Featured Tiny Tweak in Teaching Basic Circuits

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1. Mar 21, 2017

Staff: Mentor

I'm sure we have all seen the frequent questions from students who don't understand the difference between potential and voltage in a circuit. They seem to think that zero voltage has physical significance. Even using the phrase "voltage drop" is not suffienct, because they say, "What happens when it drops to zero," leading to the concept that voltage is a consumable.

Of course, EEs use the convenience of assigning some point in the circuit the arbitrary value of 0, then expressing everything relative to that. I suspect that simplification in language contributes to the students misunderstanding. In the example circuit below, I would strictly refrain from saying $V_A$, $V_B$, ... Instead I would only mention voltage with respect to two places in the circuit. $V_{AG}$ $V_{BG}$. I view that as a tiny tweak in the use of language by the teachers.

Verbally, I would never mention "voltage .. " without saying "voltage with respect to ..."

But I have been out of school for many years. Perhaps modern teachers already do it that way. Is that so?

2. Mar 21, 2017

phinds

Like many threads on this forum, this simply points out one of the many unfortunate choices that have been made in using English to describe things mathematical. It isn't going to have any effect at all on how things are taught. I don't mean it's a bad idea, just that it's not going to have any effect.

3. Mar 21, 2017

mpresic

Most books I know define a point as ground and voltage is "understood" to be relative to the ground.

4. Mar 22, 2017

BvU

Anorlunda has a point that this "understanding" isn't genetically determined and has to be taught. Lots of students think they can forget the black wire on a multimeter when they use it for a first time. And that -- to me -- is where the "solution" lies: hands on with a battery, a few resistors and a multimeter. From there to the abstraction to a mathematical problem. And not lots of lecturing from the textbook and then halfway on a Friday afternoon fit in a lab exercise

5. Mar 22, 2017

UsableThought

I agree with this. Any decent primer on electronics is certainly going to make this distinction. So I would guess it's as much a matter of the student needing to slow down & focus on what is actually being said, and being willing to forget previous misunderstandings he/she may have picked up, as anything else.

Maybe even a couple of batteries in series, for that matter, to further show the arbitrary nature of designating ground.

Last edited: Mar 22, 2017
6. Mar 22, 2017

robphy

The notation $V_{AB}$ is also good because it suggests how a multimeter would be used to measure it, and why $V_{BA}= -V_{AB}$.
Indeed, this is just like a displacement as the difference between two position coordinates. Or relative velocities. Etc...
Strictly speaking, one should do the same thing with time $t$ in a kinematics equation... but it's too tedious to write $(t_-t_0)$. So, i describe $t$ as the stopwatch time.

7. Mar 22, 2017

Staff: Mentor

It occurred to me that a simple homework problem could emphasise the point. Take any problem where students are asked to solve for voltages and currents. Then ask for it to be repeated shifting the ground symbol to several different points in the circuit. Students should quickly grasp the point that it makes no difference where the ground reference is.

8. Mar 22, 2017

robphy

I like the "voltage as height" rendering of schematic diagrams (see below).
Then it's more clear that it's differences in potential [voltages] that are important.

From OpenStax College's "College Physics" (Urone)
https://openstax.org/details/books/college-physics

or, implemented dynamically at
http://www.phy.ntnu.edu.tw/ntnujava/index.php?topic=30.0

Another frequent question is "how do you know which way the current flows?"
and getting them to distinguish the "[positive] physical current" and
the assigned coordinate variable (like a "choice of axis") used to do the analysis.

9. Mar 22, 2017

Stuschreib

I don't think the choice of 0v for a reference node is insignificant. It sure makes the math less messy.

EDIT: If you choose the right node.

10. Mar 22, 2017

Staff: Mentor

What do you do about the many students who forget that there is a reference and think voltages are absolute?

11. Mar 23, 2017

Stuschreib

Demonstrate. Assign a different node as reference, assign it some ridiculous value (e^i*h maybe), rework the problem carrying the ridiculous term through all the arithmetic, and get the exact same answers.

12. Mar 23, 2017

atyy

If voltage = potential difference, isn't voltage absolute?

13. Mar 23, 2017

phinds

No, the DIFFERENCE is absolute, not the potential. The potential is only relative.

14. Mar 23, 2017

atyy

But isn't voltage the difference?

15. Mar 24, 2017

Biker

I think it is a matter of wording. I have seen some textbooks refer to the Voltage difference as voltage.
But voltage is defined as the electric potential energy per charge relative to some point where you set it zero. Voltage difference is the change in voltage which is absolute.

That is a good point. In our school they never mentioned anything about setting any point to zero. Which I think significantly increases your understanding of the topic

Last edited: Mar 24, 2017
16. Mar 24, 2017

atyy

Or maybe he meant that voltage is always relative to two points, and that with respect to those points, it is absolute. So it is relative and absolute.

17. Mar 24, 2017

BvU

Not to mention the linguistic confusion caused by e.g. error handling: absolute errors and relative errors. Relative voltage ?
And folks with a more general mindset who think last year's profit of 10% has doubled when the press clipping says it has increased with 10%.

18. Mar 24, 2017

lewando

An introduction to "across variables" and "through variables" in both electrical and mechanical domains could be helpful to the student.

19. Mar 24, 2017

_PJ_

Just noticed this sonce it was prioritised on the page and was curious.

I am not at all well-versed in electronics, but otherwose am confident in Physics. Our A level Physics teacher was sacked after a half-term of teaching electronics and the head of department simply rold us we were 'taught wrong', without any detail or clarification ad to what wad wrong or how - so I kind of have ring-fenced this whole subject area and had a fear or mental-block since I just felt I couldn't trust what I thought I knew.

This meant that I avoided anything regarding electronics on a macrosxopic level, though reading Brian Cox' book telling how conductivity and transistors operate wad very accesable and informative. I am more confident now and not so afraid of electronics.

So I would love for someone to just explain what IS the diffetence between Voltage and potential, since I am one of those who was under the impression that Coltage was a measure of localised electric potential energy.

20. Mar 24, 2017

Staff: Mentor

Sure, but the one or two sentence definitions aren't adequate. The proper basic explanation of the relationship between voltage and potential (plus currents and power) takes about 1400 words plus visuals. That's too much for a simple PF post. Fortunately, it is all nicely done in the following 10 minute video from Khan Academy