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Upper-division student understanding of Coulomb's law: Difficulties with continuous charge distributions Documents

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Upper-division student understanding of Coulomb’s law: Difficulties with continuous charge distributions 

written by Bethany R. Wilcox, Marcos D. Caballero, Rachel E. Pepper, and Steven J. Pollock

Utilizing the integral expression of Coulomb's Law to determine the electric potential from a continuous charge distribution is a canonical exercise in Electricity and Magnetism (E&M). In this study, we use both think-aloud interviews and responses to traditional exam questions to investigate student difficulties with this topic at the upper-division level. Leveraging a theoretical framework for the use of mathematics in physics, we discuss how students activate, construct, execute and reflect on the integral form of Coulomb's Law when solving problems with continuous charge distributions. We present evidence that junior-level E&M students have difficulty mapping physical systems onto the mathematical expression for the Coulomb potential. Common challenges include difficulty expressing the difference vector in appropriate coordinates as well as determining expressions for the differential charge element and limits of integration for a specific charge distribution. We discuss possible implications of these findings for future research directions and instructional strategies.

Published January 24, 2013
Last Modified July 1, 2013