Some References for Electricity Misconception Research

My personal work on electricity misconceptions took place in the mid 1980s, back when professional miscon research first took off. To get started, go search on Google Scholar for work by Shipstone, Osborne, Cohen, McDermott/vanZee. Note however that they're concerned with pre-existing "naive concepts" which children bring to class, not with the powerful infectious "misconceptions-memes" which inhabit K-12 textbooks and the minds of K-12 educators.

MATTER AND INTERACTIONS, VOL 2, new undergrad textbook. At last we can understand the obscure mystery of electric circuits. We simply need to ignore the 1950s-based orthodox approach, and instead study the actual details of surface charge and "static electricity." They promote initial visual/intuitive grasp of physics concepts, only later followed by the equations. See this excellent paper by Chabay and Sherwood (.pdf), (arcv), authors of the new undergrad physics textbook M&I above, which correctly presents the battery-powered flashlight as fundamentally being an electrostatics-based device.

Are we teaching electricity the wrong way around? (2014) ABC network: Complaints about decades of incorrect electricity teaching. The author presents a CORRECT basic explanation of simple circuits; a combination of Sefton's work (below,) plus the electrostatics-based circuit-explanations from Chabay/Sherwood's novel University physics textbook "Matter and Interactions." Wow. FINALLY the world is starting to wake up and notice the problem (and, even start to make some corrections!) Lets see, 1984, 2014, that THIRTY YEARS to even begin to make simple changes. "Begin." Since the changes aren't yet in any grade-school textbook anywhere, just in Chabay/Sherwood's recent book.

2002 Understanding Electricity and Circuits: What the Text Books Don't Tell You (pdf) & Sefton's site
Sefton goes after numerous common misconceptions. The path of electrical energy in circuits, versus the different path followed by currents. And, the "static electricity" which drives all electric circuits. Carriers flow slowly, energy goes fast. Circuits are coils, circuits are capacitors. This is a physics paper for non-physicists, light on the math.

Energy transfer in electric circuits: Qualitative, Galili/Goihbarg 2004
From American Journal of Physics. Another Poynting-based explanation of simple DC flashlight circuits, details of the EM energy-flow. A bit heavier on vector field concepts than with the above paper by Sefton.

What is 'electricity?' The experts have very clear things to say about this. They contradict the way typical K-12 textbooks define and explain "electricity." So who's the greater authority, your grade-school textbook, or Maxwell/Faraday/Einstein etc.? Why should we believe the CRC handbook and NIST/SI standards group and Millikan and Thompson, since the great and powerful World Book Encyclopedia disagrees with them?

ACTUAL RESEARCH PAPERS: A large, excellent collection of research on electricity misconceptions:
Verlag Schmidt & Klaunig, 1985 (QC530.A78 1985)
(Not online, order it through interlibrary loan!)

More research: There's a handful of papers in these conference proceedings: Meaningful Learning Reseach Group:


For a K-12 classroom textbook which is far above average, try Prentice Hall's "Science Explorer" series, the volume on "Electricity and Magnetism" by Dr. C. Wainwright of the excellent CASTLE project. This one dates from 2007, and like Dr. M.S Steinberg's CASTLE program, it lacks all of the misconceptions I discuss on this site. I don't know if later Prentice Hall editions lack these errors. Wainwright isn't a listed author on the other editions, and few authors are aware of the ongoing scandal regarding textbook errors (or are even aware of their own misconceptions.)

New (2002,) Smithsonian/National Academies " Electrical Energy and Circuit Design." The authors built an entire middle-school electricity curriculum from scratch, and avoided nearly every error on my misconceptions list, even including my separate 'static electricity' list.

What about all the engineering students who acquired a headful of misconceptions in grade school? Darren Ashby is now (2005) selling a "textbook" which carefully goes through point-by-point and repairs all the damage. So, now I won't have to write one myself! "Electrical Engineering 101: Everything You Should Have Learned in School...but Probably Didn't "

Try Morrison's Fields of Electronics The author knocks down numerous E&M misconceptions at the college level. book blurb:
"A practical new approach that brings together circuit theory and field theory for the practicing engineer. To put it frankly, the traditional education of most engineers and scientists leaves them often unprepared to handle many of the practical problems they encounter. The Fields of Electronics: Understanding Electronics Using Basic Physics, offers a highly original correction to this state of affairs." (Note that it's a free PDF download if accessed from many college libraries.)

There Are No Electrons, Ken Amdahl
Very fascinating story-telling method for explaining basic electricity and electronics

Paperback on Lightning (and misconceptions), for the general public:
All About Lightning, Dr Martin A. Uman

On of the few books which explain "electricity" correctly:
" Basic Electricity JE-101" by Gene McWhorter, 1984, a RADIO SHACK book (out of print! Rats! Try his later version, The Electricity Book)


Some Papers:

McDermott, L.C. & van Zee, E.H. (1984). Identifying and addressing student difficulties with electric circuits. Proceedings of the International Workshop: Aspects of Understanding Electricity, Pdagogische Hochschule Ludwigsburg, W. Germany, pp. 39-4

Shipstone, D. (1988). Pupils' understanding of simple electrical circuits: Some implications for instruction. Physics Education, 23(2):92-96.

Some misc. Electronics Books I recommend


Created and maintained by Bill Beaty. Mail me at: .
View My Stats