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Professor's and Student's Perceptions and Experiences of Computational Simulations as Learning Tools

By Alejandra J. Magana

Purdue University



Published on


Computational simulations are becoming a critical component of scientific and engineering research, and now are becoming an important component for learning. This dissertation provides findings from a multifaceted research study exploring the ways computational simulations have been perceived and experienced as learning tools by instructors and students. Three studies were designed with an increasing focus on the aspects of learning and instructing with computational simulation tools. Study One used a student survey with undergraduate and graduate students whose instructors enhanced their teaching using online computational tools. Results of this survey were used to identify students' perceptions and experiences with these simulations as learning tools. The results provided both an evaluation of the instructional design and an indicator of which instructors were selected in Study Two.

Study Two used a phenomenographic research design resulting in a two dimensional outcome space with six qualitatively different ways instructors perceived their learning outcomes associated with using simulation tools as part of students' learning experiences. Results from this work provide a framework for identifying major learning objectives to promote learning with computational simulation tools.

Study Three used a grounded theory methodology to expand on instructors' learning objectives to include their perceptions of formative assessment and pedagogy. These perceptions were compared and contrasted with students' perceptions associated with learning with computational tools. The study is organized around three phases and analyzed as a collection of case studies focused on the instructors and their students' perceptions and experiences of computational simulations as learning tools. This third study resulted in a model for using computational simulations as learning tools. This model indicates the potential of integrating the computational simulation tools into formal learning experiences in terms of content, formative assessment and pedagogy.
These three studies capture the complexity of learning environments that adopt computational simulations as learning tools in graduate engineering education. The results of these studies have implications in the areas of engineering and science education, simulation-based learning environments development, and instructional design.


Magana, A.J., Brophy, S. and Bodner G. (2010). The transparency paradox: computational simulations as learning tools for engineering graduate education. Presentation at the Annual AERA Meeting: Understanding complex Ecologies in a Changing World. April 30-May 4. Denver, Colorado.

Magana, A.J., Brophy, S. and Bodner, G.M. (2009), Are Simulation Tools Developed and Used by Experts Appropriate Experimentation Tools for Educational Contexts? Proceedings of the 116th Annual Conference of the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), Austin Texas. June 14-17.

Magana, A.J., Brophy, S. and Bodner, G.M. (2008), Professors instructional approaches and students perceptions of nanoHUB simulations as learning tools. Proceedings of the 115th Annual ASEE Conference and Exposition. June 22-25

Tags, a resource for nanoscience and nanotechnology, is supported by the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.