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A Study of Educational Simulations Part II - Interface Design

August 17, 2008

Interactive computer simulations with complex representations and sophisticated graphics are a relatively new addition to the classroom, and research in this area is limited. We have conducted over 200 individual student interviews during which the students described what they were thinking as they interacted with simulations. These interviews were conducted as part of the research and design of simulations for the Physics Education Technology (PhET) project. PhET is an ongoing project that has developed over 60 simulations for use in teaching physics, chemistry, and physical science. These interviews are a rich source of information about how students interact with computer simulations and what makes an educationally effective simulation. The interviews demonstrate that the simulation must function intuitively or the student's attention is focused on how to use the simulation rather than on the topic presented. Here we provide guidelines for intuitive interface design developed by this research. These cover layout, tool use, help and representations that we use to create a simulation. We give examples from interviews which demonstrate the effectiveness of each guideline for engaging students in educationally productive interactions.

A Study of Educational Simulations Part I - Engagement and Learning

August 17, 2008

Interactive computer simulations with complex representations and sophisticated graphics are a relatively new addition to the classroom, and research in this area is limited. We have conducted over 200 individual student interviews during which the students described what they were thinking as they interacted with simulations. These interviews were conducted as part of the research and design of simulations for the Physics Education Technology (PhET) project. PhET is an ongoing project that has developed over 60 simulations for use in teaching physics, chemistry, and physical science. These interviews are a rich source of information about how students interact with computer simulations and what makes an educationally effective simulation. We have observed that simulations can be highly engaging and educationally effective, but only if the student's interaction with the simulation is directed by the student's own questioning. Here we describe our design process, what features are effective for engaging students in educationally productive interactions and the underlying principles which support our empirically developed guidelines. In a companion paper we describe in detail the design features used to create an intuitive simulation for students to use.

A Research-Based Curriculum for Teaching the Photoelectric Effect

June 10, 2008

Physics faculty consider the photoelectric effect important, but many erroneously believe it is easy for students to understand. We have developed curriculum on this topic including an interactive computer simulation, interactive lectures with peer instruction, and conceptual and mathematical homework problems. Our curriculum addresses established student difficulties and is designed to achieve two learning goals, for students to be able to (1) correctly predict the results of photoelectric effect experiments, and (2) describe how these results lead to the photon model of light. We designed two exam questions to test these learning goals. Our instruction leads to better student mastery of the first goal than either traditional instruction or previous reformed instruction, with approximately 85% of students correctly predicting the results of changes to the experimental conditions. On the question designed to test the second goal, most students are able to correctly state both the observations made in the photoelectric effect experiment and the inferences that can be made from these observations, but are less successful in drawing a clear logical connection between the observations and inferences. This is likely a symptom of a more general lack of the reasoning skills to logically draw inferences from observations.

Developing and Researching PhET simulations for Teaching Quantum Mechanics

January 17, 2008

Quantum mechanics is difficult to learn because it is counterintuitive, hard to visualize, mathematically challenging, and abstract. The Physics Education Technology (PhET) Project, known for its interactive computer simulations for teaching and learning physics, now includes 18 simulations on quantum mechanics designed to improve learning of this difficult subject. Our simulations include several key features to help students build mental models and intuitions about quantum mechanics: visual representations of abstract concepts and microscopic processes that cannot be directly observed, interactive environments that directly couple students' actions to animations, connections to everyday life, and calculations so students can focus on the concepts rather than the math. Like all PhET simulations, these are developed using the results of education research and feedback from educators, and are tested in student interviews and classroom studies. This article provides an overview of the PhET quantum simulations and their development. We also describe research demonstrating their effectiveness and share some insights about student thinking that we have gained from our research on quantum simulations.

Chemistry vs. Physics: A Comparison of How Biology Majors View Each Discipline

June 18, 2007

A student's beliefs about science and learning science may be more or less sophisticated depending on the specific science discipline. In this study, we used the physics and chemistry versions of the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS) to measure student beliefs in the large, introductory physics and chemistry courses, respectively. We compare how biology majors -- generally required to take both of the courses -- view these two disciplines. We find that these students' beliefs are more sophisticated about physics (more like the experts in that discipline) than they are about chemistry. At the start of the term, the average % Overall Favorable score on the CLASS is 59% in physics and 53% in chemistry. The students' responses are statistically more expert-like in physics than in chemistry on 10 statements (P lesser-than-or-equal-to 0.01), indicating that these students think chemistry is more about memorizing disconnected pieces of information and sample problems, and has less to do with the real world. In addition, these students' view of chemistry degraded over the course of the term. Their favorable scores shifted -5.7% and -13.5% in 'Overall' and the 'Real World Connection' category, respectively; in the physics course, which used a variety of research-based teaching practices, these scores shifted 0.0% and +0.3%, respectively. The chemistry shifts are comparable to those previously observed in traditional introductory physics courses.

Assessing the Effectiveness of a Computer Simulation in Introductory Undergraduate Environments

November 1, 2006

We present studies documenting the effectiveness of using a computer simulation, specifically the Circuit Construction Kit (CCK) developed as part of the Physics Education Technology Project (PhET) [1, 2], in two environments: an interactive college lecture and an inquiry-based laboratory. In the first study conducted in lecture, we compared students viewing CCK to viewing a traditional demonstration during Peer Instruction [3]. Students viewing CCK had a 47% larger relative gain (11% absolute gain) on measures of conceptual understanding compared to traditional demonstrations. These results led us to study the impact of the simulation's explicit representation for visualizing current flow in a laboratory environment, where we removed this feature for a subset of students. Students using CCK with or without the explicit visualization of current performed similarly to each other on common exam questions. Although the majority of students in both groups favored the use of CCK over real circuit equipment, the students who used CCK without the explicit current model favored the simulation more than the other group

Towards characterizing the relationship between students' interest in and their beliefs about physics

December 2, 2005

We examine the relationships between students' self-reported interest and their responses to a physics beliefs survey. Results from the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS v3), collected in a large calculusbased introductory mechanics course (N=391), were used to characterize students' beliefs about physics and learning physics at the beginning and end of the semester. Additionally students were asked at the end of the semester to rate their interest in physics, how it has changed, and why. We find a correlation between surveyed beliefs and self-rated interest (R=0.65). At the end of the term, students with more expert-like beliefs as measured by the 'Overall' CLASS score also rate themselves as more interested in physics. An analysis of students' reasons for why their interest changed showed that a sizable fraction of students cited reasons tied to beliefs about physics or learning physics as probed by the CLASS survey. The leading reason for increased interest was the connection between physics and the real world.

Assessing The Effectiveness Of A Computer Simulation In Conjunction With Tutorials In Introductory Physics In Undergraduate Physics Recitations

November 24, 2005

We present two studies documenting the effectiveness of the use of a computer simulation with Tutorials in Introductory Physics1 in a transformed college physics course.2 An interactive computer simulation, entitled the Circuit Construction Kit (CCK),3,4 was introduced to investigate its possible impact on students' conceptual understanding. The first study compared students using either CCK or real laboratory equipment to complete two Tutorials on DC circuits. The second study investigated the impact of the simulation's explicit representation for visualizing current flow by removing this feature for a subset of students. In the first study, students using CCK with Tutorials performed slightly better on measures of conceptual understanding compared to real equipment, as measured by exam performance soon after the intervention. In the second study, students using CCK with and without the explicit visualization of current performed similarly to students using real equipment, though on some specific questions we note significant variation in student performance. We discuss the implications of adding (or removing) such representations within computer simulations.

When learning about the real world is better done virtually: A study of substituting computer simulations for laboratory equipment

October 6, 2005

This paper examines the effects of substituting a computer simulation for real laboratory equipment in the second semester of a large-scale introductory physics course. The direct current circuit laboratory was modified to compare the effects of using computer simulations with the effects of using real light bulbs, meters, and wires. Two groups of students, those who used real equipment and those who used a computer simulation that explicitly modeled electron flow, were compared in terms of their mastery of physics concepts and skills with real equipment. Students who used the simulated equipment outperformed their counterparts both on a conceptual survey of the domain and in the coordinated tasks of assembling a real circuit and describing how it worked.

A New Instrument For Measuring Student Beliefs About Physics and Learning Physics: The Colorado Learning Attitudes About Science Survey

October 4, 2005

The Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS) is a new instrument designed to measure student beliefs about physics and about learning physics. This instrument extends previous work by probing additional aspects of student beliefs and by using wording suitable for students in a wide variety of physics courses. The CLASS has been validated using interviews, reliability studies, and extensive statistical analyses of responses from over 5000 students. In addition, a new methodology for determining useful and statistically robust categories of student beliefs has been developed. This paper serves as the foundation for an extensive study of how student beliefs impact and are impacted by their educational experiences. For example, this survey measures: that most teaching practices cause substantial drops in student scores; that a student's likelihood of becoming a physics major correlates with their 'Personal Interest' score; and that, for a majority of student populations, women's scores in some categories, including 'Personal Interest' and 'Real World Connections', are significantly different than men's scores.

Correlating Student Beliefs With Student Learning Using The Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey

May 11, 2005

A number of instruments have been designed to probe the variety of attitudes, beliefs, expectations, and epistemological frames taught in our introductory physics courses. Using a newly developed instrument -- the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS)[1] -- we examine the relationship between students' beliefs about physics and other educational outcomes, such as conceptual learning and student retention. We report results from surveys of over 750 students in a variety of courses, including several courses modified to promote favorable beliefs about physics. We find positive correlations between particular student beliefs and conceptual learning gains, and between student retention and favorable beliefs in select categories. We also note the influence of teaching practices on student beliefs.

The Design and Validation of the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey

May 10, 2005

The Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS) is a new instrument designed to measure various facets of student attitudes and beliefs about learning physics. This instrument extends previous work by probing additional facets of student attitudes and beliefs. It has been written to be suitably worded for students in a variety of different courses. This paper introduces the CLASS and its design and validation studies, which include analyzing results from over 2400 students, interviews and factor analyses. Methodology used to determine categories and how to analyze the robustness of categories for probing various facets of student learning are also described. This paper serves as the foundation for the results and conclusions from the analysis of our survey data