Category Archives: CTM

Potential Divider Circuits and the Coulomb Train Model

A potential divider circuit is, essentially, a circuit where two or more components are arranged in series.

(a) Two resistors in series; (b) an ammeter (top) and an electric motor in series; (c) (L to R) a resistor, filament lamp and variable resistor in series

For non-physicists, these types of circuit can sometimes present problems, so in this post I am going to look in detail at the basic physics involved; and I am going to explain them using the CTM or Coulomb Train Model. (You can find the CTM model explained here.)

In the AQA GCSE Physics (and Combined Science) specifications, students are required to know that:

Extract from p.26 of the AQA spec

First, let’s look at the basics of describing electric circuits: current, potential difference and resistance.

1.0 Using the CTM to explain current, potential difference and resistance

Pupils tend to start with one concept for electricity in a direct current circuit: a concept labelled ‘current’, or ‘energy’ or ‘electricity’, all interchangeable and having the properties of movement, storability and consumption. Understanding an electrical circuit involves first differentiating the concepts of current, voltage and energy before relating them as a system, in which the energy transfer depends upon current, time and the potential difference of the battery.

The notion of current flowing in the circuit is one which pupils often meet in their introduction to a circuit and, because this relates well with their intuitive notions, this concept becomes the primary concept. (Driver 1994: 124 [italics added])

To my mind, the CTM is an excellent “bridging analogy” that helps students visualise the invisible. It is a stepping stone that provides some concrete representations of abstract quantities. In my opinion, it can help students

  1. move away from analysing circuits in terms of just current. (In my experience, even when students use terms like “potential difference”, in their eyes what they call “potential difference” behaves in a remarkably similar way to current e.g. it “flows through” components.)
  2. understand the difference between current, potential difference and resistance and how important each one is
  3. begin thinking of a circuit as a whole, interconnected system.

1.1 The CTM and electric current

Let’s begin by looking at a very simple circuit: a one ohm resistor connected across a 1 V cell.

A simple circuit

A very simple circuit

Note that it is a good teaching technique to include two ammeters on either side of the component, although the readings on both will be identical. This is to challenge the perennial misconception that electric current is “used up”. Electric charge, according to our current understanding of the universe, is a conserved quantity like energy in that it cannot be created or destroyed.

The Coulomb Train Model invites us to picture an electric circuit as a flow of positively charged coulombs carrying energy around the circuit in a clockwise fashion as shown below. The coulombs are linked together to form a continuous chain.

The CTM version of a simple circuit

The CTM applied to the very simple circuit shown above.

The name coulomb is not chosen at random: it is the SI unit of electric charge.

The current in this circuit will be given by I = V / R (equation 18 in the list on p.96 of the AQA spec, if you’re keeping track).

Using the AQA mark scheme-friendly FIFA protocol:

The otherwise inexplicable use of the letter “I” to represent electric current springs from the work André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) and the French phrase intensité de courant (intensity of current).

From Q = I t (equation 17, p.96), current is a flow of electric charge, since I = Q / t. That is to say, if a charge of 2 coulombs passes (AQA call this a “charge flow”) in 2 seconds, the current will be …

A current of 1 amp is therefore represented on the CTM as 1 coulomb (or truck) passing by each second.

1.2 The CTM and Potential Difference

Potential difference or voltage is essentially the “energy difference” across any two parts of a circuit.

The equation used to define potential difference is not the familiar V = IR but rather the less familiar E = QV (equation 22 in the AQA list) where E is the energy transferred, Q is the charge flow (or the number of coulombs passing by in a certain time) and t is the time in seconds.

Let’s see what this would look like using the CTM:

(a) Circuit diagram showing how the measure the potential difference across a 1 V cell. (b) The same circuit represented using the CTM. (Note that the “white gloves” on the ends of the voltmeter connections are intended to be reminiscent of the white gloves of a snooker referee, indicating that the voltmeter does not disrupt the flow of the coulombs: in other words, the voltmeter has a high resistance.)

For the circuit shown, the voltmeter reading is 1 volt.

Note that on the CTM representation, one joule of energy is added to each coulomb as it passes through the cell.

If we had a 1.5 V cell then 1.5 joules would be transferred to each coulomb as it passed through, and so on.

(a) Circuit diagram showing potential difference measured across a connector with negligible resistance. (b) The same circuit represented using the CTM

If the voltmeter is moved to a different position as shown above, then the reading is 0 volts. This is because the coulombs at the points “sampled” by the voltmeter have the same amount of energy, so there is zero energy difference between them.

(a) Measuring the potential difference across a resistor. (b) The same circuit shown using the CTM.

In the position shown above, the voltmeter is measuring the potential difference across the resistor. For the circuit shown (assuming negligible resistance in all other parts of the circuit) the potential difference will be 1 V. In other words, each coulomb is losing one joule of energy as it passes through the resistance.

1.3 The CTM and Resistance

(a) Measuring the current through and the potential difference across a resistor. (b) The same circuit represented using the CTM.

In the circuit above, the potential difference across the resistor is 1 V and the current is 1 amp.

Resistance can therefore be thought of as the potential difference required to drive a current of 1 amp through that part of the circuit. It can also be thought of as the energy lost by each coulomb when a current of 1 amp flows through that part of the circuit; or, energy lost per coulomb per amp.

1.4 Summary

On the diagrams below, the coulombs are moving clockwise.

Summary of CTM

2.0 The CTM applied to a potential divider circuit

A potential divider circuit simply means that at least two resistors are in series so that the potential difference of the cell is shared across the resistors.

2.1 Two identical resistors

Because the two resistors are identical, the 3 V supply is shared equally across both resistors. That is to say, there is a potential difference of 1.5 V across each resistor. But let’s check this by applying V = IR (eq. 18). The total potential difference is 3 V and the total resistance is 1 ohm + 1 ohm = 2 ohms.

Now let’s use V = IR to check that the potential difference across each separate resistor is indeed half the total supply of 3 V. The resistance of one resistor is one ohm and the current through each one is 1.5 A. So V = 1.5 x 1 = 1.5 V.

But what would happen if we doubled the value of each resistor to 2 ohms?

Well, the current would be smaller: I = V/R = 3/4 = 0.75 amps.

The potential difference across each separate resistor would be V = I R = 0.75 x 2 = 1.5 V

So, the potential difference is always split equally when two identical resistors are placed in series (although, of course, the total resistance and the current will be different depending on the values of the resistors).

2.2a Two non-identical resistors

Let’s consider a circuit with a 2 ohm resistor in series with a 1 ohm resistor.

In this circuit, the total resistance is 1 ohm + 2 ohms = 3 ohms. The current flowing through the circuit is I = V / R = 3 / 3 = 1 amp.

So the potential difference across the 2 ohm resistor is V = IR = 1 x 2 = 2 V and the potential difference across the one ohm resistor is V = IR = 1 x 1 = 1 V.

Note that the resistor with the largest value gets the largest “share” of the potential difference.

2.2b Two non-identical resistors (different order)

Now let’s reverse the order of the resistors.

The current remains unchanged because the total resistance of the circuit is still the same.

Note that the largest resistor still gets the largest share of the potential difference, whichever way round the resistors are placed.

2.3 In Defence of the CTM and Donation Models

Many Physics teachers prefer “rope models” to so-called “donation models” like the CTM.

And it is perfectly true that rope models have some good points such as the ability to easily explain AC and a more accurate approximation of what happens when current starts to flow or stops flowing. The difficulty in their use, in my opinion, is that you are using concepts that many students barely understand (e.g. friction to model resistance) to explain how very unfamiliar concepts such as potential difference work. Also, the vagueness of some of the analogs is unhelpful: for example, when we compare potential difference to “push”, are we talking about the net resultant force on the rope or simply the force needed to balance the frictional force and keep it moving at a steady speed?

To my way of thinking, the CTM has the advantage of encouraging quantitative thinking about current, potential difference and resistance almost from the moment of first teaching. Admittedly, it cannot cope with AC — but then again, we model AC as a direct current when we use RMS values. Now admittedly, rope models are far better at picturing what happens in the initial fractions of a second when a current starts to flow after closing a switch. Be that as it may, the CTM comes into its own when we consider the “steady state” of current flow after the initial surge currents.

One of the frequent criticisms (which is usually considered quite damning) of this type of model is “How do the coulombs know how much energy to drop off at each resistor?”

For example, in the diagram above, how do the coulombs “know” to drop off 1 J at the first resistor and 2 J at the second resistor?

The answer is: they don’t. Rather, the energy loss is due to the nature of the resistor: think of a resistor as a tunnel lined with strip curtains. A coulomb loses only a small amount of its excess energy passing through a low value resistor, but a much larger amount passing through a higher value resistor, as modelled below.

Strip curtain model for CTM

A 1 ohm and 2 ohm resistor modelled as strip curtains

FWIW I therefore commend the use of the CTM to all interested parties. 


Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P., & Wood-Robinson, V. (1994). Making sense of secondary science: Research into children’s ideas. Routledge.


Filed under Coulomb Train Model, CTM, Physics, physics

Teaching Electric Circuits? Climb On Board The Coulomb Train!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: teaching electric circuits is hard.

Providing your students with a conceptual model can, in my opinion, be immensely helpful. In recent years, I have used what I call the Coulomb Train Model (CTM). It is essentially a variation on the “stiff chain” analogies that some researchers have argued as being particularly useful in developing students’ understanding.

One reason why I like the CTM is that it provides a physical picture to aid students’ comprehension of many of the electrical equations needed at GCSE.

Of course, any analogy or model will have its flaws, but on the whole I think the CTM has fewer than many of its rivals!

Essentially, the CTM pictures an electric circuit as a continuously moving chain of postively-charged “trucks” called coulombs that carry energy from the cell to (say) the bulb. In the diagram below, they should be pictured as moving clockwise.

The coulomb is, of course, the S.I. unit of electric charge, so rest assured that there is method in the apparent madness of naming our “trucks” with a word that would be unfamiliar to most of our students.

Charge flow = current x time

Charge flow = number of coulombs that pass a given point in time.

Current = number of coulombs that pass by in one second (i.e. current = charge flow / time).

In other words, an ammeter counts the coulombs passing by in one second. The ammeter only “sees” the coulombs and does not register how much (or how little) energy each one contains. Therefore current I1 and current I2 are equal.

The ammeters are shown as being semi-transparent in order to provide a visual cue that they are low resistance devices.

Energy transferred = charge flow x potential difference

On the CTM, potential difference can be pictured as energy being added to, or removed from, each coulomb.

For example, if one joule is removed from each coulomb as they pass through the bulb, the potential difference across the bulb is one volt. If one joule is added to each coulomb as they pass through the cell, then the potential difference (or e.m.f.) across the cell is one volt.

The total energy transferred from (say) ten coulombs passing through the bulb would be charge flow (10 coulombs) x potential difference (1 volt) = 10 joules.

The white gloves on the voltmeter are intended to be reminiscent of the white gloves of a snooker referee.

The intention is to disrupt the flow of the coulombs as little as possible and so this is a visual reminder that a voltmeter is a high resistance instrument.

To emphasise the fact that potential difference is an “energy difference”, challenge students to predict the reading on this voltmeter.

The potential difference V3 is, of course, zero since there is no transfer of energy to or from the coulombs.

Current in Series and Parallel Circuits

I think the CTM can be really effective in allowing students to a see a comprehensible physical analogue of the circuits.

For example, I3 = I4 = I5 = 0.5 amps; I6 = I11 = 2 amps; and I7 = I8 = I9 = I10 = 1 amp.

Potential difference in series and parallel circuit

Equally, I think the CTM can give a comprehensible physical picture of the situation.

In this case (assuming the the cell has a p.d. of 1 V and the bulbs are identical), V4 = V5 = 0.5 V.

In the parallel circuit, each bulb tranfers one joule of energy from each bulb, and so the potential difference across each bulb is one volt.

You can read more on the CTM here.


Filed under Coulomb Train Model, CTM, Education, Electricity, physics