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A comparison of students' conceptual understanding of electric circuits in simulation only and simulation-laboratory contexts



The aim of this experimental study was to compare learning outcomes of students using a simulation alone (simulation environment) with outcomes of those using a simulation in parallel with real circuits (combination environment) in the domain of electricity, and to explore how learning outcomes in these environments are mediated by implicit (only procedural guidance) and explicit (more structure and guidance for the discovery process) instruction. Matched-quartets were created based on the pre-test results of 50 elementary school students and divided randomly into a simulation implicit (SI), simulation explicit (SE), combination implicit (CI) and combination explicit (CE) conditions. The results demonstrated that the instructional support had an expected effect on students' understanding of electric circuits when they used the simulation alone; pure procedural guidance (SI) was insufficient to promote conceptual understanding, but when the students were given more guidance for the discovery process (SE) they were able to gain significant amount of subject knowledge. A surprising finding was that when the students used the simulation and the real circuits in parallel, the explicit instruction (CE) did not seem to elicit much additional gain for their understanding of electric circuits compared to the implicit instruction (CI). Instead, the explicit instruction slowed down the inquiry process substantially in the combination environment (CE). Although the explicit instruction was able to improve students' conceptual understanding of electrical circuits considerably in the simulation environment, their understanding did not reach the level of the students in the combination environment. These results suggest that when teaching students about electricity, the students can gain better understanding when they have an opportunity to use the simulation and the real circuits in parallel than if they have only a computer simulation available, even when the use of the simulation is supported with the explicit instruction. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 48: 71–93, 2011