BOX 4.5
The Force Concept Inventory

The Force Concept Inventory (Hestenes et al., 1992) has been widely used to compare student mastery of basic concepts of Newtonian mechanics. The test examines core conceptual understanding of Newtonian mechanics.

Sample Question

Imagine a head-on collision between a large truck and a small compact car. During the collision:

  1. The truck exerts a greater amount of force on the car than the car exerts on the truck.

  2. The car exerts a greater amount of force on the truck than the truck exerts on the car.

  3. Neither exerts a force on the other; the car gets smashed simply because it gets in the way of the truck.

  4. The truck exerts a force on the car but the car doesn’t exert a force on the truck.

  5. The truck exerts the same amount of force on the car as the car exerts on the truck.

Correct answer is (E).

This question assesses student understanding of Newton’s third law. The distractors (incorrect answers) are adapted from student responses in interviews and open-form questions, revealing various naive conceptions of force as associated with size or effect. Newtonian principles demonstrate that force is an interaction, so the forces are the same, but the effects of the forces (acceleration, damage) differ according to the mass and structure of the object.

The inventory is commonly given in a pretest-posttest mode. It is inconceivable to most teachers that a student well trained in mechanics could do poorly on these core concepts on the posttest. Most physics teachers agree that a student with a reasonable understanding of Newtonian mechanics should be able to correctly answer the 30 simple questions on the test, such as the one illustrated above. Indeed, the test seemed so simple that many instructors initially did not think it was worth administering as either a pretest or a posttest. Yet students do poorly on the inventory as a pretest, and a full semester of careful traditional instruction produces little change in student performance: this result has been a major wakeup call to many physics teachers. Such results, which teachers can often replicate with their own classes, have significantly increased the audience for the results of physics education research.

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