This paper describes a systematic investigation of the understanding of the concept of acceleration among students enrolled in a variety of introductory physics courses at the University of Washington. The criterion for assessing understanding of a kinematical concept is the ability to apply it successfully in interpreting simple motions of real objects. The main thrust of this study has been on the qualitative understanding of acceleration as the ratio Δvt. The primary data source has been the individual demonstration interview in which students are asked specific questions about simple motions they observe. Results are reported for the success of different student populations in comparing accelerations for two simultaneous motions. Failure to make a proper comparison was due to various conceptual difficulties which are identified and described. Some implications for instruction are briefly discussed.

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