What the promoters of simulations have to say

The use of simulations in conceptual physics education has its diehard supporters. In an article (somewhat ostentatiously) titled “Transforming physics education” Wieman and Perkins (2005) promote their use by arguing that simulations can be used to effectively make students more “expert-like” in their approaches to physics. I take this to mean that they help to develop critical problem solving skills, though this isn’t made entirely clear. They argue that a traditional physics education, on the other hand, tends to make students more “novice-like.” They casually mention that their research indicates – without referencing any particular study – that simulations outperform experiments with real equipment. One serious point of misunderstanding here is that they apparently don’t differentiate between experiments and demonstrations (my point here is that one is interactive while the other is passive, which makes a huge difference in student learning outcomes). They then proceed to try to explain the unsubstantiated “gains” of simulations over experiments by reference to the idea of “cognitive load” and that simulations require much less of a cognitive burden, which in turn enhances learning opportunities. Please excuse my skepticism.

This does bring up an interesting point. What exactly is the point of a physics experiment in the classroom? Is it solely to enhance conceptual knowledge and confront students’ misconceptions? On this level it could indeed be true (though I haven’t seen any evidence to support this) that simulations outperform experiments, or more likely, demonstrations. On the other hand, aren’t there a lot of other very important learning goals and skills that are part of the point of physics experiments? Wieman and Perkins note in their argument for simulations over experiments that students often waste a great amount of time worrying about the color of the insulation on the wires they use in an experiment on circuits. So are we really saying that the point of a physics experiment has nothing to do with teaching the type of independent thinking skills that might be used to figure out that the color of the plastic insulation isn’t significant to the results of a physics experiment?

References

Wieman C. and Perkins K. (2005) ‘Transforming Physics Education,’ Physics Today, vol. 58, pp. 36-48.

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