Electric and magnetic fields frustrate me each year. They're abstract, leading to few simple quantitative demonstrations. They always seem to take their turn in the dark, cold, depressing months of January and February.* And students are perennially confused between the source of an electric or magnetic field, and the victim of said field.
* Except that these were the most wonderful months of the year when I taught in Florida.
Ah, but this year I'm going to do something about that last point.
The AP Physics B redesign is said to be emphasizing "big ideas," physics themes which resonate beyond a particular topic. For example, the idea of a conservation law permeates physics from mechanics, to rotation, to electronics, to nuclear physics... It takes a substantial level of real physics understanding to explain what quantities might be conserved in a specific situation, and why they are conserved, and just what exactly it means that a quantity is conserved. Once the concept can be clearly and thoroughly articulared, the algebra involved in applying conservation of foo is generally trivial. And so it goes with the concept of the field: Once students get comfortable with the idea that a field of any sort is used to calculate the force on an object, using that force in a Newton's second law calculation becomes trivial.
Students become unintentionally familiar with the gravitational field g as the "conversion" between kilograms and newtons -- one kilogram on Earth weighs 10 N, but on Mars weighs only 4 N. W = mg serves as what I call the "bible equation" for the gravitational field -- it relates the force on a massive particle to the gravitational field. Once that gravitational force is known, this force can be drawn on free body diagrams and used in a newton's second law calculation just like tension, friction, or any other force.
Now, those of us who are experienced physicists know that the source of this gravitational field is the enormous mass of the Earth applying on all other massive objects, via Newton's law of gravitation F = GMm / r2. But I ask you... who in his or her right mind teaches first-year physics students F = GMm / r2 BEFORE W = mg? No one. Don't be silly.
So why, why, why does every textbook in the universe teach F = kQq / r2 before F = qE?!?
For many years, I've begun electrostatics with the definition of an electric field via F = qE, completely ignoring what might cause such a field. A field simply exists in space. If a charge is placed in the field, that charge experiences a force qE in the direction of or opposite to the field, depending on the sign of the charge. Only much later have I broached the confusing subject of fields produced by point charges or parallel plates.
Not only has this approach been effective in getting students to succeed on AP Physics B - style electrostatics problems... in their second year calculus-based AP Physics C course, my students have little trouble with electrostatics. We can calculate an electric field using superposition, Gauss's law, calculus, whatever -- everyone understands that, once we have an electric field from any source, F = qE.
Currently I'm teaching Honors Physics I, which is intended to anticipate the AP Physics I redesign, rather than AP Physics B. The "big idea" of a field permeates several different physics topics, and so is ripe for conceptual investigation. In Honors Physics I, I will ignore sources of electric fields completely. I want the class to be able to explain what a field does to a charged particle, not necessarily how the field came to be. And I'll do the same thing with magnetic fields: We'll discuss the bible equation F = qvB, and the right hand rule for the direction of the magnetic force on a charged particle. That's it. Magnetic fields due to current-carrying wires can wait for Physics C.
I encourage you to try ignoring the source of the electric or magnetic field. If you're teaching to an exam (i.e. AP or Regents) that requires discussion of a field's source, throw that in as part of review at the end of the unit, or even at the end of the year. Electricity and magnetism will never be easy for first-year students, but by simplifying the initial introduction to fields, you'll get better results long term.