Thermal physics is in the realm of everyday experience, underlies current environmental concerns, and underpins studies in sciences, health and engineering. In the state of NSW in Australia, the coverage of thermal topics in high school is minimal, and, hence, so is the conceptual understanding of students. This study takes a new approach at exploring conceptions of students with a qualitative analysis facilitated by NVivo complemented with reference to sociocultural ideas of learning. A 2-part pen and paper question was given to 598 first year university students of different educational backgrounds (and therefore physics expertise). ‘The Question’ was based on 2 familiar scenarios and required the selection of a concept first, followed by an explanation. The results showed that concepts were favoured based on a student’s everyday experience and their curriculum through high school, and some were more effective than others in making scientifically congruent responses. The reported thermal physics alternative conceptions were also examined in our sample, and students’ reasoning behind such conceptions indicate that some conceptions do not inhibit scientifically congruent responses whilst others do. The results implicate language and the everyday experiences of the student in the teaching and learning of thermal physics.