Why Teach with PhET?

PhET simulations are based on research into how students learn in general, student understanding of specific science concepts, and user interface design. Each simulation goes through an iterative design process of student interviews to test usability and conceptual learning, and classroom testing. Research shows that effective use of PhET simulations can lead to improved conceptual learning over traditional lectures, demonstrations, and labs.

The PhET Design Process

PhET Design Process
PhET simulations are produced using an iterative design process. For each simulation there is a team of 3-5 designers including a professional software developer, a science content expert, an educator, and a user interface expert. This team begins by producing a detailed list of learning goals based on their own teaching experience and research into student understanding of the topic. They then produce an initial design for the simulation based on the learning goals and the PhET look and feel guidelines, which in turn are based on research into how students learn and the PhET team's research into user interface design. The initial design is presented to the entire PhET team for feedback, and then the software developer produces a preliminary version of the simulation. Interviews are conducted with 4-6 students who have not previously learned about the relevant content. The students play with the simulation and talk out loud as they do so. These interviews typically reveal problems in the simulation design, where students do not learn the relevant content, learn the wrong thing, and/or have trouble using the controls. The simulation is then redesigned, and further interviews are conducted as needed. Simulations are posted to the PhET website with an "under construction" symbol after initial interviews. After further interviews suggest that the simulation is working well, it is further tested by using it in a classroom context. This may turn up further problems, which are then fixed, and the final version is posted to the website with a check mark. Even after the final version is posted, minor changes may be made due to feedback from users.

Research into the Effectiveness of PhET Simulations

Many studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of PhET simulations for conceptual learning in various contexts. Several studies have shown that conceptual learning from labs and tutorials is as good or better when they use the Circuit Construction Kit simulation as when they use real equipment. Details of these studies are described in the circuit construction activity. Another study found that a reformed curriculum using the Photoelectric Effect simulation led to improved learning over traditional instruction with or without a computer tutor. Details of this study are described in this photoelectric effect activity. Other studies (Keller et al. 2006, Perkins et al. 2006) have shown that students are more likely to answer in-class concepTests correctly after seeing demonstrations with PhET simulations than with real equipment. (See the references page for more information.)

Wave on a String demo

Research into how to use PhET simulations most effectively

Interview studies (Adams et al. 2008, Paulson et al. 2009) have found that students are more likely to engage in exploration of simulations if they are given minimal guidance in the form of open conceptual questions. If activities give too much guidance, students are more likely to do only what the directions tell them to do and no more, thus limiting what they can learn.

For more details about the research that goes into developing, testing, and using PhET simulations, see the PhET research page .