2, February 2012

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155

of the objects. We refer to this problem as explicit because


students were explicitly presented with the opportunity to
consider one interaction from the viewpoint of multiple systems. In contrast, in several other problems described in the
paper, the choice of system is implicit.
The problem involves a block that is released from rest at
ti, after the spring connecting it to a wall is extended past its
equilibrium length (see Fig. 1). Students were first instructed
to consider a system consisting only of the block and were
asked whether the net work on this system is positive, negative, or zero, and whether the total energy of this system
increases, decreases, or stays the same for the interval
between ti and tf (when the spring is at its equilibrium
length). In some versions of the question, students were also
asked whether the kinetic and potential energies of the system increase, decrease, or remain the same for this interval.
They were asked to explain their reasoning for each
response. Students were then asked the same questions for
the system consisting of the block and the spring. Our experience in the classroom suggested that some students would
claim that one or the other of these groupings of objects
could not be considered as a single system. Therefore, we
included this option as a possible response for each question.
The reasoning required to arrive at the correct answers is
summarized in Sec. II.
Results for the explicit block-spring problem are summarized in Tables II and III. For the system consisting of the
block alone, 33% of the students stated correctly that its total
energy increases, even though 69% responded correctly that
the net work is positive. For the block-spring system, 74%
responded correctly that the total energy of the system
remains the same and 53% indicated correctly that the net
work is zero. About 20% of the students gave a correct answer
for the change in the total energy for both systems, while 56%
gave the same response for the change in energy of both systems. Specific difficulties with systems that were elicited by
the problem are discussed in Sec. III B. Difficulties in relating
work and energy were discussed in detail in Ref. 1.
To answer this problem correctly, students must be able to
interpret the term system and to recognize that the two systems under consideration are different. We suspected that

Table III. Results from a version of the explicit block-spring problem (see
Fig. 1) in which students were asked about the change in potential energy
during a specified time interval for the block alone and the block-spring system. Uncertainties are not given because the question was administered in
only one section of the course. The correct responses are indicated in bold.
Results
N 148

Block
Block and spring
Correct for both
systems
Same answer for
both systems

Potential
energy
increases

Potential
energy
decreases

Potential
energy stays
the same

Cannot be
grouped
as a system

13%
18%

53%
49%

28%
26%

6%
5%

13%
45%

some students might not be able to analyze a problem from the


point of view of two or more different systems, but they might
have an understanding that is sufficiently robust to answer
quantitative questions correctly. To investigate this possibility,
we designed problems that probe student ability to relate work
and energy mathematically. In these problems, as is common
in most introductory textbook problems, students were not explicitly prompted to consider any particular system.
A representative example, the block-spring equations
problem, is shown in Fig. 2 in which a block is attached by
an ideal spring to a wall. At ti, the block is at rest on a surface of negligible friction and the spring is at its equilibrium
length. Between ti and tf, the block is pushed by a hand so
that the spring extends and the block has nonzero speed at tf.
In the first part of the problem, students were asked whether
each of the following four quantities is positive, negative, or

Table II. Results from two parts of the explicit block-spring problem (see
Fig. 1) in which students were asked about the change in the total energy
during a specified time interval for two choices of system: the block alone
and the block-spring system. The correct responses are indicated in bold.
The results are the mean across four classes. Uncertainties reflect the 95%
confidence interval based on variances among these four samples. In this
and all other tables, the percentages include both students who did and who
did not provide correct explanations.
Results
N 595
Total
energy
increases
Block
Block and spring
Correct for both
systems
Same answer for
both systems

156

33% 6 6%
12% 6 9%

Total
energy
decreases

Total
energy stays
the same

9% 6 5%
54% 6 9%
9% 6 3%
74% 6 4%
20% 6 5%
56% 6 6%

Am. J. Phys., Vol. 80, No. 2, February 2012

Cannot be
grouped
as a system
4% 6 1%
4% 6 3%

Fig. 2. The block-spring equations problem. A block is attached to a


spring, which is attached to a wall. At time ti the block is at rest on a level
surface of negligible friction; the block is pushed to the right such that it
passes position xf at time tf with speed vf. Students were asked whether each
of the following quantities were positive, negative, or zero: The work on the
block by the hand, the work on the block by the spring, the change in potential energy of the block, and the change in kinetic energy of the block. They
were also asked to write an equation relating any nonzero terms.
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156

Table IV. Results from the first part of the block-spring equations problem
(see Fig. 2) in which students were asked whether various quantities listed
are positive, negative, or zero over a specified interval. Results from the
block-Earth equations problem were similar to these, except as described in
the text. The responses consistent with the choice of the block alone as the
system of interest are shown in bold. The results are the mean across four
classes. Uncertainties reflect the 95% confidence interval based on variances
among these four samples.

Table V. Results from parts of the block-spring equations problem (see Fig. 2)
and the analogous block-Earth equations problem (see Fig. 4) in which students were asked to write equations relating the quantities they had identified
in part 1 as nonzero. A possible interpretation for each of these equations is
included. The first three equations represent the possible correct options. The
results are the mean across four classes for the block-spring equations problem
and three classes for the block-Earth equations problem. Uncertainties reflect
the 95% confidence interval based on variances among these samples.

Results

I
II
Block-spring Block-Earth
N 531
N 380

N 531

Work on the block by the


hand (WBH)
Work on the block by the
spring (WBS)
Change in kinetic
energy of the block (DK)
Change in potential
energy of the block (DU)

Positive

Negative

Zero

94% 6 6%

4% 6 5%

1% 6 2%

23% 6 7%

68% 6 4%

7% 6 2%

74% 6 4%

11% 6 4%

11% 6 2%

49% 6 8%

29% 6 5%

17% 6 4%

zero between ti and tf: the work done on the block by the
hand, WBH; the work done on the block by the spring, WBS;
the change in kinetic energy of the block, DK; and the change
in potential energy of the block, DU. They were also given the
option of saying that it was not possible to determine the sign
of any of these quantities. They were then asked to explain
their reasoning. For this problem we did not probe which system the students chose, but whether they would deal with all
four quantities in a manner consistent with some implicit
choice. The wording of the questions suggested that a system
consisting of just the block be considered.
In the second part of the problem, students were asked if
was possible to write a single equation that relates all of the
quantities that they had indicated were nonzero. They were
then asked to write an equation relating as many of these
nonzero quantities as possible and to explain their reasoning.
Students could use the definition of work to conclude that
WBH is positive and WBS is negative. Similarly, DK is positive,
because the block begins at rest and ends with a nonzero velocity. DU is zero because the block does not deform (and the
spring is outside the system). It is possible to relate the three
nonzero quantities with the work-energy theorem, Wnet DK,
in the form WBH WBS DK, or with WBH  WBS DK,
which implicitly relates the absolute values of these quantities.
Because there is not a unique correct solution for this problem,
we categorized responses according to whether the equations
would lead to correct or incorrect results if the students were
given numbers. Three equations are correct according to
this criterion: WBH WBS DK (for the system consisting of
the block alone), WBH DK DU (for the system consisting
of the block and spring) and WBS DU (which relates the
two systems).22 The relation WBH WBS DK DU can be
considered to be correct if DU or WBS is identified as zero.
The results from the first part of the problem, in which students identified the signs of the four quantities, are shown in
Table IV.23 For the first three quantities, between 68% and
94% of the responses were correct for a system consisting of
the block alone. The most common response for the question
about the change in potential energy of the block was that it
is positive, which is consistent with thinking about a system
consisting of the block and spring together.
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Am. J. Phys., Vol. 80, No. 2, February 2012

WBH WBS or E DK
(correct for the block system)
WBH DK DU
(correct for the block-spring or
block-Earth system)
WBS or E DU
(relates block system to block-spring or
block-Earth system)
WBH WBS or E DK DU
(double-counting)
WBH WBS or E
(true if the block were to
begin and end at rest)
DK DU
(true if the energy of the block-spring or
block-Earth system were constant)
WBH DK (possible misapplication of the
work-energy theorem)
WBH WBS or E DU (possible misapplication
of the relation Wconservative DU)

16% 6 4%

7% 6 11%

6% 6 4%

13% 6 3%

6% 6 5%

6% 6 11%

20% 6 5%
13% 6 4%

24% 6 18%
(Ref. 26)
10% 6 15%

12% 6 4%

10% 6 11%

5% 6 2%

5% 6 6%

5% 6 4%

5% 6 7%

Only 10% of the students gave a set of four responses consistent with the choice of the block alone as the system of interest. About 59% identified all four quantities as being
nonzero, claiming that both the work done on the block by
the spring and the change in potential energy of the block are
nonzero. These students might have made no attempt to answer all four questions with respect to a single system, or
they might not have recognized that interactions must only
be taken into account once. The equations they wrote provide some insight. The most common ones are shown in column I of Table V. Only 18% of the students answered
correctly by writing only correct equations; another 9%
wrote at least one correct equation but included one or more
incorrect equations.24
B. Summary of specific difficulties identified
We have asked many variations on both of the representative block-spring problems described in Sec. III A. In the following, we interpret the responses in terms of common
difficulties related to the choice of system and discuss some
implications. These difficulties are not mutually exclusive: a
particular response could fit into more than one category.
However, we have found these categories useful for describing patterns in student responses.
1. Failure to recognize that an energy analysis depends
on the choice of system
Students often fail to match their analysis of work, energy,
and energy transfers to the system under consideration. Many
seem to treat different groupings of objects as identical. This
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157

failure to tailor their answer to the system under consideration is reflected in Table II, which shows that more than half
of the students gave the same answer for the change in total
energy of both the block and the block-spring systems in the
explicit block-spring problem. The failure to distinguish
between systems is closely related to other difficulties which
we identified.
2. Tendency to associate potential energy with a single
(point-like) object rather than with a collection of objects
It is common for students to ascribe potential energy to
the system consisting of an object by itself. They often
referred explicitly to the potential energy of the block, even
on versions of the problems that do not specifically ask about
potential energy. For instance, in the explicit block-spring
problem, a student who stated that the energy of the block
remains constant gave the explanation:
[When] the spring is stretched and the block is in place, all
of the blocks energy is in the form of potential energy. As the
block is released, the energy translates from potential energy
to kinetic energy but the total amount remains the same.
The same student also claimed (correctly) that the energy
of the block-spring system remains the same and explained
that This is the same situation as in [the block system]. Due
to the law of conservation of energy, the energy translates
among potential, elastic, and kinetic, but the total remains
the same.
As mentioned, one version of the explicit block-spring
problem asked students about the change in potential energy
of the block. As shown in Table III, 28% indicated correctly
that the potential energy of the block system does not
change, and 53% indicated that it decreased (a correct
response for the block-spring system). On average, 21% of
the students explicitly stated that potential energy is converted into kinetic energy for the system consisting of the
block alone. Similar statements were seen among responses
to the block-spring equations problem, on which 78% of the
students indicated that the change in the elastic potential
energy of the block was nonzero.
These results are not surprising, because many instructors
and textbooks informally refer to the potential energy of single objects. However, many students gave no indication that
they recognize that potential energy should be associated
with a system consisting of multiple interacting objects
rather than with one object by itself. As shown in Table III,
49% of the students who were asked explicitly about the
potential energy of the block-spring system recognized that
the potential energy decreases and 26% stated it does not
change. As we will show, confusion over the proper system
with which to associate potential energy can lead to significant difficulties with energy in general.
3. Assumption that the energy of any system is constant
In the explicit block-spring problem, 46% of the students
claimed that the total energy of both systems remains constant. For either system, 18% of the students gave as their reason that energy is conserved or conservation of energy
with no further explanation. Others justified this reasoning
with an appeal to the changes in kinetic and potential energy,
as in the previous student quote.
Responses to the block-spring equations problem seem
to reflect the same assumption. One of the most common
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Am. J. Phys., Vol. 80, No. 2, February 2012

relations given by students was DK DU, which expresses


the idea that the energy of the system does not change. (In
this case it is incorrect because external work is done on the
block-spring system.) We have previously shown that students frequently over-generalize this relation.1
Although we have reported similar tendencies before,1
these findings are significant because in the explicit blockspring problem, the students were asked to consider the same
physical situation twice, using two different choices of the
system of interest, whereas in Ref. 1 they had been asked to
consider only one. In the present case, the problem reminded
them that more than one choice is possible. Moreover, they
might have expected that different choices of system would
yield different answers.
4. Tendency to double-count work and energy terms
The tendency to include a single interaction twice was evident in the block-spring equations problem. As shown in
Table V, the most common relation given by students was
WBH WBS DK DU. This relation represents the classic
example of double counting because the effect of the spring
appears both as a work term (WBS) and as an energy term
(DU).25 Some students were very explicit about their reason
for writing this equation: The only changes that can occur
in energy must be in potential and kinetic energy. The sum
of the two must be equal to the sum of the work done in the
entire system.
This difficulty can be considered a subset of the previous
three difficultiesit is highly unlikely that a student who is
double-counting work and energy terms is not also associating a potential energy with a specific object, rather than with
a system, and students may believe that both sides of this
equation are separately equal to zero. We include this difficulty in a separate category because it seems likely to have
particular implications for problem solving with work and
energy.
C. Representative research problems: Gravitational
contexts
For each of the problems, we asked an analogous problem
involving gravitational interactions. In this context, we also
asked an additional problem requiring students to make qualitative comparisons between the work done on a system by
various external agents.
A gravitational analog of the explicit block-spring problem is the explicit pendulum-Earth problem shown in
Fig. 3. Students were asked to consider an interval that
begins the instant the pendulum bob is released from rest at
point A, and ends at the instant the bob passes point B, the
lowest point on its trajectory. They were asked about the net
work done on, and the change in total energy of the system
consisting of the bob by itself (on which positive work is
done by the Earth, leading to an increase in kinetic energy),
and the system consisting of the bob and the Earth (on which
no external work is done; the potential energy of the system
becomes the kinetic energy of the bob). In some versions of
the question, students were also asked about the change in
kinetic energy and the change in potential energy of each
system.
The administration of this problem was identical to the
explicit block-spring problem. (In several sections, it was
given to the same students on the second page of the same
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158

Table VII. Results from the explicit pendulum-Earth problem in which students were asked about the change in potential energy during a specified
time interval for two choices of system. The results are from one class that
had been given both questions. Uncertainties are not given because the question was administered in only one section of the course. The correct
responses are indicated in bold.
Results
N 174

Fig. 3. The explicit pendulum-Earth problem. A ball is released from rest


at point A at time t1 and passes point B at t2. Students were asked about
work done on and changes in energy in a system consisting of just the ball,
and a system consisting of the ball and the Earth.

pretest.) The results are summarized in Tables VI and VII.


Six percent of the students responded correctly for the total
energy of both systems and an average of 62% gave the
same responses for the total energy of both systems. We discuss some differences in the responses to this problem and
the analogous block-spring problem in Sec. III D.
The analog for the block-spring equations problem, the
block-Earth equations problem, is given in Fig. 4. At ti, a
block is at rest near the surface of the Earth. A hand then lifts
the block so it moves upward with nonzero speed at tf. The
questions and correct responses are analogous to those for
the block-spring equations problem (see Sec. III A).
On the first part of the block-Earth equations problem in
which students were asked about the sign of the work done
by the hand, the work done by the Earth, the change in kinetic energy, and the change in potential energy, the results
were similar to those reported in Table IV for the blockspring equations problem, with one exception. The exception
was on the question about the change in potential energy of
the block. In the gravitational context, 79% of the students
indicated that this quantity is positive, compared with only
49% in the elastic context. Only 7% of the students on the
block-Earth equations problem indicated that the potential
energy of the block does not change, compared with 17%
for the block-spring equations problem. In both problems, a

Ball
Ball and Earth
Correct for both
systems
Same answer for
both systems

Potential
energy
increases

Potential
energy
decreases

Potential
energy
stays the same

Cannot be
grouped
as a system

7%
11%

83%
58%

7%
14%

1%
17%

3%
56%

similar percentage of students stated that all four quantities


are nonzero ( 68%).
The results for the second part of the problem, in which
students were asked to write equations relating the quantities
they believed to be nonzero, are summarized in column II of
Table V.22 Only 17% of the students answered correctly by
writing one or more correct equations. Another 8% wrote at
least one correct equation, but included one or more incorrect equations.
The block-Earth dialogue problem was designed to
assess the degree to which double-counting influences students qualitative reasoning. No analogous question was
asked in the elastic context. The setup is similar to that of the
block-Earth equations problem shown in Fig. 4 except that in
this case the block begins and ends at rest. Students were
asked to consider the following discussion between two fictional students and to state whether they agreed with student
1, student 2, both, or neither. They were also asked to
explain their reasoning.
Student 1: I exert an upward force on the block, which
moves upward, so I do positive work on the block. The Earth

Table VI. Results from the explicit pendulum-Earth problem (see Fig. 3) in
which students were asked about the change in total energy for two possible
choices of system over a specified interval. The correct response is indicated
in bold. Values given are the mean score across four classes. Uncertainties
reflect the 95% confidence interval based on variances among the four
samples.
Results
N 621
Total
energy
increases
Ball
Ball and Earth
Correct for both
systems
Same answer for
both systems

159

14% 6 5%
9% 6 8%

Total
energy
decreases

Total
energy stays
the same

Cannot be
grouped
as a system

7% 6 6%
74% 6 6%
5% 6 5%
67% 6 8%
6% 6 4%

3% 6 2%
16% 6 9%

62% 6 11%

Am. J. Phys., Vol. 80, No. 2, February 2012

Fig. 4. The block-Earth equations problem. At time ti the block is at rest


at height hi; the block is lifted by a student such that it passes height hf at
time tf with speed vf. Students were asked whether each of the following
quantities were positive, negative, or zero: The work on the block by the
hand, the work on the block by the spring, the change in potential energy of
the block, and the change in kinetic energy of the block. They were also
asked to write an equation relating any nonzero terms. The setup for the
block-Earth dialogue problem is similar except that the block begins and
ends at rest.
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159

exerts a downward force, so it does negative work on the


block. The block begins and ends at rest, so its kinetic energy
hasnt changed. That means that the net work on the block is
zero, so the work on the block by my hand and the work on
the block by the Earth must have the same absolute value.
Student 2: But the block has moved upward, so its potential energy has increased. That means that the net work on
the block must be positive, so the work on the block by your
hand must be greater than the work on the block by the
Earth.
Student 1 gives a correct analysis of the problem, while
the reasoning used by student 2 incorporates the effects of
the Earth twice as both external work on the system, and an
internal change in potential energy of the system.
This problem was administered in four sections of introductory calculus-based physics at UW before any tutorial
instruction on work and energy. Students had completed all
lecture and laboratory instruction on work and energy.
In three sections of the course (N 420), 17% of students
correctly agreed with student 1 and 59% agreed with student
2. In the remaining section of the course (N 150) 56% of
the students agreed with student 1 and 21% agreed with student 2. In all sections approximately 16% of students agreed
with neither student, and 6% agreed with both. The reason
for the discrepancy between sections, which is highly unusual in our experience, may be related to increased emphasis on the work-energy theorem, Wnet DK, in one of the
lecture sections. Students in that section were more likely to
cite the work-energy theorem as their reason for agreeing
with student 1, while students in other sections were more
likely to claim that the forces by the hand and by the Earth
cancel. In this question, application of the work-energy theorem leads to a correct response for a system consisting of the
book alone.
D. Difficulties that arose in the gravitational context
All of the student difficulties we identified on problems
involving elastic interactions with springs also arose in the
gravitational analogs. In most cases, they were more prevalent. The similarities and differences are briefly described in
this section, followed by a discussion of an additional difficulty that arose only in a gravitational context.
1. Difficulties that arose in both the gravitational
and elastic contexts
Many students appeared not to realize that an energy analysis depends on the choice of system and gave identical
responses for each system described within a particular context. The tendency to associate potential energy with a particular point-like object rather than with a system, and the
assumption that the energy of any system remains constant
were more pronounced in the problems involving gravitational interactions than in those involving elastic interactions. In the explicit pendulum-Earth problem, for instance,
88% of the students said the potential energy of the system
consisting of the ball alone changes, compared with 66% for
the elastic case. About 37% of the students mentioned a conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy for the system
consisting of the ball alone, compared with 21% in the
explicit block-spring problem. We speculate that in an elastic
interaction, students are able to identify the spring as a physical object with which to associate a potential energy and are
160

Am. J. Phys., Vol. 80, No. 2, February 2012

thus less likely to associate potential energy with the block. In


a gravitational interaction, the ball is the physical object they
can see; they do not perceive a different object that can
store potential energy. The relative frequency with which students associate potential energy with a particular object may
also be related to the common expressions for potential
energy. Gravitational potential energy is commonly given as
Ug mgh, in which the height h of the ball appears to be a
property of the ball rather than of the system. The equivalent
expression for elastic potential energy, Ue 1=2 kx2, depends
on a property of the spring.
The prevalence of double counting was similar in the elastic and gravitational contexts. In the two analogous quantitative problems, an average of 20%25% of the students wrote
equations that suggest this error (see Ref. 26). The blockEarth dialogue problem also probed this tendency. On this
problem, student 2 makes the classic double-counting error.
The students readiness to agree with student 2, even when
presented with the correct reasoning expressed by student 1,
provides further evidence that many students are unaware of
the implications of choosing a particular system and make
errors that lead to incorrect calculations.
2. Additional difficulty that arose primarily in
gravitational contexts: Failure to recognize that any
group of objects can be treated as a system
In responding to the explicit pendulum-Earth problem,
16% of the students indicated that the ball and Earth cannot
be grouped as a system. The most common explanation was
that The ball and the earth are not in contact. Students also
frequently indicated that there must be external forces on a
system:
If the ball and the Earth were grouped as a system, there
would be no external forces, since gravity is the only acting
force here. It doesnt seem to make sense that they could be
grouped as a system.
Students also referred explicitly to the relative motion of
the objects within a grouping: All parts of the system are
not moving in a like fashion, and to differences in scale:
The ball is negligible compared with the Earth.27
Fewer than 5% of the students claimed that a particular set
of objects cannot be treated as a system for any other system
in the problems that we describe in this paper. Students who
claim that particular groupings are not allowed typically give
reasoning opposite to that given by students who state that
the ball and Earth cannot be grouped together: they indicate
that the string must be grouped together with the ball,
because it is in contact with the ball, or because it exerts an
external force on the ball.
Although we mainly observed the failure to recognize that
any group of objects can be treated as a system in the problems involving gravitational interactions, it may also arise in
elastic contexts. On versions of the explicit block-spring
problem, which are not given here for sake of brevity, we
asked students about the changes in energy of systems that
include the wall and/or the Earth in addition to the block and
the spring. In these cases, many students indicated that the
block, spring, and wall cannot be grouped into a single system because the block and wall are not in contact. We consistently saw a marked increase in the percentage of students
indicating that a set of objects could not be grouped together
as a system if the Earth was one of the objects. This finding
is especially significant because in most courses, after
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160

gravitational potential energy is introduced, the Earth is part


of the system.
IV. RESPONSES OF PHYSICS TEACHING
ASSISTANTS
The block-Earth equations problem was administered to
22 graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants at UW
during a weekly TA preparation seminar. Participants in this
seminar work through the tutorial they will teach to students
after taking the accompanying pretest. The pretest administered to TAs is designed to mirror the pretest administered to
the students. It is given on paper and the questions are posed
in an open-ended format rather than as multiple-choice. At
the time they responded to the questions, the TAs had not
worked through any tutorials on work or energy.
On the pretest, 77% of the TAs said that the work done on
the block by the hand is positive, the work done on the block
by the Earth is negative, the change in kinetic energy of the
block is positive, and the change in potential energy of the
block is positive. This combination of responses suggests
that the TAs did not respond to these questions with one system in mind. About 59% of the TAs (compared with an average of 24% of introductory students) wrote that the work on
the block by the hand plus the work on the block by the Earth
is equal to the sum of the changes in the kinetic and potential
energies, in other words. WBH WBE DK DU. Although
many TAs did not explain their reasoning, at least one followed this relation by the sentence net work equals change
in total energy. Although this statement is true, the TA
apparently did not recognize the need to apply this relation
to a particular system.
These results reveal that even advanced students make the
double counting error. Although many of these TAs might
perform a correct calculation if asked to solve one of these
problems numerically, they do not necessarily understand
this material well enough to teach it. The sample is small,
but the results suggest that advanced study in physics does
not necessarily help students to recognize the need to identify a system and use it consistently.
V. THE EFFECT OF TARGETED INSTRUCTION
The data we have presented are from several sections of
the UW introductory calculus-based physics sequence taught
by different lecturers. The lecturers were all experienced
instructors, but they did not focus on the idea of systems. We
also collected data from a section at the same institution
taught by one of the authors of this paper. This instructor
emphasized the importance of the choice of system and the
fact that only extended systems undergo changes in potential
energy. Several clicker questions addressed this issue.28
When the problems were administered after this targeted
instruction, students performed somewhat better on certain
parts of the problems described here. Notably, they were
more likely to indicate that the total energy of an object by
itself can change (51% compared with 33% correct in the
explicit block-spring problem and 38% compared with 14%
in the explicit pendulum-Earth problem). They were also
less likely to refer to the potential energy of the block or of
the ball. On other parts of the problems, their performance
was almost identical to that of other sections. One issue in
this case may be the lack of consistency between different
elements of the physics course at UW. Although the lecture
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Am. J. Phys., Vol. 80, No. 2, February 2012

and tutorial instruction in this particular section emphasized


the fact that potential energy must be associated with a system of multiple objects, the course homework and the treatment of energy in the laboratory did not.
We also identified some improvement in student performance in a course in which the instructor did not emphasize
the idea of systems. The anomalous result on the block-Earth
dialogue problem described in Sec. III C suggests that student responses may be sensitive to other aspects of lecture
presentation. On this question, it appears that an emphasis on
the work-energy theorem led more students to apply this theorem for a block being lifted near the surface of the Earth.
Nevertheless, the students who responded correctly to the
block-Earth dialogue problem using the work-energy theorem to support their reasoning were no more successful than
their peers in responding to other energy questions on the
same pretest. These results indicate that although lecture
instruction specifically targeting these ideas can improve student performance on some questions, many difficulties can
persist.
VI. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS FOR
INSTRUCTION
The results we have described are consistent with our previous work1 and provide new insights into student understanding of work and energy. In Ref. 1, we demonstrated that
many students are unable to determine the change in energy
of a system correctly even in cases for which they were able
to determine the net work done on the system by its surroundings. In particular, many students associated work with
either a change in kinetic energy or potential energy, rather
than with the total energy of a particular system. Many students also claimed that changes in kinetic and potential
energy cancel. We speculate that these common difficulties
might be due to an underlying difficulty involving student
understanding of systems.
Students tendency to assume that the energy of any system is constant deserves further consideration. In both the
explicit block-spring and the explicit pendulum-Earth problems, there exists a system with constant mechanical energy.
The existence of such a system might be a reason why students tended to indicate that the energy of any system in
these physical situations stays the same. Our previous
research,1 however, suggests that many students also indicate
that the energy of a system is constant in physical situations
for which there is no choice of system that has constant mechanical energy. Careful instruction on systems might help
students to recognize that the energy of an individual system
can change.
Our research has particular implications for instruction on
potential energy. It is clear that many students do not recognize that the Earth is implicitly included in many systems
that undergo a change in gravitational potential energy. This
result highlights the importance of consistency in assigning a
potential energy only to a system of multiple objects, never
to a single object. Failure to assign a potential energy only to
systems of multiple objects might lead some students to
make incorrect conclusions about the change in the total
energy of a particular system.
An example may help to illustrate this last point. In many
popular textbooks,29 a change in potential energy is defined
by DU Wc, where Wc is the work done by a conservative
force. In Sec. III A, we describe how this relation can be
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161

used to relate the energy analysis of two different systems


within the same context (for example, to relate the system of
the block alone to the system that includes both the block
and the spring). In the block-spring and block-Earth equations problems, as well as in Ref. 1, we found that students
tend to over-generalize this relation, and associate the net
work done on a system with the systems change in potential
energy rather than its total change in energy. Careful instruction on systems, including the way in which DU Wc can
be used to convert from one choice of system to another
when analyzing the same physical situation, might help students to recognize the role of this particular relation, which
in turn might promote a better understanding that the net
work done on a system by its surroundings causes the total
energy of the system to change.
Many instructional tools have been developed that might
help students to recognize the implications of the choice of
system. For instance, energy bar charts might be used to help
students to visualize the difference in energy analysis for
different systems within the same physical situation.10 In
Ref. 1, we described the development of a pair of tutorials2
that include exercises designed to help students to recognize
how an energy analysis depends on the choice of system.
These exercises proved insufficient to help students to overcome many common difficulties, particularly in a physics
course in which other elements of the course do not make
explicit the importance of choice of system. The Six Ideas
that Shaped Physics30 and Matter and Interactions16 curricula are notable for being consistent and explicit in describing
the implications of a particular choice of system. Ding15
found that students who had studied from Ref. 16 were often
able to identify the correct system with which to associate a
potential energy, and many were also able to relate the net
work done on a system to the change in energy of that system. We expect these students might also perform better on
our problems.
VII. CONCLUSIONS
Many physics educators are aware that the choice of a system of interest is not always made explicit to students, and
that the informal use of expressions associating potential
energy with an object rather than with a system is common.
It might be thought that in many cases there is little harm
done because the correct solutions to problems can often be
obtained despite a lack of precision in discussing systems.
However, our results reveal that inconsistencies in considering systems can have serious implications.
We have illustrated some of the difficulties that might
pose barriers to the development of a functional understanding of energy conservation. Results from the questions
described in this paper indicate that many students do not
recognize that any combination of objects can be grouped together as a system. Students often place artificial constraints
on the set of objects that can be grouped together, for example, requiring that all objects have the same motion or be in
contact. They also often have difficulty describing the
change in total energy of a system, regardless of whether it
consists of a single object or multiple objects. Many also
identify changes in potential energy for systems that have no
internal structure, which can lead to a tendency to double
count interactions. The difficulties we have described occur
both in gravitational contexts and in contexts involving
springs, although some difficulties are more evident in the
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Am. J. Phys., Vol. 80, No. 2, February 2012

former. Differences between student responses in situations


involving gravitational potential energy and elastic potential
energy support the common practice of treating these topics
separately in instruction, because student reasoning about
one type of potential energy might not be consistent with
their reasoning about another type of potential energy.
Results from the TAs reveal that the difficulties we have
described are not restricted to physics novices and emphasize
the difficulty of the concepts of work and energy. They also
suggest that advanced physics courses do not necessarily develop or strengthen the key idea that one must be careful to
choose and consistently use one particular system in analyzing a physical situation. To help students to gain a functional
understanding of energy conservation, we must help them to
recognize the importance of choice of system.

ACKNOWLEGMENTS
The authors wish to thank the members of the Physics
Education Group at the University of Washington, both past
and present, who contributed to this research. Thanks are
especially due to Lillian C. McDermott and MacKenzie
R. Stetzer for their many contributions to this project. Beth
Lindsey would also like to thank the Department of Physics
at Georgetown University for providing her with support
during portions of this project. The authors gratefully
acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation
through Grant Nos. DUE-0096511 and 0618185.
a)

Electronic mail: bal23@psu.edu


Electronic mail: pheron@phys.washington.edu
c)
Electronic mail: shaffer@phys.washington.edu
1
B. A. Lindsey, P. R. L. Heron, and P. S. Shaffer, Student ability to apply
the concepts of work and energy to extended systems, Am. J. Phys.
77(11), 9991009 (2009).
2
The curricular materials consisted of a sequence of two tutorials on work
and energy, Work and changes in kinetic energy and Conservation of
energy. They will be included in the 2nd edition of Tutorials in Introductory Physics (see Ref. 3 for the 1st edition.)
3
L. C. McDermott, P. S. Shaffer, and the Physics Education Group at the
University of Washington, Tutorials in Introductory Physics (Prentice
Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2002).
4
Details about the tutorials and the environment in which they are used can
be found in P. S. Shaffer and L. C. McDermott, Research as a guide for
curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity. Part
II: Design of an instructional strategy, Am. J. Phys. 60(11), 10031013
(1992).
5
More details about the TA seminar can be found in K. Wosilait, P. R. L.
Heron, P. S. Shaffer, and L. C. McDermott, Development and assessment
of a research-based tutorial on light and shadow, Am. J. Phys. 66(10),
906913 (1998).
6
A. B. Arons, Development of energy concepts in introductory physics
courses, Am. J. Phys. 67(12), 10631067 (1999).
7
R. W. Chabay and B. A. Sherwood, Modern mechanics, Am. J. Phys.
72(4), 439445 (2004).
8
A series of articles in The Physics Teacher provides a summary of many
of these ideas. The first three articles in the series are particularly relevant.
These are J. W. Jewett, Energy and the confused student I: Work, Phys.
Teach. 46, 3843 (2008); J. W. Jewett, Energy and the confused student
II: Systems, ibid. 46, 8186 (2008); and J. W. Jewett, Energy and the
confused student III: Language, ibid. 46, 149153 (2008).
9
Articles 2 and 3 in Ref. 8 provide a particularly accessible summary of
some of these issues.
10
A. Van Heuvelen and X. Zou, Multiple representations of work-energy
processes, Am. J. Phys. 69(2), 184194 (2001).
11
M. E. Loverude, C. H. Kautz, and P. R. L. Heron, Student understanding
of the first law of thermodynamics: Relating work to the adiabatic compression of an ideal gas, Am. J. Phys. 70(2), 137148 (2002).
b)

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162

12

R. A. Lawson and L. C. McDermott, Student understanding of the workenergy and impulse-momentum theorems, Am. J. Phys. 55(9), 811817
(1987).
13
C. Singh and D. Rosengrant, Multiple-choice test of energy and momentum concepts, Am. J. Phys. 71(6), 607617 (2003).
14
A more complete listing of articles relating to work and energy in a thermodynamic sense, particularly to student understanding of heat and temperature, can be found in L. C. McDermott and E. F. Redish, Resource
Letter: PER-1: Physics education research, Am. J. Phys. 67(9), 755767
(1999).
15
L. Ding, Designing an energy assessment to evaluate student understanding of energy topics, Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Physics,
North Carolina State University, 2007.
16
R. W. Chabay and B. A. Sherwood, Matter and Interactions, 3rd ed.
(John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2010).
17
R. Driver and L. Warrington, Students use of the principle of energy
conservation in problem situations, Phys. Educ. 20(4), 171176 (1985).
18
In addition to the articles we have described, there exists a vast literature
on the learning and teaching of energy at the precollege level. Some representative articles include N. Papadouris, C. P. Constantinou, and T.
Kyratsi, Students use of the energy model to account for changes in
physical systems, J. Res. Sci. Teach. 45(4), 444469 (2008) and H.
Goldring and J. Osborne, Students difficulties with energy and related
concepts, Phys. Educ. 29(1), 2632 (1994).
19
W. M. Christensen, D. E. Meltzer, and C. A. Ogilvie, Student ideas
regarding entropy and the second law of thermodynamics in an introductory physics course, Am. J. Phys. 77(10), 907917 (2009).
20
Students were given credit for completing the pretest, regardless of the
correctness of their answers. They had 15 min to complete the entire pretest and were free to consult textbooks and the web during that time. Based
on the reasoning provided in student responses, we believe that access to
these resources did not affect student responses significantly.
21
On some of the questions we have described, we have seen variations
larger than is typical. To give a sense of these variations, in the tables we

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Am. J. Phys., Vol. 80, No. 2, February 2012

report values as the mean across several classes, with error bars that represent the 95% confidence interval based on the score variances.
22
For the purposes of this analysis, we did not distinguish between student
use of positive or negative quantities. In other words, the relations
WBH WBS DK and WBH  WBS DK were treated identically regardless of whether students had identified the quantities as positive or
negative.
23
Students were also given the option of stating that it was not possible to
determine the sign of each of these quantities. These data are not included
in the table because in every case, fewer than 5% of the students chose this
option.
24
Although students had been asked only to write one equation, many wrote
more than one. The tables indicate the percentage of students writing each
equation, not the percentage of equations written. Thus the percentages in
the tables sum to more than 100%.
25
About 20% of the students wrote this equation. About 15% of all students
had indicated elsewhere that each of the terms in the equation is nonzero.
26
We observed a larger spread in percentages of students giving the doublecounting response on the block-Earth equations problem than is typical in
our research. (The percentage ranged from 18% to 32% across three samples.) This result suggests that further research on this topic is needed.
27
This last response is similar to the results reported in Ref. 19 in which students experienced similar scale-related difficulties when asked about the
change in entropy of an object and its (much larger) surroundings.
28
Clicker questions are multiple-choice questions to which students respond
in real time using hand-held personal response systems, or clickers.
Clicker questions are used for formative assessment of student understanding as well as to promote interactive engagement in the classroom. For
more information on this technique, see E. Mazur, Peer Instruction: A
Users Manual (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2007).
29
See, for example, D. Halliday, R. Resnick, and J. Walker, Fundamentals
of Physics, 9th ed. (John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2011).
30
T. A. Moore, Six Ideas That Shaped Physics, Unit C: Conservation Laws
Constrain Motion, 2nd ed. (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2003).

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163