Alternative conceptions: turning adversity into advantage

Annalize Ferreira, Miriam Lemmer, Richard Gunstone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


While a vast body of research has identified difficulties in students’ understanding about forces and acceleration and their related alternative conceptions, far less research suggests ways to use students’ alternative conceptions to enhance conceptual understanding of a specific fundamental concept. This study focused on distinguishing between students’ conceptual understanding of the Newtonian concept of gravitational acceleration being the same for all objects and students’ alternative conception that heavy objects fall faster. A multiple choice questionnaire was distributed to first year physics students for three consecutive years at a university in South Africa. The results indicate that changing the direction of motion and the physics quantity asked in paired questions revealed practically significant inconsistencies in students’ reasoning and conceptions. This research contributes to the body of knowledge in proposing how the alternative conception of mass-related gravitational acceleration can be used in instruction to enhance conceptual understanding of the force–mass–acceleration relationship. Understanding of this relationship not only promotes conceptual understanding of the basic Newtonian concepts of the laws of motion which forms the critical foundation on which more advanced physics courses are built, but also contributes towards students’ perception of physics as a set of coherent ideas applicable in all contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)657-678
Number of pages22
JournalResearch in Science Education
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2019


  • Alternative conceptions
  • Conceptual understanding
  • Direction of motion
  • Force and acceleration
  • Threshold concepts

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