Key Idea: Gravitational potential energy is associated with the distance an object is above a reference point, such as the center of the earth, and the mass of the object.

Students are expected to know that:

  1. The gravitational potential energy of an object depends on both the distance an object is above the center of the earth and the mass of the object and that gravitational potential energy depends only on these two factors. Gravitational potential energy does not depend on other factors such as speed, size, shape, material the object is made of, or the path the object took to get to the distance above the center of the earth.
  2. Objects that have the same mass and are equal distances from the center of the earth have the same amount of gravitational potential energy.
  3. Increasing the distance an object is from the center of the earth will increase the gravitational potential energy of the object (assuming the mass of the object does not change) and decreasing the distance an object is from the center of the earth will decrease the gravitational potential energy of the object (assuming the mass of the object does not change).
  4. If the gravitational potential energy of an object increases, the distance the object is from the center of the earth must have increased (assuming the mass of the object does not change) and if the gravitational potential energy of an object decreases, the distance the object is from the center of the earth must have decreased (assuming the mass of the object does not change).
  5. For objects that have the same mass, the object farthest from the center of the earth will have the most gravitational potential energy and the object closest to the center of the earth will have the least gravitational potential energy.
  6. For objects that have the same mass, the object with the greatest gravitational potential energy is the farthest from the center of the earth, and the object with the least gravitational potential energy is the closest to the center of the earth.
  7. For objects that are equal distances from the center of the earth (greater than zero), the object with the greatest mass will have the most gravitational potential energy and the object with the least mass will have the least gravitational potential energy.
  8. For objects that are equal distances from the center of the earth (greater than zero), the object with the greatest gravitational potential energy has the greatest mass and the object with the least gravitational potential energy has the least mass.
  9. For objects that have the same amount of gravitational potential energy, the object with the greatest mass is closest to the center of the earth and the object with the least mass is the farthest from the center of the earth.
  10. For objects that have the same amount of gravitational potential energy, the object that is the farthest from the center of the earth will have the least mass and the object that is the closest to the center of the earth will have the greatest mass.

Boundaries:

  1. Students are not expected to know the meaning of the term “potential.”
  2. Students are not expected to know or use formulas associated with gravitational potential energy, such as mass x gravitational constant x height/distance (mgh). The sub-ideas above describe qualitative relationships.
  3. As a result, students are not expected to compare situations where both the mass and distance vary. In assessment items, either the mass or the distance will be held constant while the other varies so that both variables will not be changed at the same time.
  4. Additionally, the distance used in the assessment items will be the distance above the center of the earth unless a substitute reference plane, such as the floor, is explicitly stated in the assessment item. When this is the case, the reference plane will be the lowest plane in the context so that there will be only positive values for the distance.
  5. Note: The students are not expected to know the difference between “weight” and “mass.” All of the context used in the assessment items will be ones where “mass” and “weight” are proportional to each other. The earth will be used as the context for all assessment items.
  6. Note: Any plane on which all points are essentially equidistant from the center of the earth, such as the floor of a room, can be used as a substitute for the center of the earth in determining the amount of gravitational potential energy an object has. Because all points on this reference plane are considered to be equidistant from the center of the earth, all objects on the plane can be considered to have zero gravitational potential energy. (There will be only one reference plane that applies to all objects in the situation.) In assessment items the “reference plane” will be referred to as a “reference point.”
Percent of students answering correctly (click on the item ID number to view the item and additional data)
Item ID
Number
Knowledge Being Assessed Grades
6–8
Grades
9–12
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EG071002

Two pictures that weigh the same and are hung the same height above the floor have the same amount of gravitational potential energy.

54%

59%

EG088001

When two children who weigh the same are on a teeter-totter, the child who is up has more gravitational potential energy than the child who is down.

53%

57%

EG016003

The gravitational potential energy of an object depends on the mass of the object and the object's distance from the center of the earth.

46%

56%

EG015003

The mass of a rock will affect the gravitational potential energy of a rock on top of a cliff.

47%

55%

EG018004

For two books on a table, the book that weighs more has more gravitational potential energy.

47%

49%

EG020003

For two objects that are the same distance from the center of the earth, the object with more gravitational potential energy weighs more.

45%

51%

EG013004

When a coconut falls from a tree, it has the most gravitational potential energy at its highest point above the ground.

41%

50%

EG022003

A person will have the same amount of gravitational potential energy at the top of a mountain regardless of the path the person takes to get there.

37%

51%

EG090001

Two identical balls that are thrown up in the air will have the same amount of gravitational potential energy when they are at the same height above the ground.

35%

42%

EG093001

The gravitational potential energy of an object depends on the object’s distance from the center of the earth but not the speed of the object.

31%

39%

Frequency of selecting a misconception

Misconception
ID Number

Student Misconception

Grades
6–8

Grades
9–12

EGM040

The gravitational potential energy of an object depends upon the path the object takes to get to the distance above the reference point (Singh & Rosengrant, 2001, 2003; Herrmann-Abell & DeBoer, 2010).

63%

49%

EGM042

The gravitational potential energy of an object depends on the speed of the object (the gravitational potential energy increases as the object's speed increases) (Herrmann-Abell & DeBoer, 2010).

38%

35%

EGM060

For two identical objects thrown up into the air, they must have been thrown with the same amount of force to have the same amount of gravitational potential energy (AAAS Project 2061, n.d.).

28%

27%

EGM061

The gravitational potential energy of an object does not depend on the distance the object is above the ground (AAAS Project 2061, n.d.).

27%

23%

EGM038

The gravitational potential energy of an object does not depend on the mass of the object (AAAS Project 2061, n.d.).

22%

20%

EGM053

The gravitational potential energy of an object decreases as an object moves farther away from the center of the earth and the gravitational potential energy increases as the object falls toward the earth (AAAS Project 2061, n.d.).

22%

19%

EGM074

For two objects at the same height above the earth, the heavier one will have less gravitational potential energy.

22%

17%

EGM039

An object has gravitational potential energy only at the edge of a cliff or table but not at some distance from the edge (Kruger, 1990).

18%

15%

RGM081

Gravitational potential energy depends on an object’s shape. Students believe gravitational pull is influenced by the shape of an object. (AAAS Project 2061, 2017)

15%

11%

Frequency of selecting a misconception was calculated by dividing the total number of times a misconception was chosen by the number of times it could have been chosen, averaged over the number of students answering the questions within this particular idea.