A Look into Students' Interpretation of Electric Field Lines

A Look into Students' Interpretation of Electric Field Lines

Esmeralda Campos (Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico) and Genaro Zavala (Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico & Universidad Andres Bello, Chile)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2026-9.ch017
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On Electricity & Magnetism (EM) courses at undergraduate level, the concept of electric field poses one of the most relevant and basic topics, along with the concept of magnetic field. Professors and students may use different diagrams as a tool to visualize the electric field, such as vectors or electric field lines. The present study aims to identify how students interpret and use electric field lines as a tool or resource to describe the electric field. Two versions of a test with open-ended questions were administered in Spanish in a private Mexican university to a random sample of students taking the EM course, and were analyzed with a qualitative approach. It was found that students do not interpret electric field lines diagrams correctly, which may lead to misconceptions. Many students based their answers on the concepts of superposition, force and repulsion.
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This chapter is focused on learning different ways in which undergrad students in introductory Electricity and Magnetism (EM) courses interpret and use electric field lines diagrams to describe the electric field at any point in space. Due to its abstract nature, the electric field is a concept that tends to be misunderstood. Several representations of the electric field may have a different effect on the correct understanding of the electric field; such as the use of vectors and the electric field lines diagram. A correct interpretation of these representations should, theoretically, lead to a better understanding of the concept of electric field, and to a correct use of concepts such as the principle of superposition, electric force and repulsion. The problem that this research tackles is to identify how students interpret electric field lines, and what effect their interpretations may have on the conceptual understanding of the electric field.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Representation: A sketch or diagram that aims to represent an abstract concept.

Repulsion: A type of electric force where charged objects push each other away without having direct contact.

Electric Force: Interactions between charged objects at a distance. There are only two types of interactions, attraction and repulsion.

Physics Education Research: Research made by Physics professors with the objective of bettering the teaching-learning process.

Electric Field Lines: A representation of the electric field, where the direction of the field is tangent to the line at any point, and its magnitude is proportional to the density of lines in the region.

Superposition of Electric Fields: At any given point, the electric field is equal to the vector sum of the electric field contributions that all sources exert on that point, as if they stood alone.

Electric Field: The inherent ability of charged matter to interact with other charged objects at a distance.

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