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Unformatted text preview: lectrons that flow around the circuit with
their velocity proportional to current, immediately responding to any changes in
circuit parameters. Our studies14 have
found this simulation helps students understand the basic concepts of electric current and voltage and, when substituted for
an equivalent lab with real components,
improves how well students can build and
explain real-life circuits.
Many physicists find it quite mysterious and somewhat disturbing that carefully developed simulations are more educationally effective than real hardware.
Both the efficacy of simulations and the
physicists’ discomfort can be understood by
recognizing the difference between how the
beginning student and the expert instructor perceive the same situation. These perceptual differences are readily apparent in
our testing of simulations and in other research on the effectiveness of lecture
A real-life demonstration or lab includes enormous
amounts of peripheral information that the expert instructor filters out without even thinking about it. The student has not learned what can be filtered out, and so all
this other information produces confusion and a much
heavier cognitive load. The student’s attention is often on
things the instructor doesn’t even notice, because they are
irrelevant. For example, in a real circuits lab, inexperienced students will often spend considerable time and concern on the significance of the different colors of the plastic insulation on the wires.
A carefully designed computer simulation can maintain connections to real life but make the student’s perception of what is happening match those of experts. This
is done by enhancing certain features, hiding others, adjusting time scales, and so on, until the desired student
perception is achieved. Simulations also can provide visual
representations that explicitly show the models that experts use to understand phenomena that are not directly
visible, such as the motion of electrons. It is likely that
both features are important in explaining the observed
benefits of simulations.
The educational importance of recognizing and dealing with differences between student and expert thinking
goes well beyond the use of simulations. An apt metaphor
is that of the student and the expert instructor separated
by the mental equivalent of a canyon; the function of teaching is to guide the student along the path that leads safely
and effectively across the canyon to the nirvana of expertlike thinking. Guidance that ignores the student’s starting
point or that is interpreted differently than intended usually just sends the student over a cliff. But education research, careful measurement, and new technology make it
possible to guide most students safely along the path toward a true understanding and appreciation of physics.
We are pleased to acknowledge the valuable input from all the
members of the University of Colorado at Boulder physics educat...
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- Fall '08