Using computer simulations to enhance conceptual change: the roles of constructivist instruction and student epistemological beliefs

Windschitl, Mark
Major Professor
Thomas Andre
Ann Thompson
Committee Member
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Curriculum and Instruction

Students often have difficulty conceptualizing phenomena in science. Research suggests that learners enter the classroom with a range of informal ideas about scientific phenomena and that these ideas affect how the corresponding scientific explanations are learned. These informal ideas or "alternative conceptions" often have the characteristics of being poorly articulated in the mind of the learner and difficult to change. Success in changing alternative conceptions is highly dependent upon instructional method and the type of alternative conception possessed. Additionally, students' epistemological beliefs concerning learning have been shown to affect the likelihood of conceptual change as well as overall achievement;This study investigates the effects of a constructivist learning environment on conceptual change, using a computer simulation of the human cardiovascular system as an instructional tool. This study also investigates conceptual development as a possible function of the interaction between placement in a constructivist learning situation and the students' epistemological beliefs;Two treatment groups from a college human physiology class were used in this study, both used a computer simulation and written guide as instructional tools. Working independently, students in one group resolved a series of twelve "cases" within a constructivist environment, articulating then testing their own hypotheses about various phenomena of the cardiovascular system. The other group followed explicitly stated instructions, examining the same twelve "cases" within the simulation in a manner similar to the common confirmatory exercises in science laboratories;Of six alternative conceptions identified by a pretest, the constructivist group showed significantly higher rates of conceptual change in two areas, with no significant differences found in the other four areas. When regressing on the total posttest score, treatment group and epistemological sophistication were significant predictors. Additionally, there was a significant interaction between the subjects' epistemological beliefs and the treatment group in predicting total posttest score. The degree of epistemological sophistication showed more positive covariance with posttest scores in the exploratory simulation group than in the confirmatory simulation group.