Tricky Physics: What’s Fun Got To Do With It?

Tricky Physics: What’s Fun Got To Do With It?

When Katherine Langford spoke to six GCSE Physics teachers about the challenges encountered by children in the classroom, they all mentioned the use of fun approaches to learning. Thanks to The Open University’s spaces for interdisciplinary conversations between doctoral students, this caught Emily Dowdeswell’s attention. Emily is currently researching children’s perceptions of ‘fun’ in learning within the RUMPUS research group. While fun is often mentioned in interview data, the concept itself is typically taken for granted, or at face value. Are education researchers and practitioners missing a trick by not engaging with “fun” more deeply?

Should studying Physics be more fun? Or is fun simply too inconsequential for ‘hard’ subjects like Physics? The teachers interviewed engage their students by making Physics more fun and approachable. One teacher said, “I feel strongly that if children aren’t enjoying a lesson, they’re not going to learn it. If the class are bored stiff by what you’re doing, nothing is going in”.

What Makes Physics Tricky?

Still taken from video by Katherine Langford

It’s no secret that some Physics topics are particularly tricky for students to understand. Mukesh Tekwani, a retired college teacher with 35 years of experience, discussed this in his 2020 blog post, arguing that once you know why students find topics difficult, you can work your way to make them easy, interesting, and useful. So, why is Physics often tricky to students?

All the teachers interviewed mentioned three topics – electricity, forces, and radioactivity – that students frequently find tricky. However, identifying why these topics are tricky was more problematic. Analysing the interviews revealed 55 interconnected and subtle factors that the teachers discussed as barriers to students learning Physics. These included:

  1. Misconceptions are difficult to get rid of as students often reject scientifically accurate concepts in preference of keeping their own incorrect ideas
  2. Many Physics concepts are abstract or difficult to picture
  3. Past teaching (particularly at primary school) can cause misconceptions
  4. Students do not have the Maths skills needed
  5. Students often fail to make links between related concepts
  6. Misconceptions can be caused by language (e.g., the nucleus of an atom being confused with the nucleus of a cell in Biology)
  7. Misconceptions can be caused by popular culture, like films
  8. Simple concepts can link to difficult concepts
  9. Physics concepts are often counterintuitive and conflict with students’ everyday experiences
  10. Even scientists don’t fully understand some concepts yet
Still taken from video by Katherine Langford

Several of the 55 factors related to students’ attitudes towards Physics. Two of the main attitude factors were that Physics is hard and that Physics is boring. According to one teacher, students who find Physics difficult sometimes “automatically think that they can’t do it”. Often students believe Physics is the hardest of the sciences. Some convince themselves Physics is difficult before they enter the classroom. Two teachers discussed how students switch off from learning if they do not see the point of the lesson. This attitude is particularly evident amongst students who have decided not to continue with Physics beyond GCSE.

Still taken from video by Katherine Langford

So, many complex and interrelated factors affect Physics learning. Student attitudes regarding Physics being difficult and boring negatively impact their learning. A study by Jennifer DeWit, Louise Archer, and Julie Moote explores what insights might be gained from students themselves. Their study confirms the influence of cultural assumptions around Physics leads many students to conclude that Physics ‘is not for me’. Highlighting that participation in post-compulsory Physics increasingly matters for both economic and equity reasons, they concluded that making changes to the way Physics is taught and experienced in the classroom was a priority.

Using Fun to Change Attitudes to Physics

The teachers interviewed use fun experiments and demonstrations to change how students experience Physics. Several teachers mentioned collecting resources – particularly videos and online materials – to aid student understanding in an enjoyable way. Another strategy involved offering real-life examples to demonstrate that Physics is relevant to their everyday life. The teachers invest in these practices– that are often time-consuming – because they feel student enjoyment is linked to their motivation which impacts their understanding. So, is their faith in fun approaches to learning justified by research? What evidence is there to show fun is having any impact at all?

Peter Gray noticed the concept of ‘fun’ emerging repeatedly during his time as Research Fellow of the Early Professional Learning (EPL) project. He described a broader trend to attach fun to Physics without any meaningful engagement into its usefulness as a concept to teachers. Gray argued that fun played a part in the classroom ecology of teaching and learning whether teachers invested in its creation or not. The study underlined that fun was missing from the language of educational policymakers, and that fun was often positioned as disruptive. Fun was linked to intrinsic motivation and could be combined with effective learning as the antithesis to boring, ineffective learning. Even typically hard subjects could be fun, so that the teaching rather than the topic was crucial.

The debate regarding the usefulness of fun is reflected in a 2020 study into fun in online learning. The majority of students agreed that enjoyment, happiness and fun were important to effective learning. Yet, 19% of students also agreed that fun activities can get in the way of learning. Like Gray, Ale Okada and Kieron Sheehy discussed how fun can be positioned as transgressive, embraced by some but seen as an unnecessary distraction by those who adopt traditional transmission views of learning. This highlights the need for further research to ensure that well intentioned attempts to make learning fun don’t backfire and cause students to become less engaged.

Image by Katherine Langford

All six teachers interviewed noted that student attitudes towards Physics influenced their learning. They are clearly aware of the importance of student enjoyment and its link to motivation and are prepared to invest in potentially time-consuming activities despite the pressures on their time.

However, fun is under-researched, as past classroom research has shown that what teachers think is fun is not necessarily the same as what students find fun. Nor do we know what the impact of fun is clearly. While the interviews are a preliminary study, the findings resonate with the wider literature. So what do these teachers now need from education research? How can we support them to change perceptions about Physics? Perhaps we need to challenge our perceptions of fun being frivolous and convince leadership and policymakers to allow teachers the time to invest in fun.

Emily Dowdeswell

Emily Dowdeswell

2nd Year PhD Student

Emily Dowdeswell is approaching the end of her first year of doctoral research at the Open University’s Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS).

Her area of study includes the intersections between anthropology, the arts, creativity and education.

You can find out more about Emily’s research at or on Twitter 

Katherine Langford

Katherine Langford

PhD student at the Open University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS)

Katherine Langford, BSc (Hons), MBPsS, is a third-year

Katherine Langford

part-time PhD student at the Open University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). She is researching how secondary school students develop an understanding of especially tricky Physics topics including what intuitive theories, common problems, and misconceptions they have.

References and Further Reading

DeWitt, J., Archer, L. & Moote, J. (2019) “15/16-Year-Old Students’ Reasons for Choosing and Not Choosing Physics at A Level”. International Journal of Science and Math Education 17, 1071–1087.

Gray, P. “Fun in theory and practice: new teachers, pupil opinion and classroom environments” in McNally, J., & Blake, A. (Eds.). (2009). Improving Learning in a Professional Context: A Research Perspective on the New Teacher in School (1st ed.). Routledge.

Okada, A., & Sheehy, K. (2020). “Factors and Recommendations to Support Students’ Enjoyment of Online Learning with Fun: A Mixed Method Study During COVID-19”. Frontiers in Education (Lausanne), 5, Frontiers in education (Lausanne), 2020-12-01, Vol.5.

Taber, K.S. (2014) Student Thinking and Learning in Science: Perspectives on the Nature and Development of Learners’ Ideas. Routledge.

Chitson, S. (2014) “Why I won’t be studying physics at A-level”. The Guardian retrieved at 

If you want to find out more about teaching tricky topics, then you may be interested in this free OpenLearn course.

Education Outside the Classroom – An Innovative Teaching Concept During COVID-19

Education Outside the Classroom – An Innovative Teaching Concept During COVID-19

These days, pupils’ everyday life is characterized by health-endangering behaviors e.g. lack of physical activity or excessive sedentary times, resulting in physical but also mental health problems.

Additionally, pupils nowadays have to deal with unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Imposed restrictions of contact and limitations of recreational activities or sport might affect their physical and mental health status negatively. 

Pupils – mandatorily – spend most of their waking hours in schools. Schools further have been identified as stress-provoking, which can be a source of mental health problems. Consequently, schools represent an ideal setting for health-related interventions reaching all kids and adolescents. This is where Education Outside the Classroom (EOtC) comes in. EOtC represents a health-related intervention in terms of a teaching concept which aims to counteract the abovementioned health risks and further support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what is Education Outside the Classroom (EOtC) exactly?

Is EOtC an outdoor excursion over several consecutive days in summer, detached from the core curriculum? No!

EotC is integrated into the regular curriculum. On a regular and long-term basis, learning environments are deliberately moved outside the regular classroom setting.

EOtC typically takes place in nature, e.g. in forests, fields, or parks. Places of cultural, political, and social significance, such as museums, libraries, and other public institutions, further represent suitable learning environments.

Wherever EOtC takes place, the outdoor location most often becomes part of the object of learning. EOtC is by no means limited to subjects that everyone would immediately associate with outdoor lessons, such as biology, physical education, or geography. EOtC can be integrated into the regular curriculum and enhance teaching of all school subjects.

Research into EOtC

In a systematic literature review, we found several studies reporting positive effects of EOtC on pupils’ social interaction, learning motivation, physical activity, and mental health. Our early results from this evolving research field—both on a practical and scientific level—are supported by more recent findings, e.g.:

Practical Implementation of Education Outside the Classroom

In our opinion, teachers cannot simply transfer indoor teaching and the respective teaching methods to an outdoor learning environment. Similar to regular classroom teaching, teaching outside the classroom requires thorough planning geared to the respective setting in order to enable EOtC to its highest potential.

EOtC involves e.g. the following characteristic features:

  • no walls limiting the learning environment
  • unpredictable and changing weather conditions
  • new and unknown materials
  • a variety of affordances and stimuli (e.g. interaction with natural elements such as trees, rivers, living animals)
  • several logistical challenges (e.g. active transport to the outdoor learning environment, transport of material for an outdoor laboratory)

EOtC’s organization differs depending on e.g. the school subject, weather, and location. If schools have a suitable permanent outdoor location nearby, classes can e.g. build long-term shelters with branches for rainy days, plant their own vegetables or use tree trunks as seating accommodations. Regardless of the general variety and flexibility in EOtC, fixed routines can provide clarity and promote discipline as well as motivation.

EOtC has great potential to enable pupil-centered and hands-on learning experiences in which teachers support pupils’ autonomy in their learning process by e.g. transferring responsibility to the students. Examples in this regard are learning by doing, trial and error, and the experience of competence or social relatedness.  

Education Outside the Classroom during COVID-19 

EOtC is a teaching concept that might help to reduce the risk of a SARS-CoV-2 infection as study results indicate that the risk of infection is highly increased in closed environments via aerosols in comparison to outdoor environments. Outdoor infection is very unlikely if distance and hygiene rules are being followed (Nishiura et al., 2020; Qian et al., 2020).

During the tuberculosis-pandemic in the 20th century, ill pupils or pupils suspected to have tuberculosis were taught outside (Open-Air-Schools) to separate them from healthy children. Instead of getting the infectious disease or becoming more ill, most pupils stayed healthy or recovered in the Open-Air Schools. In these Open-Air Schools, pupils sat on their normal tables in open-air environments, such as rooftops, factories without windows, walls, or gardens. In a New York Times article, Open-Air Schools were lately reconsidered as a promising approach during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similar to the idea of Open-Air-Schools, EOtC could enhance teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. The outdoor learning environment on the one hand involves a provably reduced – but by no means non-existent – risk of infection. On the other hand, EOtC might issue a challenge to teachers as well as students – and their parents – who are not used to outdoor teaching and learning. By our work, we aim to meet these challenges and form a basis which facilitates including EOtC into everyday teaching – now and in the future.

We hope that the current need for innovative teaching concepts which involve minimal risk of infection and enable regular classroom teaching will create awareness of EOtC’s various possibilities.

Together with colleagues from the German Forest Conservation Society, we publish EOtC teaching materials for various subjects and grade levels open access. These documents may help interested teachers taking their pupils outdoors more often. 

If now is not the time to teach pupils outside the classroom in forests, on fields, in parks, or anywhere in nature, when will it be?

References and Further Reading

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you can find out more about our research here. 

 Global trends in insufficient physical activity among adolescents: a pooled analysis of 298 population-based surveys with 1·6 million participants – Guthold, Stevens, Riley, & Bull, 2020

Analysis of Sedentary Times of Children and Adolescents between 4 and 20 YearsHubert & Köppel, 2017

The pandemic of physical inactivity: global action for public health, Kohl et al,. 2012

Child and adolescent mental health worldwide: evidence for action Kieling et al., 2011

Sources of stress and worry in the development of stress-related mental health problems: A longitudinal investigation from early- to mid-adolescence – Anniko et al., 2018

The extent and dissemination of udeskole in Danish schools Bentsen et al., 2009

 Effects of Regular Classes in Outdoor Education Settings: A Systematic Review on Students’ Learning, Social and Health DimensionsBecker et al., 2017

 Stress in School. Some Empirical Hints on the Circadian Cortisol Rhythm of Children in Outdoor and Indoor Classes Dettweiler et al., 2017

 Stress Response and Cognitive Performance Modulation in Classroom versus Natural Environments: A Quasi-Experimental Pilot Study with Children – Mygind, et al., 2018a

 Stress in School. Some Empirical Hints on the Circadian Cortisol Rhythm of Children in Outdoor and Indoor Classes – Dettweiler et al., 2017; Becker et al., 2019

 Children’s physical activity during a segmented school week: results from a quasi-experimental education outside the classroom intervention – Schneller et al., 2017

 The association between education outside the classroom and students’ school motivation: Results from a one-school-year quasi-experiment – Bølling et al., 2018

 Primary teachers’ experiences with weekly education outside the classroom during a year  – Mygind et al., 2018b

 Closed environments facilitate secondary transmission of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)Nishiura et al., 2020

 Indoor transmission of SARS-CoV-2Qian et al., 2020

Dr. Christoph Mall

Dr. Christoph Mall

Senior Research Fellow at the Associate Professorship of Didactics in Sport and Health, Department of Sport and Health Sciences, Technical University of Munich (TUM).

Christoph is a sports scientist particularly interested in student physical activity, health, and learning motivation during Education Outside the Classroom. He furthermore studies how interventions taking place in open community spaces promote children’s and adolescents’ physical as well as psychological well-being. He is the project leader of Active City Innovation within the international Sports-Innovation-Network (SINN-i). He is the founding member of the Play, Learn and Teach Outdoors Network (PLaTO-Net).

See Christophs’ Twitter, Researchgate and ORCID profiles.

Jan Ellinger

Jan Ellinger

2nd Year PhD Student, Technical University of Munich (TUM).

Jan is a sports scientist and works at the Associate Professorship of Didactics in Sport and Health, Department of Sport and Health Sciences at TUM. His doctoral research focuses on health promotion and prevention in the population of children and adolescents. Jan’s research focuses on the school setting, but also considers other living environments, such as the community.

Leslie Bernhardt

Leslie Bernhardt

Student Assistant, Technical University of Munich (TUM)

Leslie studies Health Science in the 5th semester at TUM and works as a student assistant at the Associate Professorship of Didactics in Sport and Health at TUM. She is involved in the project Education Outside the Classroom which investigates the effects of regular school lessons outside the classroom on the behavior and health of pupils. She will graduate in 2021.