How People Learn with Computer Simulations

How People Learn with Computer Simulations

Douglas L. Holton (Utah State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-782-9.ch029
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Using the four lenses of the How People Learn (HPL) framework, this chapter reviews research on the use of computer simulations for pedagogical purposes. Deciding when and how to support effective learning with simulations requires careful consideration of learner-centered, assessment-centered, knowledge-centered, and community-centered issues. By reviewing educational research on simulations from these four perspectives, one may then be better equipped to incorporate simulations into instruction and training in a manner that can align and balance all four perspectives, resulting in a more effective learning environment.
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Dynamic Systems

Dynamic systems are typically made up of multiple interacting components, such as the parts of a car engine or the coordinated activity of the human respiratory system, and are characterized by behaviors that evolve in time. When normally using and interacting with such systems, we typically do not think about the underlying dynamic interactions involved. For example, we do not usually consider nor need to consider the mechanics of breathing or the combustion processes occurring inside a car engine. We may think only of the function and purpose of a system, such as a car engine’s function in helping us transport to another location. When however the function of a system is uncertain or unfulfilled, such as when designing or troubleshooting or predicting the behavior of a system, we need to consider the underlying mechanics.

We typically construct models to better understand and predict the behavior of physical and social systems. The simplest type of model is an input-output model, or “blackbox” model. Behaviorism, for example, modeled human and animal behavior by observing relationships between input stimuli and observable output behavior. For a better understanding though we construct process models of systems that model not only external interactions but the structure, behavior and function of internal parts also. A structure-behavior-function (SBF) model consists of:

  • Structures - the stable components of a system, such as the parts of a car engine.

  • Behavior - the description an observer makes of the changes in the system over time and with respect to the environment with which a system interacts (Maturana & Varela, 1987), such as a person putting on a coat in response to colder temperatures.

  • Function is the effect of a system on its environment (Chandrasekaren & Josephson, 1996, 2000), such as the function of a thermostat and heating system to keep a room at a constant temperature. As mentioned earlier, function is also a higher-level description of a system’s purpose and how it is expected to operate within an environment.

This SBF framework has been used before to characterize people’s descriptions of how systems and devices work (Goel, Gomez de Silva Garza, Grué, Murdock, Recker, & Govinderaj, 1996; Hmelo, Holton, & Kolodner, 2000; Hmelo-Silver & Green, 2002).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Dynamic Systems: Dynamic systems are made up of multiple interacting components, such as the parts of a car engine or the coordinated activity of the human respiratory system, and are characterized by behaviors that evolve in time.

Simulation Fidelity: Simulation fidelity is the resemblance between a simulation model and the actual system it is modeling. The higher the fidelity of a simulation, the more trustworthy its behavior may be to someone familiar with the actual system, in the sense that experiences using the simulation more closely resemble real-world experiences. There are three types of fidelity: perceptual, manipulative, and functional.

Model: A model is a representation of a physical or conceptual system. Certain aspects of the system may be represented in the model, and other aspects may be missing, often in the interest of simplifying the model.

What If Scenarios: What if scenarios (also known as cases or triggers) give real-world problems to students and ask them to diagnose what happened, or predict what will happen next, or figure out what they should do next.

Computer Simulations: Computer simulations are computer software that model the behavior of a dynamic system. One may manipulate parameters in the model and visually see the feedback.

Structure Behavior Function (SBF) Models: SBF is a qualitative characterization of a system in terms of the stable components of the system (structures), changes in the system over time (behavior), and the effects of the system on its environment (function).

How People Learn (HPL) Framework: When using or designing learning environments, one should consider and balance assessment, knowledge, learner, and community-centered issues.

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