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International Journal of Science Education


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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning: A critical review of the literature
Lara Kathleen Smetana & Randy L. Bell
a b a b

Loyola University Chicago, School of Education, Chicago, IL, USA

University of Virginia, Curry School of Education, Charlottesville, VA, USA Available online: 09 Aug 2011

To cite this article: Lara Kathleen Smetana & Randy L. Bell (2011): Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning: A critical review of the literature, International Journal of Science Education, DOI:10.1080/09500693.2011.605182 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2011.605182

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International Journal of Science Education 2011, 134, iFirst Article

RESEARCH PAPER

Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning: A critical review of the literature
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Lara Kathleen Smetanaa and Randy L. Bellb


a b

School of Education, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA; Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA

Researchers have explored the effectiveness of computer simulations for supporting science teaching and learning during the past four decades. The purpose of this paper is to provide a comprehensive, critical review of the literature on the impact of computer simulations on science teaching and learning, with the goal of summarizing what is currently known and providing guidance for future research. We report on the outcomes of 61 empirical studies dealing with the efcacy of, and implications for, computer simulations in science instruction. The overall ndings suggest that simulations can be as effective, and in many ways more effective, than traditional (i.e. lecture-based, textbook-based and/or physical hands-on) instructional practices in promoting science content knowledge, developing process skills, and facilitating conceptual change. As with any other educational tool, the effectiveness of computer simulations is dependent upon the ways in which they are used. Thus, we outline specic research-based guidelines for best practice. Computer simulations are most effective when they (a) are used as supplements; (b) incorporate high-quality support structures; (c) encourage student reection; and (d) promote cognitive dissonance. Used appropriately, computer simulations involve students in inquiry-based, authentic science explorations. Additionally, as educational technologies continue to evolve, advantages such as exibility, safety, and efciency deserve attention.

Keywords: Literature review; Information technology; Science education; Computer simulations

Corresponding author: School of Education, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA. Email: lsmetana@luc.edu

ISSN 0950-0693 (print)/ISSN 1464-5289 (online)/11/00000134 # 2011 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2011.605182

2 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell Introduction As digital technologies become increasingly pervasive features of our society and as students become ever more tech-savvy, there has been increased pressure to bring educational technologies into classrooms. The National Center for Education Statistics reports on the state of technology in K-12 education indicated that the nationwide ratio of public school students to instructional computers with Internet access was 3.1 in 2008, down from 12.1 in 1998 (Gray, Thomas, & Lewis, 2010; Wells & Lewis, 2006). Technology advocates have claimed that computer technologies can transform learning by providing increased access to information, offering teachers and students opportunities to collaborate with peers and experts, express and communicate ideas, and explore topics in ways that would otherwise be difcult in a classroom context (Honey, 2001; Schacter, 1999; Sivin-Kachala & Bialo, 2000; Songer, 2007). Yet, despite the billions of dollars spent purchasing and supporting educational technology and its potential benets, it has not, in a generic sense, had the impact on teaching and learning that proponents predicted (Norris, Sullivan, Poirot, & Soloway, 2003; Viadero, 2007). Educational technologies have been poorly integrated into classrooms (Songer, 2007) and often get used in limited ways to simply maintain rather than transform prevailing instructional practices (Cuban, 2001, p. 73). Technologies that support content-based instruction, which are student-centered, inquiry-based, and make scientic views more accessible have the most potential to make a positive difference in science teaching and learning (Flick & Bell, 2005; Means et al., 1993; Sivin-Kachala & Bialo, 2000). Computer simulations, which we dene as computer generated, dynamic models of the real world and its processes, meet these criteria. They present theoretical or simplied models of real-world components, phenomena, or processes. Examples include animations, visualizations, and interactive laboratories; a wide variety is freely and commercially available on the Internet and in conjunction with textbooks and other print and digital curricular materials. In contrast to multi-user virtual worlds and environments, simulation users are not fully immersed in the computer-generated world for extended time periods. Computer simulations also have a primary educational purpose as opposed to technologies designed to be entertaining yet educational. Computer simulations provide many advantages to support calls for inquiry-based, learner- and knowledge-centered instruction (National Research Council, 1996). For example, simulations offer the advantage of exibility, promoting students active engagement in problem-solving and higher-order thinking and reinforced practice (Berlin & White, 1986; Hargrave & Kenton, 2000; Lee, 1999). Thus, computer simulations have the potential to make instruction more interactive and authentic and make learning abstract concepts more concrete (Ramasundarm, Grunwald, Mangeot, Comerford, & Bliss, 2005). They allow students to confront their own beliefs by working with and receiving immediate feedback about original and/or real data and making personalized problem-solving decisions (Hargrave & Kenton, 2000; Lee, 1999; Rose & Meyer, 2002). This high degree of openness provides students with signicant ownership of the learning process. Teachers can use simulations

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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 3 to cater to differences among learners, making decisions about the appropriate guidance and scaffolding needed (Henderson, Eshet, & Klemes, 2000). Finally, computer simulations offer the opportunity to re-create aspects of the real world that would otherwise be too complex, time-consuming, or dangerous to do in a conventional classroom setting (Akpan, 2002). In a simulated environment, time changes can be speeded up or slowed down; abstract concepts can be made concrete and tacit processes made visible. Teachers can focus students attention on learning objectives when real-world environments are simplied, causality of events is clearly explained, and extraneous cognitive load are reduced through the simulation (de Jong & van Joolingen, 1998). The potential advantages of instructional uses of computer simulations have led researchers to explore the effectiveness of computer simulations for supporting science teaching and learning during the past four decades. In turn, a number of reviews have previously been published on this research. These include both metaanalyses (Bayraktar, 2001; Kulik, 1994; Lee, 1999) as well as narrative reviews (Akpan, 2001; deJong & van Joolingen, 1998; Thomas & Hooper, 1991; Weller, 1996). However, the scope and time frame covered by previous reviews limit their utility for addressing questions about the effectiveness of more recent computer simulations. For example, Kuliks (1994) meta-analysis includes only six studies involving science computer simulations in particular, most from the 1970s. While more recent, Bayraktars (2001) meta-analysis covers only quantitative studies on biology and chemistry simulations. Furthermore, the review considers multiple types of technologies without explicitly delineating among drill and practice, tutorials, simulations, and combination computer-assisted instruction programs. Lees (1999) meta-analysis includes a variety of computer simulations involving non-science content, such as political science and special education administration; only nine reviews concern science computer simulations. deJong and van Joolingens (1998) review, while highly cited, is now over 10-years-old and necessarily addresses computer simulations that are older still. Paper Focus The present work addresses the need for a more recent review that includes studies conducted during the past decade, during which time computer simulations have continued to evolve and take on an increasing presence in science classrooms. Shifts in educational technology research have also occurred over the past decade. Rather than considering technologies in isolation, increased attention has been given to their utility within the context of specic content areas and pedagogies (Bell & Trundle, 2008). This change is evidenced in the introduction of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK) (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) as a framework for understanding how a teachers exible knowledge of content, pedagogy, and technology interact to result in effective instructional practices integrating technologies. The purpose of this paper is to present a current, comprehensive, and critical review of the literature on the impact of computer simulations in science teaching and learning. In

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4 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell doing so, this review seeks to summarize what is currently known, identify limitations of existing studies, and provide guidance for future research.

Methods This review includes published research addressing the efcacy of, and implications for, computer simulations in K-12 and college science teaching and learning published since 1972. To select investigations for inclusion, we rst carried out a database search of the ERIC and Education Fulltext databases to identify articles related to the effectiveness of and instructional issues related to computer simulations published between 1972 and early 2010. We included in our search all papers published in refereed science education journals and educational technology journals (Table 1). To ensure that relevant articles were not missed, we followed up the database search with a manual search of each journal. We also reviewed and cross-checked the reference lists of all articles. In all, our search yielded 61 articles covering all science disciplines, involving students and teachers at the elementary, secondary and college levels. It was determined that many studies may refer to a computer simulation, but are not empirical investigations or do not have primary research questions related to the use of those computer simulations. For example, Flick (1990) sought to determine how students interacted with a simulated, frictionless object using a computer simulation, interviewing participants about their decision-making process while using the simulation. However, the study was excluded from the review because it is not primarily concerned with investigating students learning as a result of the simulation. In another example, Edelson (2001) describes a curriculum that utilizes computer visualization software to engage students in inquiry and provides guidelines for teachers wishing to do so in their classrooms. However, the paper does not report on an investigation into the impact of that software on science teaching and learning and thus was excluded from this review.
Table 1. Journal search results Journal Journal of Research in Science Teaching Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching International Journal of Science Education Journal of Science Education and Technology Computers & Education Science Education Journal of Educational Computing Research Journal of Educational Research School Science and Mathematics Journal of Science Teacher Education Journal of Technology and Teacher Education Total Number of studies located 25 7 7 9 6 4 1 1 1 0 0 61

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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 5 Once the studies that met our inclusion criteria were identied and collected, we conducted an inductive qualitative analysis, akin to the inductive approaches used in qualitative research (as per Lincoln & Guba, 1985). First, we identied the primary research outcomes for each paper and arranged the papers accordingly. The purpose of this process was to be able to organize our review around logical sub-headings. For example, a paper whose stated purpose was to explore the impact of a biology simulation on student achievement as measured by a Biology Achievement Test was placed in a category titled Promoting Content Knowledge. Comparatively, a paper that sought to investigate the impact of a computer simulation on students ability to apply scientic reasoning patterns and general process skills as assessed by a Biology Test of Science Processes was placed in the category Promoting Science Process Skills. And, a study primarily interested in describing how teachers can use simulations to expose student preconceptions and misunderstandings of biology concepts was placed in the category Promoting Conceptual Change. It was, however, determined that an additional category was necessary for those papers that did not seek to accomplish specic instructional objectives, but rather considered a variety of pedagogical issues related to computer simulation-based instruction. For example, a study exploring whether coupling a simulated and hands-on biology lab experience is preferable to experiencing only one of the lab conditions was placed in the category Pedagogical Issues in Using Computer Simulations. These categories are, admittedly, somewhat articial because many papers have multiple outcomes. In these cases, papers were placed where we deemed there to be the closest alignment. Finally, in addition to yielding a set of logical categories by which to organize the studies, the analysis also resulted in emerging commonalities within and among the categories, which were followed up and further developed into the assertions and conclusions presented in this review. Categorization of instructional goals and research focus served as headings to organize our presentation of ndings. The following sub-heading are used in this review: promoting content knowledge (n 22), developing and improving science process skills (n 11), facilitating conceptual change (n 11), and pedagogical issues related to computer simulation-based instruction (n 17). At the beginning of each section, a summary table is provided to describe the studies reviewed in each of these four categories, including participant information, methods, and the subject of the computer simulations involved. An overview of the earlier studies collected in each category is presented rst. Detailed reviews and analyses of the more recent investigations, in light of this foundational work, follow. In all, each section discusses the identied patterns and reveals how the body of literature has developed over time. This approach allows us to keep this comprehensive review to a reasonable length, while focusing the majority of narrative on the most recent and relevant investigations. Finally, our synthesis of ndings across all of the reviewed investigations is presented in the form of a set of research-based guidelines for best practice.

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6 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell Results Using Computer Simulations to Promote Content Knowledge Much of the research on the effectiveness of computer simulations has examined the impact of computer simulations on learning content knowledge in the physical, biological, and earth sciences. The studies reviewed here (Table 2) employ a variety of research designs and tackle a range of research questions comparing the use of computer simulations and traditional instructional practices. For example, some studies incorporate multiple simulations covering a variety of concepts, others consider long-term comprehension and still others compare simulations to several other modes of instruction. It should be noted that those studies with a primary focus on process skills and/or conceptual change are reviewed in other sections, although some may also address content knowledge. Many of the early studies in this category report direct comparisons of students who learned science content with computer simulations versus those who learned by more traditional instruction. These investigations report that simulations are equally, if not more, effective than traditional instructional methods in teaching science concepts (Boblick, 1972b; Cavin & Lagowski, 1978; Choi & Gennaro, 1987; Friedler, Merin, & Tamir, 1992; Hounshell & Hill, 1989; Jackman, Moellenberg, & Brabson, 1990; Koratis, Papatheodorou, Stamou, & Paraskevopoulous, 1999; Raghavan, Sartoris & Glaser, 1998; Reuter & Perrin, 1999). In addition to the positive outcomes, several advantages of using simulations were cited in these early studies, including their exibility, time efciency, and the ability to focus student attention on the essential aspects of an experiment while eliminating extraneous variables. While some early studies reported inconclusive ndings, these are often plagued by several methodological concerns including test validity, potential teacher differences between the treatment and control classes and students being distracted by the novelty of the computer simulation. The conclusions of these early studies corroborate with more recent research on the positive effects of computer simulations on science teaching and learning (Foti & Ring, 2008; Kiboss, Ndirangu, & Wekesa, 2004; Wu, Krajcik, & Soloway, 2001; Kumar & Sherwood, 2007; Marbach-Ad, Rotbain, & Stavy, 2008; Stern, Barnea, & Shauli, 2008; Winn et al., 2005; Stieff & Wilensky, 2003). Foremost, the exibility of simulations, and thus the opportunity to tailor learning, is reiterated in conclusions reached by recent researchers. For instance, Marbach-Ad et al. (2008) compared the effectiveness of computer simulations, textbook illustration activities (such as drawing, completing gures, nding missing words and answering guiding questions about the illustrations) and traditional lectures in contributing to student achievement in molecular genetics. Multiple-choice assessment results indicated that both the computer simulation and the illustration groups out performed the control group, although there were no signicant differences between the two experimental groups. Additional ndings from an open-ended questionnaire, however, indicated that the simulation group scored signicantly higher than both other groups. More interactive engagement and immediate feedback, the opportunity for students to

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Table 2. Summary of studies using computer simulations to promote content knowledge Study N/Grade level 23 high school 68 high school 4 classes, college 111 middle school 202 high school 288 college 124 high school 18 teachers and 50 classes/ secondary 110 middle school 437 college 17 college 71 high school 6 college 13 college 102 high school 40 college 12 college 3 pre-service teachers 83 pre-service teachers 247 high school 133 pupils and 3 teachers, middle school 62 college Subject Chemistry Physics Chemistry Earth science Biology Chemistry Biology Physics Physical science Biology Biology Chemistry Chemistry Physics Biology Environmental science Physics Physics Environmental science Biology Chemistry Physics Methods/data Pre/posttest Pre/posttest Pre/posttest Post/delayed posttest Posttest Pre/posttest Posttest Survey Interviews Posttest Interview Pre/posttest, observations Observations and interviews Interviews Pre/posttest Posttest, sketch analysis Interviews Observations Pre/post/ delayed post, lesson plan analysis Pre/posttest, interviews Pre/ posttest, interviews Pre/posttest Simulation content Ideal gas behavior Elastic collisions Spectroscopy

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Boblick (1972a) Boblick (1972b) Cavin and Lagowski (1978) Choi and Gennaro (1987) Hounshell and Hill (1989) Jackman et al. (1990) Friedler et al. (1992) Ronen et al. (1992) Raghavan et al. (1998) Koratis et al. (1999) Eichinger et al. (2000) Wu et al. (2001) Stieff and Wilensky (2003) Zacharia (2003) Kiboss et al. (2004) Winn et al. (2005) Zacharia (2005) Marshall and Young (2006) Kumar and Sherwood (2008) Marbach-Ad et al. (2008) Stern et al. (2008) Zacharia et al. (2008)

Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 7

Volume displacement unspecied Spectrophotometry Enzymatic reactions Miscellaneous physics Flotation Population dynamics Nervous system; population genetics Molecular chemical representations Chemical equilibrium Mechanics, waves/optics, thermal physics Cell division Oceanography Mechanics, waves/optics, thermal physics Collisions Environmental science Molecular genetics Kinetic molecular theory Heat and temperature

8 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell work at their own pace and the ability to easily repeat trials were the strengths identied using the computer simulations. Identifying the auxiliary benets of alternate modes of instruction has been taken up by other researchers as well. Stieff and Wilensky (2003) observed and interviewed undergraduate chemistry students about their interactions with a simulation software in order to identify the ways in which the program might assist students in understanding and applying chemistry concepts. The sophisticated program allows students to explore the relationships of chemical phenomena at symbolic, micro- and macrolevels and promotes conceptual reasoning about chemistry problems. Results indicated that all students took on increasingly more conceptual approaches to solving problems. The researchers specied the opportunities for students to visualize scientic phenomena through multiple representations as well as for their guided exploration with targeted and immediate feedback as strengths of the program. Adding further support to these ndings, Kiboss et al. (2004) concluded that students involvement in the computer simulation learning activities contributed to the effectiveness of computer simulations in promoting secondary students academic achievement and positive attitudes toward learning cell theory. Students worked in small groups at their own pace through a series of computer simulations that incorporated animated color graphics and short notes to present the stages of cell division. The control group was taught the same cell theory concepts through traditional classroom instruction relying on textbook images to illustrate the stages of cell division. Achievement test and attitude questionnaire results indicated that both content knowledge acquisition and affective learning gains were greater for the experimental groups. These ndings led the research team to conclude that computer simulations are an effective tool for teaching biology concepts such as cell theory, particularly when the simulations allowed students to explore concepts at their own pace. In another research, Winn et al. (2005) compared learning oceanography concepts through eld versus simulated experiences. The college oceanography students completed three sessions of instruction on the content, including identical introductory and conclusion sessions. During the second session, students worked in small groups to complete a set of activities, either in the eld or with the simulation. Results indicated that there was no difference in overall learning between the simulation and eldwork groups. Analysis of student sketches also indicated that the simulation group drew better sketches than the eld group following instruction. The researchers concluded that while the eldwork provided an authentic experience, the simulated work provided a model-based experience that also offered visualization opportunities not possible in the eld. Thus, they recommended that the two experiences complement each other when possible. Similarly, in studying students use of both virtual and physical molecular models, Wu et al. (2001) concluded that a chemistry simulations visualization tools may have aided students in developing an understanding of chemical representations. Since student pairs used both physical model kits and simulations to build molecular models and compare micro- and macroscopic molecular representations, the researchers acknowledge that the simulations impact alone could not be extracted

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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 9 from that of the combination of instructional methods. Thus, they recommended that simulations be used as a supplement, rather than as a substitute, to physical models and traditional instruction. Two other studies in this category report positive ndings, but are plagued by numerous methodological concerns. Stern et al. (2008) evaluated the effect of a simulation on 7th graders understanding of kinetic molecular theory. The simulation was used in conjunction with other traditional learning activities. All students made gains, but post-test mean scores were low overall. Although the concept is one that students often struggle with, the minimal gains may be due in larger part to the teachers unpreparedness. The researchers themselves acknowledge that the teachers involved did not possess the pedagogical content knowledge to teach this unit, especially with the simulations. Furthermore, the experimental group had greater time on task, receiving an additional three class periods with the simulation. Finally, related but dissimilar pre- and post-tests were administered, the validity and reliability of which are not addressed. Similarly, while Foti and Ring (2008) found achievement gains encouraging, the format of the assessment instrument is not provided and neither validity nor reliability is addressed. Means, standard deviations and gain scores are reported, but no statistical analysis was performed. These reported gains were also minimal, and not unexpected for an identical posttest administered directly following completion of the simulation lesson, approximately 40 minutes following the pretest. Pre-service Teachers Two recent investigations of the effectiveness of computer simulations to promote content knowledge acquisition involved pre-service teachers (Kumar & Sherwood, 2007; Marshall & Young, 2006). While further study is needed to understand how results of studies involving pre-service and practicing teachers would impact or generalize to the participants own science classrooms, they reiterate similar positive results from the research involving students using computer simulations to develop content knowledge across science disciplines. Kumar and Sherwood (2007) assessed the impact of instruction with a multi-media simulation on pre-service teachers conceptual understanding of environmental topics. Participants completed a total of three problem-based environmental science challenges with the software. Results indicated that all participants signicantly improved from pre- to post-test and from pre-test to delayed post-test on their understanding about topics directly related to the challenges (river ecosystems, dissolved oxygen, macro-invertebrates, and air composition) as well as on graphing skills. Students were also able to transfer knowledge of some concepts to the delayed post-test and lesson plans. The researchers concluded that the computer simulations were effective in promoting conceptual understanding and may also offer solutions to time and space restrictions that prevent teachers from involving students in eld investigations. The positive results by Kumar and Sherwood (2007) are in contrast with those reported in a qualitative study by Marshall and Young (2006). In the latter study,

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10 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell prospective secondary science teachers spent one 75-minute class period interacting with both physical manipulatives and computer simulations in order to gain some experience and reect on working with simulations that they might use in their own teaching. Analysis indicated that the simulation hindered the groups exploration process; the group was more efcient and productive in the physical environment than in the simulated environment. However, these ndings may be specic to the particular simulations employed in this study and the users degree of familiarity with them. The researchers reported that the group had difculties understanding the simulation, struggled to use it successfully, and thus did not take full advantage of its features. These concerns were likely exacerbated by the condensed treatment period. Learner Perceptions The last collection of studies reviewed in this category includes reports of teacher and student perceptions of learning content knowledge with the aid of computer simulations. In all cases, results indicated that most participants believed the simulations contributed positively to students understandings (Eichinger, Nakhleh, & Auberry, 2000; Ronen, Langley, & Ganiel, 1992; Zacharia, 2003, 2005; Zacharia, Olympiou, & Papaevripidou, 2008). During focus group discussions conducted by Eichinger et al. (2000), students cited several perceived advantages of using computer lab modules integrated into their introductory non-majors biology course, including the exibility of the program, the ability to cover more topics in a shorter time period, the ability to work at their own pace, and to quickly run and repeat experiments. Additionally, students consistently reported that the programs helped them to visualize and clarify the concepts involved in the experiments; no quantitative evidence was collected to show that the programs inuenced their knowledge, however. Other responses indicated that prior familiarity with a topic was necessary to reap maximal benet from the simulation. Zacharias Zacharia has undertaken a series of investigations considering the combined use of traditional instructional tools and computer simulations (Zacharia, 2003, 2005; Zacharia et al., 2008). Each has involved pre- and in-service teachers enrolled in a semester-long conceptual-based physics course. Zacharia (2003) investigated the effect of using computer simulation lab activities, traditional lab activities, and a combination of the two on teachers beliefs and attitudes toward using these resources in their teaching. Prior to the course, participants had little to no experience with simulations and preferred traditional hands-on inquiry-based labs alone to simulations or a combination of interventions. However, after the course, the majority believed that the combination of a simulation and hands-on inquiry-based lab had the most advantages to offer to teaching and learning. The authors concluded that the exposure to the combination of interventions in the methods course positively impacted participants beliefs, attitudes toward, and intentions to integrate computer simulations into their instruction. Subsequent studies supported the conclusion that a combination of approaches may be more valuable than physical manipulatives alone,

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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 11 both in promoting more sophisticated scientic explanations and reasoning about natural phenomena (Zacharia, 2005) and in promoting science content knowledge and conceptual understanding (Zacharia et al., 2008). Summary Since the early 1970s, researchers have compared traditional instructional approaches with those using computer simulations for various topics in the physical, life, and earth sciences. Taken as a whole, these studies show that simulations are at least as effective, and in most cases more effective than traditional methods for teaching content area knowledge. Several advantages for the use of simulations were cited and include exibility for students and teachers, the opportunity to visualize scientic phenomena, and immediate access to data and other information. However, the degree of effectiveness ranges substantially based on the simulations design features and use. There is evidence that instructional units combining computer simulations with traditional learning experiences may be the most effective instructional approach for teaching content knowledge. Several studies emphasize the importance of students having an opportunity to become familiar with the technology and access to accompanying materials that support learning. Additionally, the critical role of the teacher in helping students obtain the full advantage of using computer simulations is highlighted in several studies. The issues of how and when computer simulations are most effectively used are explored in the pedagogy section of this paper. Using Computer Simulations to Promote Science Process Skills The National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) stipulate that scientic literacy involves the mastery of scientic process skills such as observation, inference, and experimentation as well as the ability to combine these skills with scientic reasoning and critical thinking. Computer simulations have been used to teach a variety of science process skills, including visualization, problem-solving, identication, classication, data interpretation, and experimental design. In this section, we review studies (Table 3) that examine the impact of computer simulations on developing a variety of scientic process skills. While most studies found simulations to be more effective than other traditional methods of addressing science process skills, all found the two approaches to be at least equally as effective (Geban, Askar, & Ozkan, 1992; Huppert, Lomask, & Lazarowitz, 2002; Sun, Lin, & Yu, 2008; Klahr, Triona, & Williams, 2007). Other potential benets of incorporating simulations are discussed. For example, Klahr et al. (2007) compared the effectiveness of using virtual and physical materials in a hands-on science, open-ended discovery, and design activity. Students were equally successful in constructing a mousetrap car that would maximize distance traveled after testing designs with either physical or virtual materials. While all students showed improvement on both the knowledge and performance assessments, there was no signicant difference among groups on either measure. Thus, the researchers concluded that

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12 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell


Table 3. Summary of studies using computer simulations to promote process skills Simulation content General problem-solving Scientic process skills Phase changes Frog dissection Ecology Behavior of isopods Relative motion Paleontology Cell growth Mousetrap car design Acids/bases microscopes

Study Rivers and Vockell (1987) Faryniarz and Lockwood (1992) Geban et al. (1992) Kinzie et al. (1993) Mintz (1993) Lin and Lehman (1999) Monaghan and Clement (1999) Henderson et al. (2000) Huppert et al. (2002) Klahr et al. (2007) Sun et al. (2008)

N/Grade level 6 12 classes, high school 58 college

Subject Biology Environmental science Chemistry Biology Ecology Biology Physics General science Biology Physics

Methods/data Pre/posttest Pre/posttest, lab report evaluation Pre/posttest Pre/posttest Observation Pre/posttest Pre/posttest Observation, pre/ posttest, interviews Posttest Observation, posttest, performance assessment Pre/posttest

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200 high school 61 high school 9 middle school 88 college 3 high school 20 elementary 181 high school 56 middle school 132 elementary

General science

the instructional medium had no effect on student understanding or the ability to perform successfully and condently on the task. In the latter study, it was found that students in the virtual materials group completed signicantly more trials than those in the physical materials group, calling attention to other advantages for using the virtual materials, such as ease of development, duplication, and distribution of materials, as well as fewer time and space restrictions. The effectiveness of simulations may vary according to students ability level. For instance, Huppert et al. (2002) assessed the impact of a simulated experiment in which students manipulated three different variables on both higher-level inquiry skills and more general process skills. Each students cognitive stage was classied as concrete, transitional, or formal based on their performance on a reasoning pattern test and the treatment groups were then further divided into sub-groups accordingly. All students were exposed to lecture and traditional laboratory experiments; the experimental group also engaged in simulated lab experiments of yeast cell growth. Results indicated that students with lower cognitive reasoning abilities from the experimental group outperformed those students of similar abilities from

Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 13 the control group. There was no signicant difference in achievement, however, between the experimental and control groups for students with more formal reasoning abilities. Based on these results, the researchers concluded that computer simulations may have the greatest potential for students with lower reasoning abilities. Other research shows that gains made with the use of simulations surpass those made through traditional learning activities (Faryniarz & Lockwood, 1992; Kinzie, Strauss, & Foss, 1993; Monaghan & Clement, 1999; Rivers & Vockell, 1987). For example, Sun et al. (2008) studied elementary students use of computer simulations while conducting various general science investigations, including testing of acids/ bases and operating microscopes. Students in the experimental group conducted a series of experiments in a computer-based virtual lab; it is not clear, though, what the control groups traditional classroom-based instruction consisted of. Results indicated that the simulation groups signicantly outperformed the control groups on a test of science content and process skills, which the researchers attribute to the individualized learning that the computer simulations allowed for. Additional interesting ndings in this area pertain to the supplementary benets computer simulations offer to science teaching and learning. Some of the earliest studies indicate that computer simulations may assist students in coping with complex tasks including those requiring visualization and the application of knowledge to new situations (Monaghan & Clement, 1999; Rivers & Vockell, 1987). The literature suggests that the ability to deal with complex tasks is not solely due to the design of the simulations themselves, but to guidance and support provided by the teacher or through accompanying resources (Henderson, Eshet, & Klemes, 2000; Mintz, 1993; Lin & Lehman, 1999). This nding will be addressed further in subsequent sections. Summary On the whole, the ndings regarding the effectiveness of computer simulations in developing science process skills are encouraging, and indicate that simulations are at least equally as effective as more traditional approaches. The number and variety of instruments involved complicate interpretation of ndings in this area, suggesting a need for more sensitive tests of scientic process skills. It has been shown that computer simulations can offer additional benets such as assisting students in coping with complex tasks and supporting lower-achieving students. Furthermore, such benets are often obtained in less time and with greater ease using computer simulations. The necessity of teachers guidance and supportive materials is reiterated throughout these investigations. Using Computer Simulations to Promote Conceptual Change The conceptual change model of instruction featuring cognitive dissonance as described by Posner, Strike, Hewson, and Gertzog (1982) and Strike and Posner (1985) is among the most well-known. In this model, students rst experience dissatisfaction with their own original beliefs and then reect on and reconstruct those

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14 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell beliefs. The notion of conceptual change has expanded, following ideas presented by Vosniadou and Brewer (1987) and inuenced by constructivist and cognitive development research. According to this approach, students rst become aware of their existing beliefs and engage in experiences that allow them to gradually change their existing conceptual structures so that they are more in line with scientically accepted views. Taking students prior knowledge into account, addressing existing beliefs, encouraging meta-conceptual awareness, and providing models that clarify scientic explanations are deemed essential, while cognitive dissonance is not necessarily required. In the following reviews (Table 4), it should be noted that most researchers have designed studies in which computer simulations are used in conjunction with the cognitive dissonance model. As early as the mid-1980s, researchers have demonstrated that computer simulations can be used successfully in conjunction with the cognitive dissonance model (Baser, 2006; Gorsky & Finegold, 1992; Jensen, Wilcox, Hatch, & Somdahl, 1996; Soderberg, 2003; Tao & Gunstone, 1999; Windschitl, 2001; Zietsman & Hewson, 1986). As in the previous sections of this review, researchers have found that the classroom environment and support provided either by the simulation or the teacher are critical for successful implementation. For instance, Soderbergs (2003) case study followed university professors in an effort to describe how they use simulations to expose student preconceptions and misunderstandings of biology concepts. Student interviews, class observations, and think-aloud problem-solving sessions conrmed that the course objectives were met. Soderberg attributed positive outcomes to several support techniques, including connecting new knowledge to students previous understandings, involving students in making and testing predictions, and then running and comparing repeated experiments with the program. Similarly, Basers (2006) work highlights the value of discrepant events. Baser considered the effect of differing types of simulations on achieving conceptual change of direct current electricity concepts. Pre-service teachers either interacted with either simulations based on conceptual conditions (CCS) or those deemed conrmatory simulations (CS). The CS required users to build circuits and make calculations in order to conrm the validity of a rule or concept. The CCS, on the other hand, followed a constructivist learning theory design and met the conditions proposed by Posner et al. (1982) for conceptual change to take place, including exposing users to discrepant events. While participants in both group made gains in their understanding as measured by a content assessment, the experimental group outperformed the control group on both the immediate and delayed post-test. The challenge of achieving robust and lasting conceptual change due to the tenacity with which students hold onto original conceptions (Tao & Gunstone, 1999) is conrmed in studies reviewed in this section. For instance, Windschitl (2001) examined the effectiveness of a simulation-based approached geared at promoting conceptual change about the cardiovascular system. Using the simulation and an accompanying descriptive guidebook, pairs of students recorded and tested predictions while solving a series of cases dealing with cardiovascular health problems. A signicant improvement was reported in overall mean scores on a content assessment. However, gains

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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 15


Table 4. Summary of studies using computer simulations to promote conceptual change Simulation content Population dynamics Motion Force and motion Force and motion Force and motion Diffusion and osmosis Cardiovascular system Electricity Lunar concepts Chemical bonding Lunar concepts

Study Soderberg (2003)

N/Grade level 7 pre-service teachers 25 high school and college 9 secondary

Subject Biology Physics Physics Physics Physical science Biology Biology Physics Earth science Chemistry Earth science

Methods/data Interviews, reections Posttest Observation Pre/posttest Post/delayed posttest Pre/posttest Posttest Pre/post/delayed posttest Drawings, structured interviews, card sort Pre/post/delayed posttest Drawings, structured interviews, card sort

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Zietsman and Hewson (1986) Gorsky and Finegold (1992) Tao and Gunstone 14 high school (1999) Weller (1995) 91 middle school Jensen et al. 9 classes, (1996) college Windschitl (2001) 90 middle school Baser (2006) 89 pre-service teachers Bell and Trundle 50 pre-service (2008) teachers Ozmen et al. 58 high school (2009) Trundle and Bell 157 pre-service (2010) teachers

on questions targeting more persistent alternative conceptions related to the cardiovascular system were not signicant. Several other researchers shed insight on addressing tenacious alternative conceptions. Baser (2006) cautioned that computer simulations alone will not confront all prevailing alternative conceptions and recommended that simulations be integrated with other instructional approaches. The success of such combinations is conrmed in work by Bell and Trundle (2008), Trundle and Bell (2010), who sought to describe the impact of integrating computer simulations with inquiry instruction on preservice teachers conceptual understanding of lunar concepts. In the latter quasiexperimental investigation, the researchers compared the effectiveness of three inquiry-based instructional approaches, using moon observation data collected from: (1) a planetarium simulation program, (2) a combination of nature observations and simulated observations, or (3) nature observations alone. Non-parametric tests of signicance revealed that the substantial pre- to post-instruction gains were signicant for the three treatments across all targeted concepts. The authors concluded that the three treatments were equally and highly effective in helping students achieve desired conceptual change. Furthermore, the ability to make more consistent and accurate observations and measurements of the moon were cited as specic benecial features of the computer simulation.

16 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell Summary Overall, these studies indicate that computer simulations can be used in conjunction with the accepted cognitive dissonance model. Intelligibility in computer simulations was consistently established, and aided by features such as symbolic representations and animations. As in other sections, support provided by the simulation and/or the teacher and classroom environmental factors was again critical to success. All studies showed evidence of simulations successfully exposing students original beliefs. However, ndings conrmed the challenge of achieving lasting conceptual change due to the tenacity with which students hold onto original conceptions. We conclude this section with the caution that while some encouraging ndings are reported by longitudinal conceptual change studies (e.g. Ozmen, Demircioglu, & Demircioglu, 2009; Weller, 1995), there are methodological concerns that limit their value. For instance, Ozmen et al. (2009) sought to determine the effectiveness of texts accompanied with animations in promoting conceptual change among high school chemistry students. While the time on task was similar for the experimental and control groups, the interventions were not equally aligned with best instructional practices (Donovan, 2005). Without comparable teaching interventions, it is not possible to determine whether the positive outcomes reported for the experimental treatment group are a consequence of the simulations, the conceptual change texts, or their combination.

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Pedagogical Issues in Using Computer Simulations The 17 investigations reviewed in this section represent a shift in the research focus, concentrating on how computer simulations can most effectively be used in science instruction (Table 5). Four studies evaluated a combination of traditional instructional methods and instruction using computer simulations in order to determine the most valuable order of implementing these two instructional approaches. Ten studies examined the impact of various support structures and features embedded in the computer simulation. Three studies addressed the instructional setting in which the simulations were employed.

Using Computer Simulations in Combination with Other Instructional Methods Throughout the literature there has been consensus about the use of computer simulations as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, other learning activities. In light of this consensus, several researchers have conducted investigations with the goal of determining how best to use the simulations in conjunction with other modes of instruction. There is some evidence to support the use of computer simulations before traditional classroom instruction (Akpan & Andre, 2000; Brant, Hooper, & Sugrue, 1991; Winberg & Berg, 2007). For instance, Akpan and Andre (2000) compared four experimental conditions for a frog dissection: simulation before dissection

Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 17


Table 5. Summary of studies related to pedagogical issues in using computer simulations Study N/Grade level Subject Methods Simulation content

Simulations in combination with other instructional methods Brant et al. (1991) 159 college Biology Posttest Akpan and Andre 81 middle Life science Pre/posttest (2000) school Winberg and Berg 99 college Chemistry Interviews (2007) Liu (2006) 33 high school Chemistry Pre/posttest

Genetics Frog dissection Acid/base titration Gas laws Motion Collisions Phase changes Meteorology Thermal equilibrium Miscellaneous Optics pH Electrochemistry Le Chateliers Principle Optics Miscellaneous Forces

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Simulation structure and support features Roth (1995) 46 high school Physics deJong et al. 46 college Biology (1999) Ardac and Sezen 74 high school Chemistry (2002) Hsu and Thomas 117 college Earth (2002) science Clark and Jorde 120 middle Chemistry (2004) school Lee et al.(2004) 77 college Physics Chang et al. 384 high Physics (2008) school Limniou et al. 160 college Chemistry (2008) Liu et al. (2008) 6 college Chemistry Trey and Khan 15 high school Chemistry (2008) Instructional setting Eylon et al. (1996) Hennessy et al.(2006) Wu and Huang (2007) 62 high school Physics 5 secondary Physics, classes biology 54 high school Physics

Observations Pre/posttest Pre/posttest Pre/posttest, interviews Pre/post/delayed posttest, interviews Post-assessment Pre/posttest Posttest Observations Posttest

Posttest, interviews Observations, interviews Pre/post/delayed posttest; observations

(SBD), dissection before simulation (DBS), simulation only (SO), and dissection only (DO). Results indicated that students in the SO and SBD conditions improved signicantly on assessments of their content knowledge from pre- to posttest, while those in the DBS and DO conditions did not. And, both the SO group and the SBD group achieved higher overall scores than either the DO group or the DBS group. The authors concluded that the introductory simulations provided a simplied environment where students could construct an experiential base to build more complex knowledge upon. Negative ndings for the DBS group suggest that students may attend less to the simulation when it serves as a review. This may be particularly

18 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell true for todays science classrooms, where educational technologies are more commonplace. Less conclusive ndings on the benet of pre-instruction simulations were presented by Winberg and Berg (2007). The researchers assessed the effect of a pre-lab simulation on undergraduate chemistry students ability to apply the newly acquired content knowledge during subsequent lab work. Experimental groups conducted acid base titrations with a computer simulation while control groups completed a traditional lab activity. Conicting results were reported over the course of this 2-year study. Despite these mixed results, the authors suggest that simulations used prior to laboratory work may contribute to students theoretical understanding of the lab, thereby reducing their intrinsic cognitive load (Chandler & Sweller, 1991) and allowing for more working memory to be devoted to learning. Finally, in contrast with both of the previously described studies, Liu (2006) found that the order of completing simulations had no signicant effect on student performance. Pairs of students completed traditional lab activities in addition to working through three different simulations. Open-ended assessment results indicated that the combination of hands-on and simulation laboratories was more effective in promoting content knowledge than either treatment alone, although the order of completing these had no signicant effect on student performance on the diagnostic test administered. Simulation Structure and Support Features Numerous studies have illustrated the importance of support systems that guide students in their work with simulations. The studies reviewed in this section investigate various forms and means of providing such support. The types and quality of embedded and/or accompanying support features are addressed, as well as the role of the teacher in facilitating learning. These studies demonstrate that specic design features can enhance the effectiveness of computer simulations. For instance, Trey and Khan (2008) concluded that interactive, animated analogies may assist students in abstract thinking. Clark and Jorde (2004) analyzed the impact of offering a unique form of supplemental information, namely combining virtual reality (via a tactile hand) with computerized lab simulations. Results indicated that the experimental group outperformed the control group on both the content-based posttest and delayed posttest and demonstrated gains in conceptual understanding of the concepts during follow-up interviews. These ndings have implications for teaching other concepts involving experiential knowledge, such as weather (i.e. humidity and wind chill), sound (i.e. Doppler Effect), and optics where additional sensory information may be particularly valuable. Conversely, no difference results reported by deJong et al. (1999) were attributed to poor-quality animations, a limited number of supplementary materials and assignments that were not clearly connected to the content addressed in the simulation.

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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 19 And, inconclusive ndings from Hsu and Thomas (2002) suggest that effectiveness of well-designed simulations is highly dependent upon how they are used. The researchers expressed concern that students may not have taken full advantage of the simulations features. What is sure is that the most effective type and quantity of support features are not easily determined and compounded by a range of variables. Chang, Chen, Lin, and Sung (2008) conducted a pair of related studies that involved a simulation used in conjunction with different types of support tools, including (a) background information on the investigation, (b) assistance in forming and revising hypotheses, and (c) step-by-step guidance through the investigation. Overall, the researchers concluded that the type of support structure needed will depend on the nature and complexity of the task; a combination of supports may be the most effective. Lee, Nicoll, and Brooks (2004) emphasize the importance of support features that reduce cognitive load and that ensure students focus is on the content, not the technology or other preliminaries to learning (Chandler & Sweller, 1991). Yet, Liu, Andre, and Greenbowe (2008) remind that the true cognitive demand is a variable factor. In their case study, Liu et al., considered how prior content knowledge affected student use of computer simulations. Six female undergraduates (three pairs) in an introductory chemistry course were purposefully selected as participants based on their prior knowledge as assessed with a pre-test. Analysis of video and audio transcriptions revealed differences in the way simulations were used and how the student pairs accomplished tasks. While the pair of students with the highest level of prior knowledge engaged in more discussion and used the simulations to conrm predictions made based on their prior understandings, the lowest level pair used the simulation as their primary resource to solve problems through trial-and-error. Overall, the researchers concluded that students with higher prior knowledge may have less difculty relating the simulations visual information to their existing mental models and may benet most from open-ended simulations. On the other hand, it is recommended that more substantial support features be provided to students with lower levels of prior content knowledge. Instructional support for computer simulations need not be necessarily imbedded in the program, however. The importance of the teacher in providing guidance and support is clearly demonstrated in early studies and conrmed more recently (Ardac & Sezen, 2002; Hennessy, Deaney, & Ruthven, 2006; Eylon, Ronen, & Ganiel, 1996; Jensen et al., 1996; Limniou, Papadopoulos, & Whitehead, 2009; Roth, 1995; Wu & Huang, 2007). Ardac and Sezen (2002) concluded that teacherguided instruction while planning and carrying out phase change experiments with a computer simulation reduced the cognitive load on students. Doing so contributed to students overall success in understanding factors that affect boiling point elevation and freezing point depression, as well as the ability to identify variables in an experiment. Similarly, although Wu and Huang (2007) found no signicant difference between whole-class and individual use of computer simulations in promoting students content understanding, they suggest that the opportunity to raise conceptual questions and have access to direct teacher support and guidance in a whole-class

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20 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell approach may be benecial for low achieving students. Hennessy et al. (2006) recommend the use of less-structured simulations and prescriptive accompanying materials in order to allow for teacher customization based on the individual student and class needs. Summary The studies reviewed in this section concentrate not on if, but rather how, computer simulations can most effectively be used in science instruction. In those studies concerned with integrating simulations with more traditional approaches, there was consensus on the benets of combining simulations and other instructional methods. These studies also demonstrate that specic design features, such as access to supplemental visualizations and textual and virtual information, enhance the effectiveness of computer simulations. Furthermore, allowing the exibility to explore ideas, as well as prompting students to justify their actions and providing timely feedback, are additional factors that may have promoted learning with simulations. However, there is evidence that students may not take full advantage of these features or opportunities if not given the time, support, or encouragement to do so. Similarly, the importance of the teacher in providing guidance and support during simulation use is clearly demonstrated. Additionally, studies reviewed in this section suggest that whole-class instruction with computer simulations is a viable option. Finally, it should be cautioned that a lack of detail about treatments, instruments, and confounding variables raises concern with a number of studies reviewed in this section (Eylon et al., 1996; Kiboss et al., 2004). Discussion This review reports the ndings of research addressing the efcacy of, and implications for, computer simulations in K-12 and college science teaching and learning. An inductive approach was used to analyze, organize, and generate ndings for the 61 investigations addressed in this report. The reviews rst three sections reported on research investigating the impact of computer simulations on specic learning objectives, including science content knowledge, promoting process skills, and conceptual change. The fourth section presented ndings of those studies that considered a variety of pedagogical issues, such as the impact of support features, teacher-provided support, and the most appropriate combination of instructional methods. Of the 61 studies reviewed here, 49 demonstrated positive impacts of the use of computer simulations, either as descriptive studies or in comparison with more traditional methods. Eleven reported inconclusive ndings or showed no differences between computer simulations and traditional instruction. Only 1 study found traditional instruction to be more effective. Thus, at the most general level, the ndings of this literature review suggest that simulations can be as effective, and in many ways more effective, than traditional instructional practices.

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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 21 Computer simulations have been shown to be a worthwhile tool for teaching and learning physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science content knowledge, particularly when used in combination with other learning experiences. Computer simulations have demonstrated the advantage of catering to differences among learners and giving them ownership of the learning process. Computer simulations can be particularly appropriate for teaching a variety of scientic process skills, including visualization, classication, data interpretation, problem-solving, and experimental design. The opportunity to practice and apply these skills to novel and/or increasingly difcult situations is an important nding. Additionally, computer simulations have proven effective in revealing and challenging students alternative conceptions by promoting cognitive dissonance. However, achieving lasting conceptual change has proven equally challenging with computer simulations as with traditional instructional approaches. A more recent shift in the research shows that there is an interest in exploring pedagogical issues regarding the most effective ways to use computer simulations in science instruction. The importance of support, both embedded in the program and provided by the teacher, is a consistent message across the reports. So, too, are the benets of combining traditional and simulated learning experiences. What We Have Learned It is clear that, as with any other educational tool, the effectiveness of computer simulations is limited by the ways in which they are used (Clark, 1983, 1994). Certainly, instructional strategies proven to support meaningful learning should be adhered to when using computer simulations. Four decades of research show consensus about the following conclusions. Computer simulations are most effective when: (1) Used to supplement, not replace, other instructional modes. (2) Students are provided with high-quality support structures. (3) Used to promote cognitive dissonance. Using Computer Simulations to Supplement, Not Replace Other Instructional Modes Computer simulations should be used in conjunction with, rather than in replacement of, other experiences that also address the concepts targeted by the simulation. Indeed, the research indicates that simulations used in isolation were found to be ineffective (Cavin & Lagowski, 1978; Hsu & Thomas, 2002) in comparison with the positive ndings for those integrated with other instructional activities (Clark & Jorde, 2004; Hennessy et al., 2006; Huppert et al., 2002; Klahr et al., 2007; Liu, 2006; Soderberg, 2003; Wu et al., 2001; Zacharia, 2005). When planning for instruction using simulations, teachers can take advantage of the unique features of the technology without depriving students of the opportunity to be engaged in hands-on science and to gain experience with authentic scientic instruments and equipment. Even Klahr et al. (2007), who suggested revising the denition of hands-on learning to include virtual as well as physical materials, did not eliminate the use of physical materials during the nal production and test stages of the project. Rather, the time

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22 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell and resources saved by combining instructional methods in this way may make incorporating inquiry-based activities more feasible for schools. The cost and time efciency benets of simulations offer solutions to obstacles such as tight budgets, limited resources, and restrictive school schedules (Bell & Trundle, 2008; Trundle & Bell, 2010; Boblick, 1970; Hennessy et al., 2006; Klahr et al., 2007). Integrating simulations into the curriculum also ensures that connections to domain knowledge and real-world applications are made explicit (Hennessy et al., 2006). For example, Akpan and Andre (2000) did so by supplementing their dissection simulations with QuickTime movies and microscopic pictures. Several studies considered the value of combining simulated and traditional hands-on learning experiences in order to determine the preferred sequence of these methods. Some support was shown for using simulations prior to instruction, allowing students to become familiar with a concept or procedure under a focused and idealized environment (Akpan & Andre, 2000; Brant et al., 1991; Kinzie et al., 1993; Klahr et al., 2007; Wu et al., 2001), although the order of maximal benet may be context specic. The ability for simulations to serve as a point of common reference as well as help students visualize abstract concepts, see multiple representations and simplify complex problems by considering a limited number of variables or idealized circumstances are advantages that should be capitalized on (Ardac & Sezen, 2002; Bell & Trundle, 2008; Trundle & Bell, 2010; Boblick, 1972b; Hennessy et al., 2006; Monaghan & Clement, 1999; Winn et al., 2005; Wu et al., 2001).

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Providing High-Quality Support Structures Just as simulations should not be used in isolation of other learning experiences, students require guidance as they interact with them. Support structures may include providing time for familiarization with the simulation, teacher direction, questioning, debrieng of learning activities, feedback about decisions and actions, opportunity for reection, accompanying assignments, and access to other tools and domain knowledge. However, the most effective type of support and means of providing it are dependent upon the ability and needs of the student and the specic learning goals (Chang et al., 2008; Lin & Lehman, 1999; Liu et al., 2008). In any case, support structures should strengthen the connection between science content and the simulation and encourage higher-level thinking (Brant et al., 1991; deJong et al., 1999; Geban et al., 1992; Huppert et al., 2002; Roth, 1995; Soderberg, 2003; Windschitl, 2001). Students should be introduced to support structures that are imbedded within programs and be given opportunities to become familiar with these supports if they are to be valuable (Hsu & Thomas, 2002; Marshall & Young, 2006; Mintz, 1993; Roth, 1995). Accompanying materials should be well matched to the learning objectives of the simulation and student ability levels (Chang et al., 2008; Friedler et al., 1992; Liu et al., 2008) as well as encourage prediction-making and higher-level thinking (Marbach-Ad et al., 2008).

Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 23 Computer technology allows for reection and revision by presenting the opportunity to test, reect on, and revise multiple hypotheses. Time for reection and reconstruction of original conceptions is critical to both meaningful understanding and conceptual change (Geban et al., 1992; Henderson et al., 2000; Jensen et al., 1996; Klahr et al., 2007; Lin & Lehman, 1999; Marbach-Ad et al., 2008; Rivers & Vockell, 1987; Roth, 1995; Weller, 1995). Lin and Lehman (1999) concluded that prompting students to explain and justify their actions, thereby analyzing their decisions and the consequences of those decisions, promoted conceptual understanding and far transfer of knowledge. Such reection and revision also makes learning more student-centered, as students monitor and manage (Hargrave & Kenton, 2000, p. 50) their own learning. However, reection and revision need not occur in isolation of peers and/or teacher. Henderson et al. (2000) and Wu et al. (2001) encourage pairing students for simulation activities after nding surprisingly high levels of cognitive talk. Even when support is provided by the simulation software and its accompanying materials, the teacher is critical for the successful implementation of instructional technologies and computer simulations in particular. There are no teacher-proof simulations. The teacher plays an important role in aligning the use of computer simulations to curricular objectives and to student needs (Ardac & Sezen, 2002; Eylon et al., 1996; Friedler et al., 1992; Henderson et al., 2000; Hennessy et al., 2006; Weller, 1995; Windschitl, 2001). For this reason, teachers need to be familiar and comfortable with a simulation and its full range of features (Roth, 1995). Students are not successful when left to gure out how to use the programs themselves (as in Marshall & Young, 2006). Furthermore, teachers should use simulations to focus student attention, stimulate discussion, and address impromptu issues, student questions, or interests (Eylon et al., 1996; Hennessy et al., 2006; Jensen et al., 1996; Roth, 1995). The teachers primary role is not solely to deliver content, but rather to facilitate learning, discussion (Hargrave & Kenton, 2000; Hennessy et al., 2006; Wu & Huang, 2007), and meaning making (Wu et al., 2001). This may best take place when computer simulations are used as part of whole-class instruction, whereby the teacher can formatively assess student understanding and adapt discussions and instruction as necessary. Using computer simulations in a whole-class setting may also be a more cost-effective option for schools with limited budgets or space (Hennessy et al., 2006). The most appropriate instructional setting is an area for further research. Using Computer Simulations to Promote Cognitive Dissonance The opportunity for students to experience cognitive dissonance by confronting data and virtual events that challenge their preconceptions is one of the most powerful features of computer simulations designed to promote conceptual change. For example, Bell and Trundle (2008) and Trundle and Bell (2010) demonstrated that simulations aided students in collecting more complete data sets, which in turn presented rich opportunities to challenge preconceived conceptions and recognize patterns.

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24 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell Other studies showed that simulations assist in making abstract ideas and unobservable entities more concrete, thereby facilitating the development of scientic conceptions (Tao & Gunstone, 1999). In addition to exposing students alternative conceptions, computer simulations allow students to pose and test hypotheses of their own (Windschitl, 2001), as well as practically illustrate how the scientic conceptions work better (Baser, 2006; Soderberg, 2003). As with other instructional goals, it is important to provide guidance throughout, connect experiential and targeted instructional ideas, and involve students in meta-cognitive thinking. Limitations A number of methodological concerns justify caution in interpreting and generalizing the ndings of several studies. For example, pretests were included for most, but not all studies. Without pretests (or random assignment), group equivalency is not conrmed, rendering treatment comparisons difcult to interpret. Sampling methods for interviews were questionable in the Winberg and Berg (2007) study, the results of which were inconclusive. Furthermore, several studies did not include a comparison group. In these cases, the question remains whether students would have learned as much without the simulation, under traditional instruction. In those studies that employed a variety of instructional interventions, the contribution of the simulation to student outcomes is uncertain without appropriate controls. Teacher preparedness is another concern. While the overwhelming majority of teachers involved were described as familiar with the simulations, it is not clear how well they were prepared to use the simulations to teach science concepts. deJong et al. (1999) and Ardac and Sezen (2002) note that both the participants familiarity and comfort with computers may have inuenced their results. Additionally, the teachers views of technology and preferred teaching styles may have inuenced outcomes. Such teacher differences may be particularly signicant in studies concerned with whole-class teaching approaches, considering that the teacher plays a dominant role in organizing and facilitating learning activities in this setting. In other cases, such as in the Ardac and Sezen (2002) study, instruction was guided by the researchers rather than the teacher. Whether the same ndings would have been found in a typical classroom setting is left to be determined. Similarly, results obtained in university settings need to be replicated with K-12 students and vice-versa. Novelty effects are another concern, particularly in the earliest studies when computers were not as prevalent in science classrooms. Many of the simulations involved in these studies made use of support features, including instructional prompts, supplemental exercises, and access to other tools and domain knowledge information. It was not always clear whether the experimental and control groups had equal access to these supplementary features. In other, and especially early, studies, the traditional classroom instruction was not clearly described, making comparisons across studies problematic (Eylon et al., 1996; Friedler et al., 1992; Hounshell & Hill, 1989; Kiboss et al., 2004). Other reviewers have also raised the question of whether equal effort was devoted to developing and

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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 25 implementing experimental and control activities, suggesting that greater effort toward the simulated learning experiences may have resulted in superior instruction (Weller, 1995). Finally, numerous concerns arose with the instruments utilized in these studies. Information regarding instrument reliability and validity was omitted for several studies (Stern et al., 2008; Foti & Ring, 2008), calling into question the appropriateness of the measures and interpretations made. Even when validated instruments were employed, they may not have been able to adequately probe students conceptions. For instance, it has been shown that multiple-choice content knowledge assessments are not sensitive to knowledge integration and conceptual understandings (deJong & van Joolingen, 1998; deJong et al., 1999; Thomas & Hooper, 1991). On the other hand, open-ended items and interview questions that require students to connect ideas are better able to assess conceptual understandings (Bell & Trundle, 2008; Trundle & Bell, 2010). Future researchers should take up limitations addressed in this review. Clear descriptions of the simulations and treatment conditions are necessary. Questions of teacher preparedness, simulation quality, and other complicating variables must be addressed. To achieve this goal, future research should continue to utilize a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods and conduct both small- and largescale studies. Measurements such as open-ended items and interview questions that are sensitive to deeper conceptual understandings are recommended. The earliest studies need to be replicated in modern classrooms where educational technologies have become more common. As computer technologies advance, it will be important to continue to explore what new features contribute to student learning as well as what new opportunities simulations offer teachers and students. Future Directions We believe that nearly four decades of research into the use of computer simulations in science teaching and learning provides incentive and direction for future research. Overall, the results of this review suggest that computer simulations support the sort of learner-centered science instruction that, as described in the National Science Education Standards, emphasizes the skills, attitudes, and values of scientic inquiry. In reviewing this body of literature, several implications emerge for science education researchers and computer simulation designers. The following section outlines some lines of research that need to be pursued. How do computer simulations impact the teaching and learning of science for diverse populations? The majority of research has been conducted with secondary students and pre-service teachers. How do teachers use computer simulations to differentiate instruction for and meet the diverse needs of their students? For example, while computer simulations exist for elementary-aged learners, more research is necessary to determine what impacts these tools have on young students content knowledge acquisition,

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26 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell science process skill development, and conceptual understandings. Elementary classrooms, with typically limited time and resources allotted for science explorations, may benet from supplementing hands-on activities with those involving computer simulations in order to provide more opportunities for authentic scientic investigation. However, the instructional settings and sequences that have demonstrated success in secondary classroom may not apply to elementary classrooms; best practices adapted specically to younger learners are needed. For example, how are computer simulations best integrated into the elementary classroom to support authentic scientic inquiry? There are also a limited number of studies involving low-achieving students and English-language learners (ELL). Simulations with support systems, either imbedded or provided by the teacher, that reduce cognitive load and guide meaning making may be particularly advantageous for lower-achieving students (Moreno, 2004; Winberg & Berg, 2007). The ability to visualize science concepts and actively participate in contextualized explorations using simulations may help teachers address the complex learning needs of ELL students, simultaneously aiding students content knowledge and vocabulary acquisition (Lee & Luykx, 2007). Research that specically addresses these target populations is necessary, but it is lacking in the current body of literature. How are teachers using computer simulations to effectively involve students in authentic scientic practices? Pedagogical issues deserve continued attention. Despite the promise that computer simulations have shown in the teaching and learning of science, success is certainly not guaranteed. Like any other instructional resource, computer simulations can be effective if they are of high quality and are used appropriately. Therefore, the appropriate question for researchers is often how teachers and students use simulations, rather than whether the simulation in itself can achieve desired results. The ndings of this review suggest that a better understanding of what makes for effective use of computer simulations requires further exploration into what successful instruction involving computer simulations looks like. Following the National Research Councils (2006) call for integrated instructional units that interweave laboratory experiences with other types of science learning activities (p. 82), consideration should be given to simulations that are incorporated into classroom activities, rather than those that stand alone. How can computer simulations be used to introduce students to new problems akin to those taken on by experts in the eld? How are teachers effectively using simulations to involve students in higher levels of inquiry? Examination of different combinations of learning experiences and how these combinations inuence student knowledge and skill acquisition deserve attention. How does the instructional setting and sequence in which computer simulations are used impact student learning? The ndings presented in this review provide support for the use of computer simulations in various sequences, according to the instructional goal. Based on the ndings of this review, we recommend that simulations be used prior to hands-on explorations

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Computer Simulations to Support Science Instruction and Learning 27 when the instructional goal is to develop or improve science process skills. For instance, simulations designed to teach and practice dissection lab skills or more general process skills such as stating problems and hypotheses and designing experiments are appropriate as introductory learning activities. Yet, when the instructional goal is to promote conceptual understanding, we recommend that computer simulations follow hands-on exploration. Such an approach resonates with the Learning Cycle instructional model (Karplus & Thier, 1967). The original three-phase model and its more recent expanded iterations (Biological Science Curriculum Study [BSCS], 1992; Bybee, 1997) encourage student engagement and exploration prior to concept introduction and application. According to these models, incorporating computer simulations after students have gained rst-hand experience with concepts, both mentally and physically, would be most appropriate. Here, the simulations can assist learners in focusing attention on specic components of their experiences and then expanding upon those newly understood concepts. New vocabulary is introduced following the initial explorations, and there are opportunities for learners to demonstrate their conceptual understandings and skills, and apply them in new contexts. Enhanced mastery of subject matter, reasoning ability, and interest and attitude toward science are cited in support of an inductive learning cycle approach as compared with more traditional, didactic instructional approaches (Bybee, Taylor, Gardner, VanScotter, Powell, Westbrook & Landes, 2006). Further research is needed to show support for explicitly using computer simulations as part of this approach. For instance, exploratory studies describing how teachers use computer simulations as part of the various phases of the learning cycle instructional model should be followed by investigations into the impact of that use on student achievement. The most effective instructional settings for computer simulations also merits further exploration, including investigations of simulations used as part of wholeclass, small-group, independent, and online/distance learning. While it may be dependent on the particular computer simulation, there is evidence to suggest that, when used as part of whole-class instruction, the teacher is best able to provide necessary individualized support. Descriptions of the roles taken on by the teacher and students in each of these situations will be important for those involved in teacher education as well as for software designers. For instance, there is still much to be understood about the support teachers can offer in varied settings, as most of the existing research has involved only individuals and small groups in traditional brick and mortar classrooms. How do teachers develop TPACK for effectively integrating computer simulations? Transmission models and exposure models of educational technology have been criticized in recent years for excluding consideration technologys interaction with pedagogy and content (Schrum et al., 2007). With an increased interest in the pedagogical issues surrounding the use of computer simulations in science, a better understanding of the teachers instructional decision-making is critical. Although research has involved pre-service teachers, there is limited attention given to how these

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28 L. K. Smetana and R. L. Bell teachers are explicitly prepared to integrate computer simulations in their teaching. Further study is needed to understand how the experiences of pre-service and practicing teachers who have themselves utilized and beneted from learning with simulations impact the participants own teaching and students. How does the complexity of a teachers TPCK impact their incorporation of computer simulations in science? What impact do science-specic technology preparation courses have on beginning teachers ability to effectively integrate computer simulations into their instruction? How do teacher educators TPCK impact their beginning teachers ability to effectively integrate computer simulations? What professional development models positively inuence teachers practices in regard to teaching with computer simulations? We believe that the questions raised here will provide motivation for continued research in an area that shows great promise. While Waight and Abd-El-Khalick (2009) criticized studies that concluded that educational technologies are equally as good as other instructional methods, we nd the results of this comprehensive, critical literature review to be quite encouraging. For instance, 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 efciency, safety, and the ability to cater to differences among learners make computer simulations an attractive option for todays classrooms. Such benets offer solutions to obstacles such as tight budgets, limited resources, and restrictive school schedules. Considering the impressive support from the research literature, the wide range of potential and realized benets, as well as the steep trajectory of innovations and improvements, we believe that computer simulations merit continued attention from both researchers and teachers.

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