South African university students’ attitudes towards chemistry learning in a virtually simulated learning environment†
This mixed method study investigated changes in 3rd year Bachelor of Education students’ attitudes towards chemistry after learning interventions with virtual chemistry simulations. After participant students identified certain concepts from their 3rd year chemistry module as being abstract and not easily comprehensible, these concepts were facilitated during a 5 week learning intervention using PhET simulations as an alternative to traditional laboratory experimentation. In the first quantitative phase of the study, a 30-item pre-attitude test was administered to assess students’ attitudes towards chemistry, followed by PhET chemistry simulation learning interventions. Thereafter, students wrote a post-attitude test. Findings of this phase revealed a significantly higher mean post-attitude test score, with students showing a positive attitude towards chemistry learning, post-intervention. The quantitative phase was followed by a qualitative phase which examined students’ experiences on the use of simulations through semi-structured interviews. Findings from the qualitative phase revealed that students experienced autonomy and enjoyment during engagement with the simulations. They also perceived that their experiences in the virtually simulated environment improved their visualisation of chemistry concepts, thereby improving conceptual understanding. However, the students acknowledged that simulations cannot replicate the realism and authenticity associated with practical work in an actual laboratory. The implications of these findings are that virtual simulations provide a complementary learning tool capable of improving students’ attitudes towards chemistry, and perceived by students to support their visualisation of abstract chemistry concepts. The findings of this study are particularly significant for chemistry learning at schools and universities in economically challenged countries such as South Africa where there is a shortage of well-equipped laboratories.