Study Finds Virtual Observations Better Than Naked Eye in Examining Moon Phases

March 9, 2010 — A study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia and Ohio State University has found that using computer simulation to study moon phases is more effective for graduate education students than making direct observations of the moon. The study suggests that use of computer simulations may be effective in teaching concepts in other areas of science as well.

The virtual observations increased the students' comprehension and produced better data, said Randy Bell, a professor at U.Va.'s Curry School of Education, who was co-lead investigator of the study.

He also emphasized the role of the teacher in the learning equation and said the use of the simulation alone was not enough to make a difference in student learning.

"Students who are just given software without appropriate instruction are not likely to achieve the same results," he said.

In a series of tests and interviews, student-teachers who used virtual planetarium software to observe the moon's shape and location were able to describe the moon's changing appearance more accurately than those who made actual observations of the moon over a nine-week period. 

"Both children and adults are known to hold misconceptions about the moon's nightly appearance and its causes," Bell said. The results suggest that a more efficient alternative exists to observing the moon in nature, "and one that helps students overcome their moon-related misunderstandings," he said.

Bell, who is an associate professor of science education at U.Va., worked with Kathy Cabe Trundle of Ohio State to conduct a series of studies leading to the latest report.

"The Use of a Computer Simulation to Promote Conceptual Change," describes the study, in which 157 students in a master's degree program learned about the phases of the moon, a subject they will be expected to teach as early childhood teachers.

The study will appear in the May print edition of the journal Computers and Education and is available now online.

In addition to increasing comprehension, Bell and Trundle also found that using the virtual planetarium software produced better data.

With moon observations, students rarely get a complete set of data, Bell said. "Students often have to deal with cloudy skies, buildings or trees blocking their view, or unsafe conditions in the middle of the night," he said.

Not only is the environment iffy, but the method is time-consuming, Bell said.
Therefore, teachers are reluctant to send students out for the several weeks at a time needed to discern meaningful patterns, he said.

With the software, "students can focus on their data and less on the distracting details of when and where to look and how to do it safely," Bell said.

Bell said that observing the moon in nature is an experience that all should enjoy and that what the simulation loses in richness of experience it gains in efficiency. "The simulation alleviates the viewing obstacles and can reduce the observation period to a few class sessions."

The study suggests that use of computer simulations may be effective in teaching not only moon phases, but concepts in other areas of science as well, Bell said.

"More work needs to be done to explore the potential for simulation use in all aspects of science instruction," he said.

— By Rebecca Arrington