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Are Virtual Labs as Effective as Hands-on Labs for Undergraduate Physics? A Comparative Study at Two Major Universities

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Journal of Science Education and Technology Volume 23, Number 6, ISSN 1059-0145


Most physics professors would agree that the lab experiences students have in introductory physics are central to the learning of the concepts in the course. It is also true that these physics labs require time and money for upkeep, not to mention the hours spent setting up and taking down labs. Virtual physics lab experiences can provide an alternative or supplement to these traditional hands-on labs. However, physics professors may be very hesitant to give up the hands-on labs, which have been such a central part of their courses, for a more cost and time-saving virtual alternative. Thus, it is important to investigate how the learning from these virtual experiences compares to that acquired through a hands-on experience. This study evaluated a comprehensive set of virtual labs for introductory level college physics courses and compared them to a hands-on physics lab experience. Each of the virtual labs contains everything a student needs to conduct a physics laboratory experiment, including: objectives, background theory, 3D simulation, brief video, data collection tools, pre- and postlab questions, and postlab quiz. This research was conducted with 224 students from two large universities and investigated the learning that occurred with students using the virtual labs either in a lab setting or as a supplement to hands-on labs versus a control group of students using the traditional hands-on labs only. Findings from both university settings showed the virtual labs to be as effective as the traditional hands-on physics labs.


Darrah, M., Humbert, R., Finstein, J., Simon, M. & Hopkins, J. (2014). Are Virtual Labs as Effective as Hands-on Labs for Undergraduate Physics? A Comparative Study at Two Major Universities. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 23(6), 803-814. Retrieved June 25, 2019 from .

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