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Citation: Am. J. Phys. 80, 154 (2012); doi: 10.1119/1.3660661

View online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1119/1.3660661

View Table of Contents: http://ajp.aapt.org/resource/1/AJPIAS/v80/i2

Published by the American Association of Physics Teachers

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Beth A. Lindseya)

Department of Physics, Penn State Greater Allegheny, McKeesport, Pennsylvania 15132

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

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

154

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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

V

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154

UNDERSTANDING

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.

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.

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

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

Block (implicit)

(1) Ball (2) Ball and Earth

Block (implicit)

Block (implicit)

Tables IV and V

Tables VI and VII

Table V

Described in the text

Downloaded 18 Sep 2012 to 200.16.118.201. Redistribution subject to AAPT license or copyright; see http://ajp.aapt.org/authors/copyright_permission

155

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%

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%

Cannot be

grouped

as a system

4% 6 1%

4% 6 3%

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.

Lindsey, Heron, and Shaffer

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

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.

157

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

Lindsey, Heron, and Shaffer

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

158

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

Lindsey, Heron, and Shaffer

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

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.

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%

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%

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.

Lindsey, Heron, and Shaffer

159

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

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

Lindsey, Heron, and Shaffer

160

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

161

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

Lindsey, Heron, and Shaffer

161

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

162

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: 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)

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

163

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).

163

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