Effectiveness of using computer simulations

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The aim of this study is to investigate the effectiveness of using computer simulations as laboratory application to promote students' conceptual understanding of projectile motion concepts in physics education when compared to hands-on laboratory experimentation. I first reviewed the use of computer simulations in physics education and then the instrument 'Projectile Motion Concept Test' (PMCT) that measures the conceptual understanding of students' in projectile motion was determined by related literature on this subject. Secondly, the study is planned to conduct in one of the public high school; Mehmet Emin Resulzade Anatolian High School in Ankara, in Turkey. Two classes from available five classes will be randomly assigned as the experimental group; simulated laboratory experimentation and the control group; hands-on laboratory experimentation. Before the study, each group will take PMCT as pre-test and for experimental group; applied simulation is obtained from free online physics education technology (PhET) group. At the end of the study, students in both groups will take the same test as post-test. Then, scores of each individual's pre- and post-test will be subtracted from each other to examine which method is the most effective in promoting conceptual understanding in physics.


Physics has mythically been considered a complex topic and the basic foundation in physics education is to ensure conceptual learning of students by using the most effective method. However, researchers noted that many students are not setting a satisfactory conceptual understanding of basic physics in the physics courses (Goldberg & Bendall, 1995). Then, many teachers have found that to be effective learners, students must be actively involved in the classroom. Some traditional methods for involving students have them do board work, practice in problem solving sessions, and gain experiences in understanding the physics in the surrounding environment. Although board work and problem sessions do involve the students, the trend in physics education today is to enhance student understanding through the use of demonstrations and hands-on laboratories; and in addition, to supplement the hands-on experience, teachers are using computers to enhance student learning.

Then, the aim of the research reported in this proposal was to determine whether computer applications, especially, computer simulations are more effective to facilitate conceptual understanding of students on projectile motion than hands-on experiences. This research compares students' conceptual understanding about projectile motion after a laboratory experience based on both hands-on experiment and computer simulation.

Background of the Study

At high school level 'Projectile Motion' is considered as the motion of a particle when projected in any direction and subject only to gravitational acceleration. The motion lies entirely in a vertical plane containing the direction of the initial velocity that is the motion is two dimensional. 'Projectile motion Unit' includes some basic concepts; these are: angle, initial speed, mass, kinematics, acceleration, position, velocity, gravity, motion and air resistance. At that point, many students have difficulties on their conceptual understanding of important concepts of projectile motion (McCloskey, 1982). Although different teaching strategies is used to increase students learning, any research provide 'a formula for optimal teaching and learning' (Knight, 2002, p.4) more than laboratory experimentation in science teaching.

In today, there are two types of laboratory applications: hands-on laboratory and simulated laboratory experimentations. When operationally defined, a hands-on physics laboratory presents laboratory content in a way that students involve in an active learning with real materials and observe how the physical phenomena occur. Then, hands-on learning provides opportunity for the learners to observe a real world experience and to interact with the situation by using real materials. On the other hand, a simulated physics laboratory means a computer simulation integrated experimentation and includes the use of the computer to simulate dynamic systems of objects in a real or imagined world situation (Bernhard, 2007) and in contrast to the hands-on laboratory; simulated laboratory provides opportunity for the learners to observe a real world experience that are costly, unfeasible or risky to conduct.

Although, a variety of other computer applications have also been developed and used in teaching physics, in terms of laboratory applications, the use of the computer simulations has established to be successful in overcoming misconceptions and in promoting conceptual understanding (Thornton, 1987). Then, the present study tries to obtain management from earlier investigations in order to examine the effectiveness of using computer simulations in laboratory applications for physics education.

Computer Simulations

Researchers stated that using simulated laboratory applications in the instructional contexts should provide opportunities for the learners to promote their understanding in science education (De Jong, Martin, Zamarro, Esquembre, Swaak, & Van Joolingen, 1999). Then, computer simulations are effective tools that can be easily used in the classrooms, with the aim of increasing conceptual understanding (Jimoyiannis & Komis, 2001).

The use of simulations as a learning tool has been extant throughout the history of science teaching and the common use of computers also tended educators to conduct simulated laboratories during science teaching. An educational computer simulation is an instructional tool that provides both educators and learners to relate with an instruction based on computer application of either 'a scientific model of the real world or a scientific model of theoretical system' (Lunetta, 2003). The three main features of simulation are defined by Gagné as the following (1981; as cited in Lunetta, 2003):

(1) A simulation serves an actual position in which operations are transmitted;

(2) A simulation provides both educators and learners with certain controls over the experimental position;

(3) A simulation disregards defined distracting variables which are inappropriate or unimportant for the particular instructional goals

According to Lunetta (2003), there are two main processing steps during assessing simulated laboratory application. In the first step, each individual or each group in the laboratory conducts the simulation without explanations of directional of the instructor. Then, the instructor administers a worksheet related with the phenomena on the simulation and the worksheet includes questions that want students to describe the progress of the observations made during the simulation and to draw conclusions.

With the common use of both the Internet and computer technologies in educational instruction, it was inevitable for both researchers and educators to integrate computer simulations in the science learning and teaching. The effects of computer simulations on higher learning outcomes have been proved and accepted by many researchers, for example, forming the connection between concrete and abstract reasoning. In addition, use of computer simulations makes complex systems reachable for students with different ages, abilities, and learning levels (De Jong et al., 1999). The emphasis of using computer simulations in laboratory environment is on experiences, rather than explanations. This does not mean that the explanations are not important; however, the main aim of the use of simulated laboratory environments is to promote experiential learning.

As a result, the computer simulations are designed to provide empirical data, as well as a visual representation/experience of the data in the form of real-time graphs, to initiate cognitive conflict and to stimulate group discussion of the concepts involved.

Purpose of the Study

In traditional approach, there are basically three stage processes to teach projectile motion; firstly, relevant knowledge is presented; secondly, sample solutions are shown in the textbook or on the blackboard; and then, students practice solving similar problems (Tynjälä, 1999). The combination of three stage process unfortunately provides a little students' conceptual understanding on related topic, and they do not really understand the important concepts.

On the other hand, a constructivist approach is more likely to help students deal with their conceptual understanding by connecting the new and old concepts and the teacher's role is to provide a rich environment where satisfactory connections between these new concepts and their prior knowledge can be made (Tynjälä, 1999). On that view, laboratory experiments have an important role on providing this connection and a well developed and realistic simulation can provide the visual presentation of a live experiment.

This study aimed at exploring effectiveness of simulated laboratory experimentation as a laboratory application in physics education. Specifically, the effectiveness of learning projectile motion with computer simulations being used as laboratory experience was determined when compared with hands-on experience.

Research Question

The main purpose of this experimental research project is to evaluate the effectiveness of the computer simulations in physics instruction and learning. This study, therefore, required to address the following research question:

What is the effect of using computer simulations as laboratory experimentation compared to using hands-on experimentation on students' conceptual understanding of projectile motion in the physics classroom?

Studies conducted on comparing computer simulated laboratory experimentation with hands-on laboratory experimentation revealed that students that are instructed in simulated laboratory environment performed higher than students that are instructed in hands-on experiment environment on junior high school students' understanding of volume displacement (Choi and Gennaro, 1987), and for this study, I expect that students exposed to the simulated laboratory experimentation would score significantly higher on the conceptual understanding of projectile motion measures than students exposed to hands-on laboratory experimentation.

Significance and Need of the Study

Student's specific conceptual and reasoning difficulties have clearly characterized in projectile motion and, with the appropriate use of simulated laboratory environment, physics teaching and learning becomes more interactive, inquiry, collaborative, near fun and engaging. So, examining students understanding of this topic with a previously administered misconception test will assess effectiveness of using simulations.

A long this time, I have stated about the contributions of the use of computer simulations to support the students' science learning in classrooms; however, there should be some limitations during processing in terms of computer usability skills of both teachers and students and computer numbers for each student. I would try to eliminate these limitations during sample selection.

As a result, my justification for investigating this study is that the increasingly widespread availability of computers in high schools makes them an attractive alternative for instruction; and also, the widespread availability of Internet technology increases the use of computer simulations in physics instructions. There are so many free, useful simulations on the Internet and teachers can easily get access to the free instructional simulation websites. However, if we consider laboratory applications in Turkey, for doing a hands-on experiment, it is hard to find all necessary materials in the school laboratory. Moreover, think that you find the all necessary materials for one experiment, number of materials commonly inadequate for applying group activities. Then, I believe, using computer simulations for laboratory science instruction will provide some advantages such as; safety, cost-efficiency, minimization of flexible, rapid, and dynamic data displays to teaching and learning. Moreover, this research study can useful and helpful not only for teachers and researchers, but also for simulation developers in terms of describing the relationship between science and technology and the effective use of them together.


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 et al., 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 is 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.


As mentioned, this study deals with the following research question:

What is the effect of using computer simulations as laboratory experimentation compared to using hands-on experimentation on students' conceptual understanding of projectile motion in the physics classroom?

Then, in this chapter, research procedures, especially, experimental design, methods, sampling and instrumentation for measuring effectiveness of simulated laboratory experiences in promoting conceptual understanding of physics learning are described in detailed.

Experimental Design

This study will operate an experimental research design. The independent variable is the type of instructional technique; these are: using simulated laboratory experimentation (USLE) or using hands-on laboratory experimentation (UHLE) and the dependent variable of this study is students' conceptual understanding score. Students in the simulated laboratory experimentation form the experimental group and students in the hands-on laboratory experimentation are the control group.

The study will employ a static group pretest-posttest design. Before the intervention, all participating students will take a pre-test and the pre-test scores will be used to analyze students' prior knowledge about projectile motion on a test performance. The post-test scores will be used as the dependent variable and in the analyzing the data, each individual's pre-test score will be subtracted from his or her post-test score, thus permitting analysis of gain or change. Then, the application of the same instrument twice will provide me evaluate the change in their conceptual understanding in the topic of projectile motion by using a misconception test (see sample questions of English version in Appendix A). Also, the comparison of pre-post test results will provide data for quantitative analyses.

In high school curriculum, the projectile motion unit is conducted over a 4 weeks period and the administration of pre-test will be at the beginning of the semester, not at the beginning of the projectile motion unit. In addition, the post-test will be administered at the end of the 4 weeks period and between the beginning of the semester and the end of the 4 weeks period, there is about two months time duration. So, this duration of time between pre- and posttesting is sufficient to control and to decrease the possibility of a testing threat for constructing an educational research (Fraenkel & Wallen, 2003, p.183).

As mentioned, a pretest-posttest, static group design will be utilized in this study. I do not need to utilize a quasi experimental design which is based on matching. Although it is more effective design than static group design, since the members of each matched class were assigned to the classes with equal proportion of their CGPA (that is cumulative GPA) of 9th class during determining mathematics-science sections by the administration. So, according to the statement of school administration, all individuals who want to attend mathematics-science program are assigned to each classes with equal proportion, especially considering CGPA of 9th class and gender. In that case, application system during class formation provides this study control subject characteristics.

Then, the design for instrumentation is figured as shown at the below.

Hands-on lab represents the control group, applying physics laboratory work based on hands-on (X1); simulated lab represents the experimental group, applying physics laboratory work based on computer simulations (X2). (X3) group will be administered both hands-on and simulated laboratory application together and lastly, (O) represents the misconception test about projectile motion which provides to measure conceptual understanding of students.


I planned to conduct this study with all 11th grade level mathematics-science grade students in three different public high schools in Ankara; however, since MEB only permitted to administer in one school; the accessible population of the study is all 11th grade level mathematics-science program students in Mehmet Emin Resulzade Anatolian high school. I preferred this school, since the students in this high school are familiar of simulation supported instructions since MEB has had on trail effectiveness of simulation tool: NOVA for science education at that school. I planned to observe all five mathematics-science classes; however, since the school administration does not let to use all classes, I will observe the physics courses of 3 mathematics-science classes that are randomly selected from available 5 classes. Then, total numbers of the samples are about 86 and both male and female students that are going to participate in the study with ages ranging from fifteen to seventeen years of age.

The study will employ convenience sampling, because the school is a public school, I have no chance to manipulate the members of the three treatment groups that will be assigned randomly from five classes. So, I can only conduct this study with the available students from the randomly assigned three classes. In that case, randomly assigned first group includes 28 students that forms the experimental group and the 28 USLE are composed of 13 female and 15 male; randomly assigned second group forms the control group with 28 students and 28 UHLE are composed of 12 female and 16 male and lastly, third group will be administered to both hands-on and simulated laboratory experimentation together with 30 students.


As I have mentioned, I have two treatment groups and I had planned to apply this study by including three classes, because first random class will be instructed by using simulation labs (USLE), second random class will be instructed by using hands-on experiment labs (UHLE) and the last class will be instructed using both simulation and hands-on experiment (USLE&UHLE). Simulation will be used after application of hand-on experiments and same physics teacher will attend to all three classes to control the treats that should be resulted from the instructor.

For control group, necessary hands-on laboratory experimentation equipments will be provided with necessary numbers of the students and for experimental group, computers and computer simulations will be set on all students' tables that is the lecture will be instructed in computer laboratory where there is enough computers for all members of the class.

Computer Simulations

The simulations were selected from the online-free website which is name is the physics education technology (PhET). This website is made by the physics educators at University of Colorado at Boulder. Since the simulations are freely accessible for all instructors and learners, and also, simulation packages can easily downloadable, in this study, I selected some simulations in 'Projectile Motion' package and will use them as a learning tool. This package includes topics related with projectile motion; these are: angle, initial speed, mass, kinematics, acceleration, position, velocity, gravity, motion and air resistance. The students who are going to be instructed in simulated laboratory experiments are familiar of the simulation environment since they have previously instructed to test simulation tool NOVA by MEB. After the instruction of some basic concepts related with projectile motion, the simulation learning experiences will be tutored to all students in this group (see sample pictures of English version in Appendix B).


In this study, I will examine students' performance under three treatment conditions: (1) traditional physics laboratory work; hands-on experimentation without computer simulations, (2) physics laboratory work with computer simulations, and (3) integrated physics laboratory work with both hands-on experimentation and computer simulations.

All participating students in three treatment groups will take the projectile motion pre-test. These scores will be used to estimate the students' previous concept knowledge before the intervention. Students in the hands-on experimentation group will apply laboratory work traditionally by using necessary equipments for projectile motion experiment. Students in the simulated laboratory group will use a projectile motion simulation which is prepared by the PhET group. Third treatment group will firstly apply hands-on laboratory experiments and then will use simulations. As a result, all treatment groups would apply similar experiments with different methods and would observe the same results.

In general, students in each group are going to be set equal opportunities to achieve the laboratory experiments. In that case, all three groups will complete the same worksheet during the application of experiments. The worksheet includes questions that want students describe the progress of experimental event and its result. So, its aim is to make students be aware of about what they are doing during laboratory work.


Measures of student conceptual understanding in projectile motion. The Projectile Motion Concepts Test (PMCT) will be used in that study to measure of student conceptual understanding in that topic and it was developed by Dilber, Karaman, and Duzgun (2009). PMCT contains 22 multiple-choice questions. (see sample items of English version in Appendix A). Each question has five choices with one correct answer and four distracters; and also, each item measures a specific learning outcome. The reliability (alpha) estimate of 0.79 was stated for this test by Dilber et al. (2009), and this value noticeably high for both an experimental research study and a misconception test (Maloney, O'Kuma, & Hieggelke, 2001).

When I looked at the test development process according to Dilber et al. (2009), in the first step, our curriculum's objective about the unit projectile motion were matched with the students' misconceptions in projectile motion that was formed from the related literature (Prescott & Mitchelmore, 2005; Tao & Gunstone, 1999). Then, the test items were modified as the each item and choice would measure the students' alternative conceptions related to projectile motion. In that case, I preferred to conduct this test since all items aim to measure only the conceptual understanding, there is no need for quantitative calculations to answer questions and in terms of subject characteristics, the mathematical skills of the students would not create a problem during the analyzing students' performance.

This projectile motion concepts test will be used as pre-post test in that study. Before the intervention, all participating students will take it as pre-test and the pre-test scores will be used to test for in-depth analysis of students' performance. After intervention, it will be applied as post-test and in the analyzing the data, each individual's pre-test score will be subtracted from his or her post-test score, thus permitting analysis of gain or change.

Statistical analysis. The pre-treatment and post-treatment results of the PMCT will be analyzed for statistical significance through the standard scores and matched t-test.