The Use of Computer Simulations in Whole-Class versus Small-Group Settings

Smetana, Lara Kathleen, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Bell, Randy
Heinecke, Walter, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
McNergney, Joanne, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Mintz, Susan, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

This study explored the use of computer simulations in a whole-class as compared to small-group setting. Specific consideration was given to the nature and impact of classroom conversations and interactions when computer simulations were incorporated into a high school chemistry course. This investigation fills a need for qualitative research that focuses on the social dimensions of actual classrooms. Participants included a novice chemistry teacher experienced in the use of educational technologies and two honors chemistry classes. The study was conducted in a rural school in the south-Atlantic United States at the end of the fall 2007semester. The study took place during one instructional unit on atomic structure. Data collection allowed for triangulation of evidence from a variety of sources approximately 24 hours of videoand audio-taped classroom observations, supplemented with the researcher's field notes and analytic journal; miscellaneous classroom artifacts such as class notes, worksheets, and assignments; open-ended preand post-assessments; student exit interviews; teacher entrance, exit and informal interviews. Four web-based simulations were used, three of which were from the ExploreLearning collection. Assessments were analyzed using descriptive statistics and classroom observations, artifacts and interviews were analyzed using Erickson's (1986) guidelines for analytic induction. Conversational analysis was guided by methods outlined by Erickson (1982). Findings indicated (a) the teacher effectively incorporated simulations in both settings (b) students in both groups significantly improved their understanding of the chemistry concepts (c) there was no statistically significant difference between groups' achievement (d) there was more frequent exploratory talk in the whole-class group (e) there were more frequent and meaningful teacher-student interactions in the whole-class group (f) additional learning experiences not measured on the assessment resulted from conversations and interactions in the whole-class setting (g) the potential benefits of exploratory talk in the whole-class setting were not fully realized. These findings suggest that both whole-class and small-group settings are appropriate for using computer simulations in science. The effective incorporation of simulations into whole-class instruction may provide a solution to the dilemma of technology penetration versus integration in today's classrooms. iv DEDICATION To my family, who has taught me the joy of learning, loving and living each day to the fullest.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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