Positive and Negative Acceleration

Back to Grade 11 & 12 Physics


This is a simple physics tutorial aimed at high school students in grades 11 and 12 (IB, HSC) that runs through the concept of positive and negative acceleration and how it compares to 'acceleration and deceleration'. Video tutorial to come shortly.


In previous material (and in everyday language), we've learned that:

Now we're going to move into more intricate definitions, and use the terms 'positive' and 'negative' acceleration.

What is Positive Acceleration?

Positive acceleration refers to any object that is experiencing a force acting on it in the same direction it is travelling in. In this scenario, the object increases speed, but continues to travel in the same direction.

What is Negative Acceleration?

Negative acceleration refers to any object that has a force acting on it in a direction that is opposite to what it is initially travelling in. In this scenario the object may:

Determining positive and negative acceleration

Step 1: Assign Signs

We can describe directions either with words (e.g. up/north or down/south) or with symbols (e.g. using the minus or plus symbols). Conventionally, we attribute positive signs to the north and east direction; and negative signs to the south and west.

Step 2: Perform Calculation

Use this equation to calculate acceleration.

Step 3: Determine if acceleration is positive or negative

Instinctively you'd think that if the calculated acceleration is positive, it means that the object is undergoing positive acceleration, and vice versa. This is not the case.

Instead, we need to compare the sign of the calculated acceleration with the sign of the initial velocity. What sign? I hear you ask. The sign that tells you what direction the initial velocity and the acceleration are in. Let's look at how we can define directions with signs.

If you're still not sure why we can't assume that the calculated acceleration sign is the same as the type of acceleration the object is undergoing, check out this tutorial.