Students’ Conceptual Change in Chemistry Using Computer Simulation-Based Instruction

June Alexis S. Razonable
Philippine Normal University, Manila, Philippines


Chemistry plays a vital role in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. It is essential that the scientific literacy of Chemistry learners must be developed and be enhanced to achieve the goals of STEM. The main purpose of this study is to determine the effect of computer simulation-based instruction in enhancing a conceptual change of students in chemistry using a two-tier test. The study utilized the experimental research method, specifically the one-group quasi-experimental design and phenomenological approach. The participants of the study, composed of 54 Grade 10 students from Caritas Don Bosco School, were selected through purposive sampling. The instruments used were an achievement test in Chemistry and Physics Education Technology Project (PhET) computer simulations. The alternative conceptions of students in Chemistry were determined using the students’ responses in the second tier of the achievement test. The effect of computer simulation-based instruction in enhancing conceptual change of students in Chemistry was determined by comparing the students’ pre-test and post-test scores and by analyzing thematically the students’ responses in the second tier of the achievement test. The PhET simulations used in the study are interactive research-based simulations developed by the University of Colorado. The statistical techniques used were frequencies, percentages, means and standard deviations, Kuder Richardson formula, and two-tailed t-test for dependent sample means. The results revealed that the majority of the participants hold a number of alternative conceptions in particulate nature of matter, properties of gases, gas laws, pH scale and properties of acids and bases. The statistical result indicates that there is a significant difference between the pre-test and post-test scores. Thus, computer simulation-based instruction is effective in enhancing students’ conceptual change in Chemistry; specifically in the topics of particulate nature of matter, gases, and acids and bases. Furthermore, the use of computer simulations resulted in the remediation of the majority of alternative conceptions in Chemistry of the participants.

Keywords: Alternative Conceptions, Conceptual Change, Computer Simulation, STEM

          Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is considered a major trend and issue not only in the field of academe but also to different sectors of the society. The focus is to motivate learners to recognize and potentially pursue STEM-related careers, thus increasing the possibility of producing highly skilled and well-qualified STEM professionals that will contribute to scientific progress (McDonald, 2016). Science, as a discipline, played a major role in authenticating STEM education wherein learners can integrate scientific and mathematical concepts to further understand the applications of engineering and technology. Utilizing science as a STEM discipline involves providing real-life situations as research problems, leading to motivated and scientifically-skilled learners (Hernandez, et. al, 2014). Several fields in science also play individual and integrated roles in reforming STEM education. For chemistry, most engineering innovations and technological solutions such as nanotechnology and material science engineering use chemical concepts and principles as their fundamental basis. Likewise, laboratory experiments, chemical models and applications in chemistry can also engage learners in studying STEM-related disciplines. Thus, it is imperative that scientific literacy in chemistry must be strongly established in order to contribute to the improvement of STEM education.

          Through the years, science education research has shown that students attending chemistry classes often have preconceived naïve ideas regarding the behavior of the natural world (Yan & Subramaniam, 2018). Aside from this, most of the concepts in chemistry are considered abstract and intangible, thus, making it difficult for the students to comprehend and understand the theories, principles, and ideas presented to them (Taber, 2018). With their preconceived ideas and abstract chemical concepts, these may lead the students to generate predictions and construct reasons that are in contrast from currently accepted scientific principles and processes. In addition, as they try to integrate new concepts into their already constructed knowledge structures, a variety of alternative (i.e., inaccurate) conceptions may occur.

          Mulford and Robinson (2002) explained that alternative conceptions have a bigger role in chemistry learning in generating inaccurate answers to questions. Consciously or subconsciously, students create their own understanding of the behavior, properties or theories they experienced. They think that these understandings are acceptable because they make sense in line with their perception of the nature of their surroundings. As a result, when students encounter new information that is different from their alternative conceptions, they tend to reject this new information because they deem it as erroneous. As a result, the role of educators is to provide opportunities to students to restructure these alternative conceptions and to reorganize existing knowledge to ideas that are scientifically acceptable. This process is usually referred to as “conceptual change.” Based on the constructivist theory, learning can be seen as a process of conceptual change. A conceptual change indicates that a learner creates new connections in his/her conceptual framework by actively replacing existing prescientific conceptions with scientifically acceptable explanations (Ozmen, 2007). In order to initiate conceptual change the learner must experience dissatisfaction with an existing conception and the new conception must also be intelligible, plausible and fruitful. Teaching methods that challenge existing ideas, force students to encounter contradictions and recognize counterexamples appear to enhance conceptual change. Among different teaching strategies, the use of computer simulation-based instruction can be utilized for this objective. Computer simulations can be used as vehicles for conceptual change since they allow the learners to observe a system of interconnections, apply changes in the system, predict the corresponding results of these changes, then control the system to see the results. Learners play an active role in the learning process, including assessing and understanding new information in relation to the former knowledge acquired. Thus, they must be given a chance to take on independent tasks for constructing concepts and understanding the information given to them (Brock, 2004).

          Since alternative conceptions can greatly impact learners’ acquisition of new ideas and concepts, it is important for educators to develop teaching strategies and techniques that will prevent or remediate students’ alternative conceptions. With the potential of computer simulations in enhancing students’ conceptual change, the researcher wanted to determine the extent of using computer simulation-based instruction in enhancing the conceptual change of students in the area of Chemistry.

Limitations of the Study

          The following are the limitations of the study:

  1. The study focused on the effect of computer simulation-based instruction in the conceptual change of Grade 10 students in selected topics in chemistry. The topics that were included are: particulate nature of matter, gases, and acids and bases.
  2. The analysis and interpretation of the results were based on the alternative conceptions determined by the researcher. Thus, the findings may not be applicable to situations that are not related to these alternative conceptions.
  3. The study was limited to the use of Physics Education Technology Project (PhET) computer simulations (University of Colorado, 2020). Likewise, the activities that were integrated in the computer simulation-based instruction were aligned to the PhET computer simulations.
  4. The researcher was not able to analyze students’ own views and perceptions of science, which may have influenced their performance during the study. In addition, the “novelty effect” realizes that a small change in the learning environment for students may increase their motivation and results to positive learning. The probability that the participants’ attitudes were affected by this novelty effect represents a limitation in the results of this
  5. Students’ responses do not represent their overall understanding of selected chemistry concepts because of the short amount of time allotted when they underwent the intervention. However, it can provide specific alternative conceptions of students.


          The researcher utilized both quantitative and qualitative research designs in addressing the objectives of the study. In terms of quantitative design, the experimental research method, specifically the one- group quasi-experimental design was implemented. In this study, an intervention was applied to one situation and its effect and difference were assessed and identified. The experiment consisted of one group: the Grade 10 level (n = 54); this group underwent computer simulation-based instruction (CSBI). In CSBI, PhET simulations were used. These are interactive and research-based simulations created and developed by the University of Colorado. A researcher-made achievement test was administered to the students before and after the intervention as pre-test and post-test (See Appendix). The achievement test served as the controlled variable since the same set of questions were included in the pre-test and posttest. The results obtained from the Grade 10 level were used to determine if alternative conceptions were remediated and if students demonstrated a conceptual change in chemistry using the treatment. For the qualitative research design, the phenomenological approach was utilized. In this study, the students’ conceptual changes in chemistry were determined using their qualitative responses in the second tier of the achievement test in chemistry (ATC).

          To generate useful and reliable interpretations and analysis, the application of inferential statistics was employed in the study. The Kuder Richardson formula was utilized to determine the reliability of the ATC, both as pre-test and post-test results. Also, the two-tailed t-test for dependent sample means at 0.05 level of significance was used to determine whether the difference between the pre-test and post-test of Grade 10 is significant.

          With regard to qualitative data analysis, students’ explanations in the achievement test were analyzed thematically using Braun and Clarke’s (2006) approach where data were read repeatedly to de-contextualize pieces of information from the original data. Information was categorized into similar, dissimilar components and later re-examined against the purpose of the study in order to generate themes. Calik and Ayas (2005) formulated a technique in sorting the content answer and reasoning in five categories. Using this method, the researcher was able to analyze the data in two ways. First, students’ responses were categorized into different levels of understanding. Second, the alternative conceptions were further analyzed into several patterns. Table 1 shows the five categories and their corresponding criterion.

Table 1

Five Categories of Students’ Responses.

Literature Review

          Students hold on to a variety of alternative conceptions in school, especially in the area of science. Some of these alternative conceptions date back to decades ago while others arise every day with new studies (Pragle, 2010; Ahmed, 2018). As Wenning (2008) explained, alternative conceptions cover all fields of science. Specific alternative conceptions were somehow evident even in the subfields associated within each discipline. Gonzales-Espada (2003) theorized that students construct their alternative conceptions in science from a combination of common-sense experiences (experiential knowledge) and partially correct scientific information (conceptual knowledge). In the field of chemistry, a large percentage of students experience difficulties in understanding chemistry concepts due to the method of instruction, such as lecture, reading from the textbook, and using a knowledge-based approach, and this may lead to students having alternative conceptions (Ozmen et al., 2009). Horton (2007) clarified that alternative conceptions in chemistry are persistent. Sheehan (2017) conducted a review on studies on alternative conceptions and it showed that learners have several alternative conceptions on the following chemistry topics: particulate nature of matter, chemical bonding, stoichiometry, and equilibrium.

          With these, several educators and researchers attempted to determine the most effective method or teaching model to address the problem of alternative conceptions. The common element among these models is that students must experience cognitive conflict when presented with a new idea (Wenning, 2008). From these learning models, the conceptual change theory is one of the approaches that was utilized to address alternative conceptions. Hewson (1981) defined conceptual change as a process where alternative conception is removed and replaced by a correct understanding. Learners must actively replace old knowledge with new ones and how they fit in their new mental framework.

          Yang et al. (2016) stated that technology must be integrated in designing classroom activities in order to achieve desirable changes in learning behavior. Along this line, many educators developed ways and strategies to enhance students’ understanding using technology. Barron et al. (2002) emphasized that technologies, specifically interactive
technologies, provide thought-provoking environments that promote active involvement from the students during the learning process. From the different kinds of computer applications, simulations were considered to have the best potential for conceptual change. Computer simulations are software programs that are capable of emulating a certain model or system (Ramnarain & Moosa, 2017). Their capacity to recreate phenomena and to allow users to actively participate with the system lead to a unique way of assisting learners to conceptualize. Several studies were conducted with a focus on the relative effectiveness of computer simulations when integrated inside the science classrooms. According to Quellmalz et al. (2012), computer simulations have transformed into a widely-known method of instruction in the last 15 years. This is due to the emergence of commercially available software that is derived from scientific and technological models, which mirrored real life situations. In addition, Rutteb et al. (2012), who reviewed 51 articles from 2001 to 2010, concluded that using computer simulations can enhance learning in the traditional classroom.

          Today, computer simulation is a vital instrument in teaching content, especially in the field of science education. Akcay et al. (2003) stated that simulation accompanied with computer instruction is more utilized compared to traditional methods of teaching. Norton and Wiburg (2003) explained that simulations are interesting and realistic, can motivate learners and provide continuous learning within numerous sessions, can help achieve desired goals within a reasonable amount of time, are appropriately random and unpredictable, and focus on significant content not trivial details. They are distinctive instructional strategies since they represent reality.

          One advantage of using computer simulations is that they have the capacity to promote conceptual change in students. Hirashima et al. (2013) attempted to document the use of computer simulations in developing countries by including computer simulations in hands-on laboratory activities with a focus on the area of chemical bonding. The results showed that computer simulations offer feedback that decreases the abstract nature of chemistry concepts.
They concluded that computer simulations provide learners the opportunity to visualize chemical reactions at a microscopic level. A similar research study was done by Akcay et al. (2013) to determine the effects of computer simulations on students’ success and attitudes in teaching chemistry via implementation of several tests like achievement, logical thinking ability, chemistry attitude scale, computer attitude scale, and simulation attitude scale. They found that there is a significant difference between the achievement and attitude in chemistry between the experimental and control groups. Likewise, a study on using a computer simulation-assisted conceptual change model to analyze students’ conceptual change on the kinetic theory of gases showed a significant increase in scientifically-acceptable conceptual change in the participants upon using computer simulations (Samsudin et al., 2019).

          However, there are studies that resulted in little or no effect in utilizing simulations to remediate alternative conceptions. In their comparative study, Walker et al. (2006) found that there was no significant difference on the achievement of learners who underwent fieldwork or simulation-based instruction. Educators observed that it is difficult to evaluate the learning outcome when using simulation-based instruction. Simulations are limited to frameworks and
processes and cannot be utilized to teach individual concepts or sequences of events. They focus on learning about possible consequences in a given situation, not about certainties. Maddux et al. (1997) enumerated possible limitations in simulations, such as time-limitations; possible generation of threat and anxiety; difficulty in direct intervention; objectives mismatch; and generation of a competitive focus.

          In synthesis, a vital component of the learning process is the identification and remediation of alternative conceptions, thus teachers must be aware of their learner’s preconceived ideas and the need to reconstruct them. The literature implies that students’ preexisting beliefs affect how they understand new scientific concepts and principles and have a major role in subsequent learning. It is shown that in many instances science learning difficulties happen because students’ alternative conceptions are not taken into account. The literature also suggests that alternative conceptions, mostly in chemistry, are persistent and highly resistant to remediation by traditional teaching methods because of their abstract nature. This implies that other teaching strategies must be utilized to address alternative
conceptions. The literature enumerated the positive effects of using computer-based technologies, especially, computer simulations, in remediating students’ alternative conceptions. However, mixed results were obtained from different studies on the effect of using computer simulations. Also, there is a lack of research on the extent of the effect of computer simulations in changing students’ conceptions into beliefs that are scientifically accepted. This forms the basis for this study which was designed to examine the extent of using computer simulations in preventing and remediating alternative conceptions in chemistry.

Discussion of Results

          Based on the results from the students’ responses, the alternative conceptions were determined. The following PhET simulations were selected to initiate conceptual change in the participants. States of Matter: Basics (Figure 1a) was chosen since it can show the different properties of the three states of matter based on different conditions such as type of molecule and temperature. On the other hand, Figure 1b shows the simulation Gas Properties. In this
simulation, the learners have the chance to conduct experiments to observe changes in volume, temperature and pressure of a gas based on the stimulus applied to the system. Lastly, pH Scale (Figure 1c) allows the learners to observe pH changes and ion concentrations based on the sample solution and volume of solvent.

Figure 1

Sample Screenshots of PhET Simulations.

          Table 2 compares the percentage of students who provided correct responses either in the first tier only, or in both tiers of the pre-test and post-test. In general, students’ understanding during the post-test was higher compared to the pre-test. These results are similar with previous studies involving two-tier diagnostic instruments (Othman et al., 2008; Artdej et al., 2010) wherein a majority of the students performed better in the first tier of the test items than in both tiers.

Table 2

Percentages of Students Correctly Answering the First Tier and Both Tiers of the Achievement Test in Chemistry.

          As can be seen from Table 3, further analysis of the test scores using t test showed that there were statistically significant differences between pre-test and post-test results of the achievement test. These results suggest that students’ conceptual change in selected topics in chemistry was enhanced using CSBI. This is similar to findings reported in the literature which points to the positive effects of computer simulation in enhancing students’ conceptual change in chemistry (Akcay, 2003; Ozmen, 2007; Sentongo, 2013).

Table 3

Comparison of the Pre-Test and the Post-Test Scores in Achievement Test in Chemistry.

          Table 4 includes the data from the pre-test and post-test representing the percentage of student responses containing sound understanding (SU), partial understanding (PU), partial understanding with specific alternative conceptions (PS), specific alternative conception (SA), and no understanding (NU) as classified based on each chemistry concept.

Table 4

Percentages of Student Responses for Achievement Test in Chemistry.

          As shown in Table 5, the percentage of students with alternative conceptions in properties of solid particles decreased after implementing CSBI. These results indicate that the simulation was successful in initiating students’ conceptual change. The computer simulation States of Matter: Basics was specifically designed to remedy such alternative conceptions since students were given the chance to differentiate the properties of the three states of matter. However, no significant change was observed in the percentage of students with alternative conceptions for the motion of solid particles. Although the simulation shows the vibration of the solid particles, students were not able to associate this with the motion of the solid particles. As Talanquer (2004) suggested in his common-sense chemistry explanatory framework, the learner assumes that the models of the microscopic world of particles are a reduced version of the macroscopic world. This will lead them to believe that atoms are stationary when the whole object is not moving.

          In relation to the role of heat during phase changes, students were successful in remediating their alternative conception for this concept. On the other hand, the proportion of students with alternative conception in properties of liquid increased. A similar result was obtained with the alternative conception in the effect of decreasing temperature on the motion of particles. The increase in percentage may arise due to students’ confusion with how liquid particles were presented in the simulation. In the computer simulation, liquid particles are shown as “flowing” past one another. Students may have perceived this motion as particles expanding inside the container. Likewise, when the simulation showed that the speed of particles decreases while removing heat, they inaccurately predicted that the particles will
eventually stop.

Table 5

Percentages of Students’ Alternative Conceptions (Particulate Nature of Matter) Identified in the Pre-Test and Post-Test.

          Table 6 shows that students have conceptions that are in contradiction with Boyle’s Law. After using the computer simulation, the percentage of students with this alternative conception decreased. This is further supported by the correct responses and explanation of students in Items 14, 15 and 19. These test items assessed students’ understanding about Boyle’s Law. There was an improvement in the number of students who gave correct answers for the three items. A similar result was obtained for the alternative conception of Graham’s Law. Using the PhET simulation, students were able to observe in real-time the speed of a light mass molecule and a heavy molecule. Also, they were able to see that the different gases they pumped inside the container mixed spontaneously in uniform distribution.

          The effectiveness of the simulation is highly evident in Conceptions 4 and 5 (Table 6). The computer simulation utilized by the students include a closed container interface where gas molecules are contained. Students were able to observe that the number of gas particles remain constant even after changing the values of pressure, volume or temperature.

          In contrast, an alternative conception in the temperature-volume relationship (Item 12) by 7% (Table 6) of students. This may generate from students’ misunderstanding of Boyle’s Law. They may have associated the relationship of pressure and volume as similar to that of temperature and volume. Talanquer (2004) identified this as “fixation” where learners apply principles and interpretations in an automatic fashion. This results in a mental set of explaining a situation with a concept that is applicable for a different situation.

Table 6

Percentages of Students’ Alternative Conceptions (Gases) Identified in the Pre-Test and Post-Test.

          The findings in Table 7 suggest that conceptual change in students’ understanding of acids and bases was enhanced through CSBI. There was a decrease in the percentage of students with alternative conceptions in interpreting pH scale. There is clear evidence in the sample responses below that students were able to reconstruct their previous knowledge of pH scale into scientifically acceptable ones. Conceptual change is also evident in concepts involving hydroxides and hydrogen ions as both percentages decreased. With this, the integration of computer simulation was deemed highly successful in remediating students’ alternative conceptions in acids and bases.

Table 7

Percentages of Students’ Alternative Conceptions (Acids and Bases) Identified in the Pre-Test and Post-Test.


          Evidence shows that computer simulations can contribute to the conceptualization of ideas and understanding and that the process of conceptual change can be facilitated by integrating computer simulations in the learning environment. However, it does not support that computer simulations or any other computer-related technology can be used as a standalone instructional technique. This study also reinforced the idea that instruction involving computer simulations provides a conducive cognitive learning environment where learners can be tested in terms of understanding basic chemistry concepts, reconstructing alternative conceptions, and general response to constructivist instruction. However, there are several challenges to researchers in the area of constructivist uses of simulations to promote conceptual change. One is that constructivist instructional theory offers an approach to learning that involves many variations from traditional instruction, making it difficult to isolate variables for experimental manipulation. Another challenge is accurately measuring the conceptual change of learners after employing computer simulation-based instruction.

          The following recommendations are offered as possible ways to improve this study, for related research, and to inform practitioners of technology education:

  1. With the benefit gained from using technologies like computer simulations, it is imperative that educators must have technological literacy in order to integrate these innovative tools in their teaching strategies and methods.
  2. As the role of computers expands in our schools it is necessary to chart a course of research that stays abreast of the emerging technologies and how they interface with the characteristics of the learner as well as the overall learning environment.
  3. Developing more refined typologies for simulations, uses of simulations within the larger learning environment, conceptions, and alternative conceptions will help clarify the discourse in the area of conceptual change strategies. The role of the learner's epistemological disposition in achievement and conceptual change is also a viable area for continued study.
  4. Since the findings also show that some students retain their alternative conception even after integrating computer simulation in their instruction, some techniques such as conceptual change text, demonstration, or analogies may be combined with computer simulation to increase the effectiveness of the instruction.

June Alexis S. Razonable, MA Ed., has taught subjects such as Chemistry, Physics, Electronics and Robotics. He obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of the Philippines Los Baños and received his master’s degree in Chemistry Education from the Philippine Normal University. Mr. Razonable’s research studies focus on educational
technology, pedagogical approaches, and test construction. He also serves as an author for a grade school science
textbook and a coach for academic contests and competitions.


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