The goal of this study is to identify students' difficulties with learning the concepts of electromotive force (emf) and potential difference in the context of transitory currents and resistive direct-current circuits. To investigate these difficulties, we developed a questionnaire based on an analysis of the theoretical and epistemological framework of physics, which was then administered to first-year engineering and physics students at universities in Spain, Colombia, and Belgium. The results of the study show that student difficulties seem to be strongly linked to the absence of an analysis of the energy balance within the circuit and that most university students do not clearly understand the usefulness of and the difference between the concepts of potential difference and emf.

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