Difficulties on conceptual understanding in physics

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The research findings based on literature show that students have difficulties on conceptual understanding in physics education and many students' conception about the topic of projectile motion is based on impetus theory that is also called as pre-Newtonian mechanics. The most common alternative conceptions of students about projectile motion are stated from the review of the research findings as the following:

A fired object firstly follows the way of firing direction and then, the object drops straight down by the effect of gravity (McCloskey, 1982).

When an object dropped from a plane, it tends to drop straight down (Millar & Kragh, 1994).

The gravity effecting on falling objects is more than the gravity effecting on stationary objects (Thagard, 1992; Vosniadou, 1994).

These types of beliefs are resulted from the students' misinterpretation of their observed everyday activities and educators have used different methods, theories and strategies to eliminate these consequences. At that point, experimentation has an important role on scientific knowledge and understanding of science and I think laboratory applications give opportunity for students to translate their observation about everyday situations to experiments. So, science teaching and learning cannot be thought separately from laboratory work.

I specially preferred to study about this topic because in the literature, there is no much study related with laboratory applications of projectile motion, especially, no findings that compares the effectiveness of hands-on experimentation with simulated experimentation when measuring the students' conceptual understanding of projectile motion.

The intent of this section is to provide perception through orderly and exactly review of the literature about the effectiveness of computer simulations in physics education. Research findings will be reviewed that include: the purpose of the laboratory works in physics education, the use of computer technology to support learning in physics education, and under this title; computer simulated experimentation versus hands-on experimentation.

The Purpose of the Laboratory Works in Physics Education

Activities based on observations, tests and experiments are generally named as laboratory applications in teaching the natural sciences and in physics curriculum, laboratories have been an essential component for more than a century. We can find so many studies in the literature that are describing the purposes of laboratory applications on many perspectives. So, Novak (1970) categorized them into four main perspectives, these are (as cited in Trumper, 2003): skills, concepts, the nature of science, and attitudes. When I compare the contextual purpose of each term with the general goals of science teaching, I see that they are very similar. So, it can be said that laboratory work was commonly valued as the primary income of teaching science.

Laboratories provides opportunity to conduct scientific experiments and they are also excellent settings for teaching and learning science since they provide opportunities for learners to develop their critical and inquiry thinking, discussing, and problem solving abilities. According to Thornton (1987), laboratory applications are placed less emphasis upon in courses since many experiment equipments are hard to use, fragile, unreliable, and costly. However, the introductions of both computers and Internet to the schools, now, computer simulations have been integrated into physics course as laboratory experimentations, near hand-on experiments.

When we look at the historical development in the application of laboratory works, along the 1970s, reviews of research in science education report that laboratory instruction based on hands-on experimentation improves students' conceptual understanding in science, but during the 1980s to today, the use of the computer as laboratory applications has demonstrated to be successful in overcoming misconceptions and in promoting conceptual understanding (Thornton, 1987; Choi and Gennaro, 1987; De Jong, Martin, Zamarro, Esquembre, Swaak, & Van Joolingen, 1999; Steinberg, 2000; Lunetta, 2003; Hofstein and Lunetta, 2004; Finkelstein, Adams, Keller, Kohl, Perkins, Podolefsky, Reid, & LeMaster, 2005).

As a result, although the goal of the laboratory work does not show any change in terms of supporting physics learning, the modification in the application of laboratory shows how technology is used as an alternative method to science learning, especially, by the use of computer simulation integrated experimentation.

The Use of Computer Technology to Support Learning in Physics Education

Computer technology has an effective potential on learning and a long this time a variety of computer applications have also been developed and used in teaching physics, such as spreadsheets, modeling, multimedia, simulations, tutorials, Internet and microcomputer-based laboratories. Besides, computer hardware and software have been developed for use in the science laboratory. However, according to Bernhard (2007), we must analyze the role of developing computer technology in physics education to understand and to use effectively the full potential of it. To explore supporter approaches to the use of computer simulations integrated physics laboratories, in this section; I analyzed the use of computer simulations as opposed to hands-on experimentation of physics learning from the literature.

Computer Simulated Experimentation versus Hands-on Experimentation

Laboratory experiments in physics education have a vital and central role on learning and teaching. In laboratory applications based on hands-on experience, students participate to the lecture actively and accordingly, their active participation encourages the meaningful learning of them (Edelson, 1998). Although hands-on experimentations present concrete experiences and opportunities to cope with student difficulties, using real materials during experiment process causes to consume time during instruction (Nussbaum & Novick, 1982; Lazarowitz & Tamir, 1994; Lunetta, 2003). For instance, if we look at the time duration for a single laboratory session, it is not possible for high school students to complete investigations of an activity that is students cannot initiate, conclude and understand the activity in such one laboratory session of time.

Choi and Gennaro (1987) explored the effectiveness of the use of computer simulations integrated laboratory applications, to compare with the hands-on laboratory experiences to increase the conceptual understanding of volume displacement in junior high school students. In addition, the sex of the students used as independent variable and the researchers intended to determine difference in performance when comparing males and females using the simulated experimentation in the learning of volume displacement concept. They reported that there was no significant difference in performance when comparing males and females and the simulated laboratory experiences were less time-consuming than real laboratory experiences, since the use of simulations make both students and teachers concentrate on the experiment rather than on the equipment. Then, for providing practical experiments, the use of computer simulations was found to be more advantageous than the real equipments with regard to time-consuming.

Hofstein and Lunetta (2004) described the modification of resources, methodologies for research and assessment in science laboratory in the last 20 years; through 1982 to 2003. In their context analysis study, they focused on the school laboratories considering contemporary practices and scholarship and emphasized on the technological developments of resources and standards in laboratories in the past 20 years. They stated that however the technology changed the application procedures of laboratory work in the 20 years; both hands-on laboratory and computer simulated laboratory experimentations always show a measurable advantage on development of students' laboratory manipulative skills.

On the other hand, Finkelstein et al. (2005) explored the outcomes of alternative use of computer simulations as a laboratory tool in the second semester of a large-scale introductory physics course. They formed a direct current laboratory to observe two groups of students; the students in the experimental group used a computer simulation that is related with an electron flow modeling, and the students in control group used real equipments to conduct the same experiment. They found that simulated experimentation are more beneficial than hands-on experimentation to improve students' manipulative skills in physics education. Like Choi and Gennaro (1987), Finkelstein et al. (2005) agreed that the use of simulations increase the understanding of students by focusing attention on the experiment rather than on the equipment.


In this section, I reviewed the effectiveness of using computer simulated experimentations in promoting students' conceptual understanding in physics education, by searching previous studies in this field from the literature. I saw that computer simulations are an effective tool to support physics learning and simulation supported physics learning and instruction promotes deep understanding of basic important concepts rather than memorizing.

In this empirical study, I planned to investigate not only the comparison between simulated laboratory experimentations and hands-on laboratory experimentation, but also what is possible student performance when both experimentation applications are applied together to same group.