Effectiveness of simulations in conceptual physics education: What’s a simulation and what’s the point?

To get this off the ground, an example of an interactive simulation (thanks PhET!):

The simulation is designed to illustrate the motion of a simple pendulum.  You can play with all different variables, including length of the pendulum, mass and gravitational pull to see how it affects the motion of the pendulum.  You can even play with larger magnitude swings and observe anharmonic motion.

This is a pretty typical example of an interactive physics simulation.  You can play with lots of different variables and see what the physics throws at you.

The aim of this research journal is to work out just how effective these simulations are in teaching conceptual physics.  The idea is that they should provide students with “open learning environments” (Esquembre, 2002, p. 16) and help kids progress their knowledge of physics through “a process of hypothesis-making and idea-testing” (Esquembre, 2002, p. 16).  Sounds great, right?  The fact of the matter is, changing kids’ misconceptions about the physical world is beyond hard.  Pre and post-testing for understanding of physical concepts reveal embarrassing results for traditional physics teaching methods (Hake, 1998).  Previous innovations – e.g. teaching in a “studio” format aimed at decreasing class size, increasing collaboration and use of computers – haven’t fared any better (Cummings, Marx, Thornton & Kuhl, 1999).

So, are they useful?

A quick survey of the literature returns a resounding… it depends.  There have been countless studies of the effectiveness of simulations in teaching physics concepts.  The results range from no effect to declaring simulations to be the messiah of conceptual physics education.  Surprise! It turns out that the type of simulation used and the context in which they are used counts for a lot, not to mention what we are comparing with.  There is a relatively large body of physics education research out there, and quite a few different teaching methods to compare with.

In my next post I’ll examine the arguments of those declaring the second coming.


Cummings K., Marx J., Thornton R and Kuhl D (1999) ‘Evaluationg innovation in studio physics,’ American Journal of Physics, vol. 67 no. 1 pp. S38-44.

Esquembre F. (2002) ‘Computers in physics education,’ Computer Physics Communications, vol. 147 nos. 1-2, pp. 13-18.

Hake R. (1998) ‘Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses,’ American Journal of Physics, vol. 66 no. 1, pp. 64-74.


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