transforming_physics_education

Our studies14 have found this simulation helps

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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 demonstrations.15 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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