We study student understanding of the direction of the magnetic force experienced by a charged particle moving through a homogeneous magnetic field in both the magnetic pole and field line representations of the magnetic field. In five studies, we administer a series of simple questions in either written or interview format. Our results indicate that although students begin at the same low level of performance in both representations, they answer correctly more often in the field line representation than in the pole representation after instruction. This difference is due in part to more students believing that charges are attracted to magnetic poles than believing that charges are pushed along magnetic field lines. Although traditional instruction is fairly effective in teaching students to answer correctly up to a few weeks following instruction, especially for the field line representation, some students revert to their initial misconceptions several months after instruction. The responses reveal persistent and largely random sign errors in the direction of the force. The sign errors are largely nonsystematic and due to confusion about the direction of the magnetic field and the execution and choice of the right-hand rule and lack of recognition of the noncommutativity of the cross product.
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