It’s all about engagement and context matters!

Steinberg (2000) observed all sorts of variable behavior in how simulations were used.  Some students used a trial and error method with virtually no cognitive input in order to find the correct answer.  This description reminded me of the familiar observation of students keeping a finger in the back-of-the-book-solutions to a set of textbook problems while employing the plug-n-chug method so commonly used in introductory physics classes (for anyone unfamiliar, this refers to students plugging in the numbers given in the formulaically written question to the correct formula, with little to no conceptual understanding).  What I’m getting at here is that there is a common theme in all of the research I’ve read on the topic, that simulations are successful as a learning tool to the extent to which they engage the student in an active learning process, a view which is supported by Hake’s (1997) substantial meta-study of interactive engagement versus traditional teaching methods.

Physics students face a perhaps uniquely challenging task in facing the need to confront powerful personal misconceptions about the way the universe works.  The extent to which simulations are used to force the breakdown of these misconceptions through the powerful cycle of “predict-observe-explain” (Tao and Gunstone, 1999, p. 859) seems to largely determine their usefulness.  Simulations are certainly not unique in their potential to achieve this type of conceptual change, but seem to offer promise as a powerful tool towards that end when used properly.

Tao and Gunstone (1999) attempted to find an explanation of the method by which conceptual change is attained through the use of computer simulations.  They regularly interviewed 12 year 10 physics students through a unit on force and motion about their conceptual understanding of these topics and their interactions with the simulations.  Their main finding was that conceptual change is both very fragile and context dependent.  Students may accept a new explanation for a given scenario when confronted with the failure of their previous idea, but may also revert to their old explanation at a later time or fail to carry over the conceptual change to a new context.

How does this fit in with the other research I’ve discussed?  It may go some way to explaining how difficult it is to attain broad conceptual change in physics education, for one.  It also brings up other possible problems to do with substituting simulations for real world experiments.  If conceptual change really is so context dependent, might it be dangerous to base a lot of conceptual physics education on a computer based simulation?  In a world where students already fail to see the relevance of classroom physics to their every day lives, could we be widening this gap of perceived relevance by using a tool so detached from every day experience?  Then again, maybe it couldn’t get much worse!


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.

Steinberg R. (2000), ‘Computers in teaching science: to simulate or not to simulate?’ American Journal of Physics , vol. 68 no. 7, pp. S37-41.

Tao P.K. and Gunstone R.F. (1999), ‘The Process of Conceptual Change in Force and Motionduring Computer-Supported Physics Instruction,’ Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 36 no. 7, pp. 859-882.

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