Planning the DC Electricity Unit of the Physics Enhancement Course

The Physics Enhancement Course (PEC) has been running at MMU for a number of years, but resources have not traditionally been shared or stored centrally. As a new member of staff this meant developing resources for my taught units from a standing start, the first being the unit on DC Electricity.

This post describes my use of an evidence-informed approach (UK PSF dimension V3) to plan the unit, utilising knowledge of subject material (K1) and an understanding of how students learn (K3), which covers dimension A1. A further post considers the teaching methods employed in this unit.

Course and Unit Structure

Teaching national curriculum, school-level science to children is a very mature area of research, but strategies for performing the same to postgraduates in an HE environment are less well-documented. Given that DC electricity and circuits are a fundamental part of any physics course, however, it is no surprise that much has been written on the teaching of the subject.

The rationale for the PEC is such that

Participants will be able to develop their subject knowledge where physics is a non-specialist subject or requires strengthening after a period of absence from the topic. There will also be a focus on how the pedagogy of physics is related to a deeper understanding of how science works and ultimately how it underpins our fundamental understanding of the Universe. (from the course handbook)

This represents something of an interesting nexus; school-level physics content being taught to postgraduates prior to their initial teacher training later in the year; it is a subject-refresher, a professional course in pedagogical skills, and an introduction to basic laboratory work in physics. For this unit the question then lay in looking at how to distribute the subject content knowledge (“learning the subject”), subject pedagogical knowledge (“learning to teach the subject”), and ongoing assessments.

Content knowledge must take primacy, as it represents the key purpose of the course. Results of national surveys express a preferential split of roughly 80% content knowledge and 20% subject-specific pedagogy (Gibson et al., 2013:54). The learning activities involved should be varied and at different levels, as “It is possible to bring non-specialists up to speed with subject knowledge, but highly differentiated teaching approaches must be used…” (Shepherd, 2008:48).

The outcomes stated in the course handbook suggest that the DC Electricity unit should

…develop an understanding of static electricity and its uses before moving onto series and parallel circuits and concepts of measuring D.C. electricity… Students in this part of the course will get the opportunity to engage in extensive practical work which is designed to help with their understanding of the topic. (from course handbook)

In addition to the material in the course handbook, subject content was taken from the National Curriculum for KS3 and 4 (DfE, 2013), and AQA GCSE (AQA, 2016) and A level (AQA, 2015) specification documents. This provided a means to ensure that all relevant content was covered. For the purposes of planning this unit I took much from the metasynthsis of Guisasola (2014), particularly section 5.1.3 which highlights the misconceptions held by physics undergraduates when learning this topic, and section 5.4 which provides ’guidelines for designing teaching-learning sequences’ in this area. Based upon the ideas of Land et al. (2005) I focused on the sequence of content and paying attention to threshold concepts of charge, current, potential difference, and resistance.

The importance of both subject and pedagogical knowledge is highlighted in Angell et al. (2005). To ensure I included appropriate teaching strategies and highlighted potential misconceptions of schools pupils I consulted Mulhall et al. (2001) and Wellington (2000), who also provided some guidance on potential practical work. Having taught this subject at a secondary-school level for 9 years I was able to draw upon my own experiences and existing resources to support my teaching.


Three sessions of 6 hours each were calendared for this topic. Through combining pedagogical theory and resources listed above it seemed that placing an emphasis on the following aspects would allow students to effectively meet the stated aims.

  • A differentiated range of theoretical, practical, and investigative activities to cover subject content
  • Modelling and signposting of teaching approaches and key points of subject pedagogical knowledge
  • Some formative assessment, including identifying and unpicking potential misconceptions

Once the priorities for teaching of the unit were established the next step was to plan and teach individual sessions, the specifics of which are in another post.

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Angell, C., Ryder, J., and Scott (2005) Becoming an expert teacher: Novice physics teachers’ development of conceptual and pedagogical knowledge. University of Oslo/University of Leeds. (Working Document)

AQA, (2015) AS and A level Physics. (no. 7407/7408)

AQA, (2016) GCSE Physics. (no. 8463)

DfE, Department for Education (2013) National curriculum in England – Science programmes of study. London:

Gibson, S., O’Toole, G., Dennison, M., and Oliver, L. (2013) Evaluation of Subject Knowledge Enhancement Courses: Technical report: Analysis of survey data 2011-12. London: Department for Education. (DFE-RR301B)

Guisasola, J., (2014) ‘Teaching and Learning Electricity: The Relations Between Macroscopic Level Observations and Microscopic Level Theories’. In M. R. Matthews (ed). International Handbook of Research in History, Philosophy and Science Teaching. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 129–156.

Land, R., Cousin, G., Meyer, J. H. F., and Davies, P. (2005) ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: implications for course design and evaluation’. In C. Rust (ed.) Improving Student Learning Diversity and Inclusivity, Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

Mulhall, P., McKittrick, B., and Gunstone, R. (2001) ‘A Perspective on the Resolution of Confusions in the Teaching of Electricity’. Research in Science Education 31(4), pp. 575-587.

Shepherd, C. (2008) ‘Towards physics: training programmes for non-specialists’. School Science Review 89(328), pp. 43-48.

Wellington, J. J. (2000) Teaching and learning secondary science: contemporary issues and practical approaches. London: Routledge.