Home > Physics > Teaching Electricity and Magnetism: Part I

Teaching Electricity and Magnetism: Part I

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When I was a physics TA, there were two topics which always got the students easily mixed up. The first was Newton’s Laws; students had a hard time knowing which law to apply in what situation. But with a little practice and teaching, they soon found that you could follow a very specific procedure to solving any problem involving Newton’s Laws, which helped immensely.

Electricity and Magnetism (EM) was different, however. There really is no set procedure for solving an EM problem. There are strategies and guidelines, but no step-by-step ways of solving EM problems like there is for Newton’s Laws.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this either. Two papers were published this month in Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research. The first was entitled “Interference between electric and magnetic concepts in introductory physics“.

This study looked at the difficulty students had in determining which direction the force on a charged particle would be, if it were in either an electric or a magnetic field.

For a positive charge in an electric field, the force is always in the same direction as the field. If the charge is negative, the force is in the opposite direction of the electric field. Students generally don’t have a problem with this rule; that is, until you introduce the concept of a magnetic field to them.

In a magnetic field, the force on a charged particle is always perpendicular to the magnetic field lines. So when you get to the end of the term and you ask an EM question, students often (understandably) get confused which rule they should use.

The main hypothesis of the study, therefore, was that students have trouble because they learn about electric fields first, and then apply those lessons to working with magnetic fields.

You can test this hypothesis by seeing if the opposite is true. Does learning about the magnetic field first negatively affect the way students answered questions about electric fields?

The subjects (I mean, ‘participants’ hehe) of the study were students in an introductory physics course at The Ohio State University. The students were asked to answer EM related physics questions. They were split up between groups which had learned i) nothing about EM, ii) electricity but not magnetism, iii) magnetism but not electricity, and iv) having learned both. The order in which the questions were asked and some other variables were randomized for better results. Below is an example of the type of question the students were asked.

Can you get the answer to this question? For the left hand side the answer is 'e - Into Page' and for the right hand side the answer is 'f - Out of Page'

There are actually several results from this study, so if you are interested in them all I encourage you to read it (it is free to read). But the main hypothesis turned out to be true:

directly after instruction about magnetism, many students answer that the direction of the force on a charged particle moving through an electric field is perpendicular to the electric field, presumably by employing the same right-hand rule that was learned for magnetic forces. Thus, despite the fact that directly before magnetic force instruction students were answering electric force questions correctly, up to two weeks (and possible longer) after they learn about magnetic force, they answer electric force questions as though they were magnetic force questions.

So the authors actually showed that it is not electric fields or magnetic fields alone that confuse students, but after learning both they get them mixed up, which makes sense. It doesn’t seem to matter, either, which they learn first. After learning both electric and magnetic fields they still get confused.

The authors suggest (and I agree) that to combat this the instructor must frequently point out the distinction between electric and magnetic forces. It is a difficult thing to get a feel for, kind of like learning the offside rule in hockey.

A good strategy is always visual demonstrations. Take for example this video of MIT professor Walter Lewin demonstrating the perpendicular magnetic force (jump to around 46:40 for the demonstration):

So what else could we do about students having trouble with EM? What about online and multimedia tools?

That will be the topic of Part II of this series.

Scaife, T., & Heckler, A. (2011). Interference between electric and magnetic concepts in introductory physics Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.7.010104

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