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Grounding abstract concepts with simulations

Using Simulations to Improve Understanding of Conceptually Abstract Science Topics

Every science teacher in the country must shudder at the thought of being asked the question: “But sir, why do we need to know this?”. Often I can come up with some clever contextual link to technology or a wider application or, at my worst, simply state that learning an idea will ensure that they are scientifically literate as an adult. The influential Beyond 2000 report (Millar & Osbourne, 1998) report led to the major context based curriculum reforms aimed to increase scientific literacy seen over the previous decade. But what do we do when there isn’t a clear contextual link? In this short blog I explore this problem within my own classroom and look at the use of student-led, guided inquiry, using free on-line simulations as a solution. Initially this is approached in light of the literature before delving more deeply into its application when teaching about ions at the start of a phase of lessons on ionic bonding to a middle attaining year 10 class studying double science.

What does the research say about using computer simulations in the classroom?

The abstract and complex nature of many scientific ideas is probably sufficient grounds for many learners to find learning science challenging—in turn making teaching challenging for many science teachers.” (Taber, 2014, p. 27).

One of the greatest challenges facing science teachers is how to make more abstract concepts such as chemical bonding, energy and electricity more relevant, engaging and understandable for students to learn, particularly when a contextual link is unsatisfactory. A potential solution might be the use of simulation in the science classroom. In Webb’s review of the literature she summarises evidence that the integration of simulations into conceptually difficult topics in science may improve students’ achievement (2010, p.163).

There is also a strong link between student attitudes towards science - specifically finding science lessons enjoyable - and the types of activities students do in lessons. Dewitt and Osbourne (2008) report that activities that engage students the most are ones that move towards a greater amount of autonomous, self-directed and collaborative learning. Wellington and Britto (2004, p. 211) in their comparison of classroom based learning, learning through ICT and home learning present findings that learning through ICT has the potential to be learner-led and learner-centred. This potential for ICT in the science classroom to motivate students as well as increase learning outcomes reassures me that it is a worthwhile avenue to investigate in my classroom.

Outlining my problem

In teaching conceptually challenging abstract ideas, I have by default resorted to direct instruction for students who don’t always have a previous knowledge base in which to extend ideas. In my experience, the problem I have found is that students can remember ‘tricks’ to answer exam questions but too often I find students’ understanding to be superficial. As an example, students find extending the atomic model of an atom to finding the electronic configurations of ions particularly challenging. In fact, students will often be able to find the charge of an ion using the periodic table but fail to relate this back to atomic structure.

It is almost as if ions and atomic structure have formed as unrelated concepts in students’ minds. Furthermore, in diagnostic questions asking students to work out the number of electrons, protons and neutrons in an ion they will default to their more comfortable understanding of ‘neutral’ atoms and are thus unable to answer these questions.

Having used a large number of Phet simulations (Wieman, C. E., Adams W. K., & Perkins K. K., 2008) as part of my physics teaching the research got me thinking more about how to use simulations in student led activities when teaching conceptually challenging topics. A turning point for me was using Phet: Energy Skate Park in an inquiry based activity. Working in pairs, students were introduced to conservation of energy, kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy. In teaching this before using direct instruction, I have been unimpressed by students’ reliance on equations when explaining energy. Instead, the use of the simulation led students to be able to articulate how different observables effect both kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy and additionally how these ideas fundamentally relate. In a new context, these observations led to a question: does the use of the Phet: Atom Builder simulation impact students understanding of ions?

What does research have to say about students’ difficulties in learning about ions?

In their paper on using an interactive website to enhance students’ understanding of the concept of chemical bonding Frailich, Kesner and Hofstein (2009) summarise the literature on students’ misconceptions of chemical bonding. They state that atomic structure is considered an abstract concept and that students find great difficulty in shifting between the macroscopic and microscopic – a key criteria for success in understanding chemical bonding. Their mixed-methods study using achievement questionnaires as well as observation of teachers and students show that an interactive website can provide students with the opportunity to construct a rigorous conceptual understanding of chemical bonding. Their study used the interactive website with clearly defined student-led activities and the opportunity to collaborate with both their peers and the teacher. The lessons in the study began with 5-10 minutes of teacher explanation followed by the remainder of the lesson pupils working in groups of 2-3 on the website task. In planning my lesson sequence, this seemingly successful method of computer integration in a learner-led learner-centred manner informed my planning of a more engaging ions lesson that gave students a good conceptual understanding.

Implementing this within my own classroom: Does using a simulation in a self-directed guided inquiry activity provide students’ with a conceptual understanding of ions?

Informed by the outlined research, I implemented these ideas across a double lesson sequence with my class. In the lesson I spent 5-10 minutes showing students how to access the simulation Phet: Atom Builder online and how to use its basic functions. Each student had a computer but they were encouraged to collaborate with their peers. A PowerPoint with user instructions for the simulation was emailed to students so that they had a place to look for help. Students then used the simulation to work through a self-directed worksheet for the remainder of the first lesson. In a bottom-up approach tasks initially reinforced students understanding of the properties of subatomic particles and atoms before guiding students to understand the formation of ions through the removal and addition of electrons. Students were then encouraged to build ions, initially given the numbers of electrons, protons and neutrons before only being given the atomic number. Informal observations suggested students had come to some rules about the formation of ions from a subatomic particle foundation.

Phet: Atom Builder

At the start of the following lesson, in groups of three, students were asked to come up with their “rules for drawing ions” based on the simulation task. After a class discussion we then decided on our class “rules for drawing ions”. In order to tell if students had developed a conceptual and rigorous understanding of ions I decided to use multiple choice diagnostic questions and a polling app on my phone to test students’ understanding. Mary Whitehouse of the University of York defines diagnostic questions as questions that tell you both about which students understand an idea but also give some insight into the thinking, and ‘why’ they think the way they do (2013, p.53). Although many sources of diagnostic questions can be found – University of York, IOP and RSC to name a few – I could not find any that gave me the information I wanted about ions. Informed by those on the University of York Evidence Based Practice Website, I came up with my own. There were three questions on general ions, three questions on atomic structure diagrams and three on calculating the number of protons, neutrons and electrons in different ions. Students were allowed to collaborate with their peers in between questions. Although my app only measured their letter response, 83% of overall answers to the nine questions were correct. Students were asked to write an explanation for why they had chosen their answers in their books. Upon looking at students’ explanations I was pleased to see that this teaching episode had allowed many students to successfully understand ions in terms of subatomic particles – a step many of my previous classes had found difficult after direct instruction. Therefore, after this teaching sequence I am confident that students can develop a strong conceptual understanding of ions using a self-directed inquiry driven computer simulation task.

An example of my diagnostic questions


As a full-time teacher, engaging with research evidence can often feel like a difficult task to approach. In this blog I have attempted to show how using research to inform a potential teaching solution to a problem related to subject specific pedagogy can be fruitful. Of course, my findings have limitations. My findings might actually suggest that defining a set of rules and using a sequence of diagnostic questions to test those rules allows students to develop a conceptually strengthened understanding of ions. However, I am confident that using a simulation did play some part in helping my students learn science more successfully – and that is fundamental to improving teaching and learning in our department.

Engaging with the research evidence has made me more reflective about my practice and changed how I might attempt to teach conceptually challenging abstract ideas in the future. In particular, I will look to use student-led activities using simulations when teaching abstract ideas again. There is much scope to develop a deeper understanding of the method of delivering these activities but also the effect of simulations on students’ attitudes toward science as a subject and their engagement with abstract ideas within lessons. It is pleasing that these results will be disseminated within my department and influence our scheme of work writing in the summer term.


DeWitt, J. & Osborne, J. (2008). Engaging students with science: In their own words. School Science Review, 30 (331).

Frailich, M., Kesner M, & Hofstein, A. (2009) Enhancing Students’ Understanding of the Concept of Chemical Bonding by Using Activities Provided on an Interactive Website. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46 (3).

Millar, R. and Osborne, J. (1998) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future. London: King’s College.

Taber, K. S. (2014). Student Thinking and Learning in Science: Perspectives on the Nature and Development of Learners' Ideas. New York: Routledge.

Webb, M. Technology-mediated learning. In Osborne, J & Dillon, J (Eds.) (2010) Good practice in science teaching: what research has to say. (pp. 158-182) England: Open University Press.

Wellington, J., & Britto, J. (2004). Learning science through ICT at home. In M. Braund, & M. Reiss (Eds.), Learning science outside the classroom (pp. 207–223). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Wieman, C. E., Adams W. K., & Perkins K. K. (2008) PhET: Simulations That Enhance Learning. Science, 322.

Whitehouse, M. (2013) Embedding Assessment to Improve Learning. School Science Review, 95 (351).

UYSEG Developing Diagnostic Assessments

Royal Society of Chemistry. Bridging the Knowledge Gap

Institute of Physics. Diagnostic Testing

Phet: Atom Builder

Dan Crittenden

Science Department

Saffron Walden County High School

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