Research Summary

Computer simulations to support science instruction and learning: A critical review of the literature

Computer Simulations Support Science Teaching

International Journal of Science Education
2012

In 1998, the national ratio of students to computers with internet access was 12:1; by 2008, the ratio dropped to 3:1. Technology now plays a central role in many schools, and often there is pressure for schools to use technology even more. Computers are used in a variety of ways in the classroom, but perhaps the most promising application is in computer simulations, which the authors of this paper define as "computer generated, dynamic models of the real world and its processes." Animations, visualizations, and interactive laboratories are all examples of computer simulations, and they can be used by students individually, in small groups, or as a whole class.

The authors of this paper reviewed research published since 1972 on the effectiveness of computer simulations in K-12 and college science teaching. Their search yielded 61 articles that focused on how computer simulations promote content knowledge, science process skills, and conceptual change, along with issues surrounding how simulations are used in the classroom.

In general, the review indicated that computer simulations are often better than, or are almost always at least as good as, traditional science teaching. Most of the results (49 of 61) indicate that simulations produce better results than traditional teaching. Eleven studies showed the two approaches to be equal, and just one of the studies reviewed found traditional approaches to yield better results.

In particular, the authors found that the published research demonstrated that computer simulations were effective at boosting content knowledge and science process skills, but that guidance and support from the teacher were critical. In an example of interest to environmental educators, the authors describe one study in which two groups of college students participated in three educational sessions related to oceanography. Both groups experienced identical first and last sessions, but one group's second session occurred in the field while the other's consisted of a computer simulation. There was no difference in overall learning between the two groups, but the simulation group produced better sketches than the field group. The authors explain, "The researchers concluded that while the fieldwork provided an authentic experience, the simulated work provided a model-based experience that also offered visualization opportunities not possible in the field.”

The literature review also suggests that simulations can be used effectively with a cognitive dissonance model of education, in which students’ initial beliefs about a subject are exposed and explored as they move toward adopting more scientifically sound understandings. The reviewed papers all showed that simulations help expose students’ initial beliefs, but the papers also acknowledge that changing those beliefs over the long term is challenging.

Some of the papers reviewed explored how simulations are used in the classroom. The findings suggest that providing supplemental text and demonstrations, allowing the students the flexibility to explore ideas, and providing immediate feedback are effective design features. Whole-class use of simulations also proved effective. Most of the papers emphasized the important role of the teacher in guiding the students.

The authors conclude that three key themes emerged from the review. Computer simulations are most effective when:

1. They are used to supplement, not replace, other instructional modes;
2. Students are provided with high-quality support structures; and
3. They are used to promote cognitive dissonance.

The authors point to weaknesses in research conducted to date that might be addressed by other researchers and suggest directions for future research. They conclude that the results of their review are “quite encouraging,” and explain:
"Knowing that it is just as effective for students to make observations and collect data about celestial objects from a computer simulation as it is for them to make observations in nature is important information for the teacher whose students live in places where night-time observations are unrealistic or unsafe. In addition to being at least as effective as other traditional practices, computer simulations provide students with opportunities to be actively involved in the kind of inquiry-based, authentic science explorations called for by science education reform efforts. Furthermore, advantages such as time and cost efficiency, safety, and the ability to cater to differences among learners make computer simulations an attractive option for today’s classrooms."

The Bottom Line

Research conducted over the past 40 years on the impact of computer simulations on science teaching indicates that this technology is effective. The research suggests that computer simulations are most effective when they are used to supplement other education techniques, when students receive guidance and support from their teacher, and when they help create cognitive dissonance by exposing students’ initial ideas and moving them toward more scientifically sound ideas.