Can students learn from simulations home alone?

The transition to online teaching as a result of the COVID-19 crisis has caused many challenges. Amongst the difficulties of online physics  education is the loss of the opportunity for face-to-face practical work for students. One approach to this change is to replace laboratory-based practical activities with virtual simulations.

One of the most widely used sets of freely available simulations can be found on the PhET site produced by the University of Colorado Boulder.

What is perhaps less well known is that there has been significant research into the value, benefit and best practices for using these PhET simulations. This research is available on the site itself and it is well worth reading.

A recent paper, entitled Can students learn from PhET Sims at home, alone? asks a question that many teachers may currently be thinking about, trying to decide how much time and effort they can and should put in when setting up tasks based around the simulations to be done at home.

The research team were interested in what happened when students worked at home without the usual direct teacher guidance and peer interaction and whether this changed how useful the simulations were. The researchers split a group of 77 students aged 15-18 years in half and compared working at home and in class groups using the same simulations.

They assessed learning through targeted conceptual questions and student interviews. They found that both groups benefited from using the PhET simulations but that some simulations seemed to be more beneficial than others for both groups. The Faraday’s Electromagnetic Lab led to particularly large learning gains.

When working at home, if given the right scaffolding, students were able to benefit to about the same extent as the in-class group, suggesting that the simulations can be a useful tool for home learning, without direct teacher intervention. The success, or otherwise, of using the simulations in both groups seemed to be dependent upon the level of scaffolding and support that was provided to the students.

Although a small-scale study, the answer to the question, “Can students learn from PhET Sims at home, alone?” seems to be “yes”. And, perhaps surprisingly, you don’t need to give students that much guidance. In this study and similar ones, the use of what are referred to as driving questions,
for example “Can you make a light bulb light with a magnet?” seems to help maximise the learning. Students do not seem to benefit from lengthy and detailed instruction sheets which can take a significant amount of teacher planning time – the students explored and learned more when
given lighter guidance.

To maximise the learning benefits of the PhET simulations, the best thing you can do is to write a few good, driving questions and then
let the students get on with it.

NB Some PhET sims only work in specific browsers but with a little investigation, there is detail on the site as to how to get them running.

James de Winter (University of Uppsala and University of Cambridge) and Richard Brock (King’s College London) highlight accessible and usable
resources based on research into physics education in a regular column in Classroom Physics.

If you would like to join other physics teachers interested in engaging with the latest research, discussing classroom applications, attending
seminars and getting involved with research, email them at or join the Physics Education Research (PER) group on Talk Physics




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