Playing devil’s advocate: claims that simulations don’t lead to conceptual change

There have been a few studies suggesting no benefit to simulations in terms of conceptual understanding.  Ronen and Eliahu (2000) performed a study on year 9 students studying electric circuits.  Four classes took part; two of them were given an introduction to a program designed to present simulation-based activities and given the program to take home.  Surprisingly, apparently no record of the use of the program by the students was maintained.  When it came time to post-test the groups, it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that no differences between the groups was observed.  In a true Mythbusters moment (you know, when the pull out the C4 because the original method of blowing something up has failed), the researchers bizarrely decided to run a completely different trial where the simulation software could be used to test their ideas before they were assessed on the function of their circuit design.  The study wasn’t allowed to fail.

A much more interesting study was done by Steinberg (2000).  He took three different tutorial groups from the same university level introductory physics class, all three of whom used methods informed by physics education research.  Two tutorials used computer simulations, while the third used paper and pencil techniques in a similar fashion.  Students were pre and post-tested on their understanding of air resistance.  No difference was seen in the conceptual understanding between the two groups, though both saw very significant gains in their conceptual understanding of air resistance.

This finding really shouldn’t come as any surprise: of course it matters what teaching method we are comparing with.  There is nothing magical about simulations! This article brought up a number of really interesting issues, which I will expand on in my next and final post on this topic.


Ronen M. and Eliahu M. (2000), ‘Simulation – A bridge between theory and reality: The case of electric circuits,’ Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 16 pp. 14-26.

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


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