We investigate the development of student understanding of Newton's laws using a pre-instruction test (the Force Concept Inventory), followed by a series of post-instruction tests and interviews. While some students' somewhat naive, pre-existing models of Newton's third law are largely eliminated following a semester of teaching, we find that a particular inconsistent model is highly resilient to, and may even be strengthened by, instruction. If test items contain words that cue students to think of Newton's second law, then students are more likely to apply a “net force” approach to solving problems, even if it is inappropriate to do so. Additional instruction, reinforcing physical concepts in multiple settings and from multiple sources, appears to help students develop a more connected and consistent level of understanding. We recommend explicitly encouraging students to check their work for consistency with physical principles, along with the standard checks for dimensionality and order of magnitude, to encourage reflective and rigorous problem solving.

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