Solving Three Common Misconceptions in Physics


As an AP physics teacher, I know physics is a difficult course for many students because it challenges the way they view the world. Teachers inevitably have to battle with students’ misconceptions, which can be rooted in something as simple as the difference between how we define a word in physics and how we define it in everyday language. Below, I’ve listed three of the most common student misconceptions, along with the SAS Curriculum Pathways resources that help address them.

Misconception #1: If an object is at rest, no forces are acting on the object. A force is needed to keep an object moving at a constant speed.

  • Solution: Force Diagrams.
  • Discussion: I like this resource because it provides numerous images of force diagrams and many self-testing options. Questions focus on the basics of forces, which students often breeze past and thus misconstrue. The Force Diagrams resource offers many opportunities to see balanced vs. unbalanced forces and to recognize how they affect an object at rest or moving at a constant speed.  Just because an object is at rest doesn’t mean that there aren’t any forces acting on it; it means the forces are balanced!forcediagrams

Misconception #2: The terms "speed" and "velocity" are synonymous and may be used interchangeably. Thus the speed of an object and its velocity are always the same.

  • Solution: Circular Motion.
  • Discussion: This resource does a good job setting up an introductory understanding of circular motion. It helps students specify what speed is and what velocity is.  Students are forced to revisit these concepts and think about the differences.  The resource even provides external links that further assist in debunking this speed = velocity misconception.

Misconception #3: "Acceleration" always means an object is speeding up and it always occurs in a straight line.

  • Solution: Constant Acceleration.
  • Discussion: This resource uses an external app and provides guiding questions and suggestions on data collection. It facilitates understanding by having students observe different situations and come to their own conclusions. Perhaps as a result of everyday usage, "acceleration" is often misunderstood as simply "speeding up."  This activity provides multiple examples to help students visualize what we mean by "accelerate" in physics.  Revisiting the circular motion lesson from above can also combat any belief that acceleration is only ever in a straight line.

Want to learn more? Check out all 297 free science resources in SAS Curriculum Pathways!


About Author

Alexandra Solender

Alexandra Solender is a member of the Curriculum Pathways Summer Institute and is a teacher at Holly Springs High School in Holly Springs, North Carolina. She earned undergraduate degrees in physics and science education from Elon University and is a Kenan Fellow. She currently teaches AP Physics 1, AP Physics C, and Honors Physics and has also taught Academic Physics, Physical Science, and Astronomy. You can connect with her on twitter @SolenderPhysics or through email at

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