Overall, the evidentiary base for learning science from simulations is stronger than that for games. There is promising evidence that simulations enhance conceptual science learning and moderate evidence that they increase students’ motivation for science learning. Emerging evidence from a small number of examples suggests that well-designed games can motivate students, encourage them to identify with science and science learning, and enhance conceptual understanding—but overall the research on games remains inconclusive.
Although both simulations and games have been used for training and education for over three decades, their effectiveness for science learning has not been studied broadly or systematically. Reaching the potential of simulations and games to motivate and engage science students, enhance science achievement, and advance other science learning goals will require a stronger, more systematic approach to research and development.
The committee’s proposed research agenda outlines such an approach. The first section of the agenda focuses on improving the overall quality of the research, the second section outlines particular topics requiring further study, and the third section identifies approaches to institutionalizing research and development on games and simulations for science learning.
Research on how simulations and games support science learning has not kept pace with the rapid development of these new learning technologies. Although the evidence base related to simulations is stronger than that related to games, both areas are thin. Much research has been exploratory, making it difficult to generalize, because researchers and developers have not always clearly defined the desired learning outcomes or the mechanisms by which the simulation or game is expected to advance these outcomes.
The committee recommends that future research on simulations and games follow a design-based approach aimed at continuous improvement, including the following steps:
Researchers and developers should clearly specify the desired learning outcomes of a simulation or game and describe in detail how it is expected to advance these outcomes. This should include description of the design features that are hypothesized to activate learning, the intended use of these design features, and the underlying learning theory. Researchers should also indicate direct evidence of student learning, if such evidence is available. This will allow research findings to accumulate, providing a base for improved designs to further enhance the effectiveness of games and simulations for learning.