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Student Engagement and Learning with PhET

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DOI 10.1393/ncc/i2010-10623-0Colloquia:MPTL14IL NUOVO CIMENTO Online FirstStudent engagement and learning with PhETinteractive simulationsW. K. AdamsDepartment of Physics University of Colorado - Boulder, CO 80309, US(ricevuto il 12 Maggio 2010; pubblicato online il 23 Luglio 2010)Summary. — There is considerable evidence that PhET interactive simulationscan be powerful tools for achieving student learning of science. Recent researchconducted with PhET Interactive simulations has focused on the specific aspectsof simulations that help students build a conceptual understanding of the science;specifically the value of showing the invisible, the use of analogy and effective levelsof guidance with simulations. Educators have found that use of heavily guided ac-tivities does not elicit deep thinking and learning from students; while other studieshave found that with pure discovery learning students are not able to “discover”the science for themselves. Recent studies reveal that appropriate scaffolding ofthe material is needed to help students build a mental framework about concepts.Then students can construct their own understanding within this framework. Ourwork has focused on understanding how students use simulations to construct thismental framework and the effect levels of guidance have on students’ use of sim-ulations. Hundreds of individual student interviews have been conducted duringwhich the students describe what they were thinking as they interact with simula-tions. Careful analysis reveals that showing the invisible and use of analogy bothfacilitate students’ construction of their understanding; while the nature of guidanceinfluences the amount of student engagement.PACS 01.50.-i – Educational aids.PACS 01.50.F- – Audio and visual aids.1. – IntroductionPhET Interactive Simulations are a substantial (∼ 85) and growing suite of profes-sional quality simulations (sims) for teaching and learning science. The sims are freelydistributed from the PhET website http://PhET.colorado.edu, with roughly 10 mil-lion uses in the past year. The majority of PhET sims are for teaching physics but thereare a growing number in chemistry, biology, math and other sciences. Considerable re-search has investigated the use of PhET sims in a variety of educational settings (PhETTeam, 2009). Interactivity in computer simulations is known to be beneficial for learning,(Bodemer, 2004; van der Meij, 2006) but the degree of interactivity can vary greatly forc Societ`a Italiana di Fisica12 W. K. ADAMSFig. 1. – Typical student solution to a physics problem.different educational simulations. PhET sims provide a high degree of interactivity interms of user control, dynamic feedback, and multiple representations (Adams, 2008a;Adams, 2008b).As teachers we’ve all watched our students work through a problem that they “should”know how to do. After having heard a lecture or two on the material and read theappropriate section in the text book, problems are given such as the example in fig. 1. Thestudent works through each question seemingly without creating a mental representationor making sense of the equation. This can be seen in mistakes such as always puttingin zero for the initial velocity. Another common behavior is for students to forget whatthey have already found. In this typical example, the student finds an equation forquestion 4 and then gets stuck trying to find the final velocity when they just calculatedit in question 3!Educational researchers have found that with direct instruction students do not en-gage in their school work as a scientist would (Piaget, 1970). They do not investigate,explore, ask questions, make connections or deduce the rules. Instead they just answerwhat has been asked, transfer and retain very little. Why is this? One might postulatethat students don’t know how to be a scientist, or they don’t care and are in a hurry andthat they are underprepared so not able to do the work.In response to direct instruction not working, many educators tried pure discoverylearning. They’d supply students with a selection of equipment (batteries, light bulbs,magnet, a compass and wire) and tell them to figure out how to accomplish a certain task(figure out how the magnet can affect the light bulb). In activities such as this studentsare quickly overwhelmed, were confused without directions and have many false starts.Others have devised pure discovery activities that would have students being activelyproductive (build a paper boat that can hold the most paper clips) however, the studentscome away not knowing what is important or what they have learned (Mayer, 2004).This paper will briefly discuss learning theories about how to productively buildknowledge and different modes of student engagement. Students explore PhET simu-lations through engaged exploration which is a mode where they are exploring via theirown questioning demonstrating scientist-like behavior. A few classroom studies will beSTUDENT ENGAGEMENT AND LEARNING WITH PhET INTERACTIVE SIMULATIONS 3briefly described as well as an in depth interview study showing how sensitive this modeof engaged exploration is to the level of guidance that is provided.2. – Learning theoriesResearch on learning shows that students need a framework of the main ideas tobuild knowledge on (Bransford, 2004). In other words learning is an active processwhere students are active sense makers. Learning is thinking and not just doing. Directinstruction does not help students build their own mental framework while pure discoverymight help build a framework but it’d take about 500 years. Successful activities shouldhelp the student identify what is important, and build a mental framework for examiningthe phenomena. Without this framework, there are too many details to for students tofollow and remember.To build a framework students must be actively making sense—sense making mode—rather than simply looking for answers—student mode. For example a student maybelieve the problem is about doing math as in the example with the train in fig. 1. Inthis case, the student is plugging numbers into equations and often quickly goes downfruitless paths of calculating numbers—math mode. A rewording of the question couldput the student in the sense-making mode where they are expected to think about anddiscuss what could be going on rather than doing calculations (Dweck, 1999; Bing, 2008).Thus to help novices


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